Bio-tech mogul Vivek Ramaswamy thinks his anti-woke 2024 campaign can beat both DeSantis and Trump. Is he in over his head?

The 37-year-old anti-woke entrepreneur is a surprisingly skilled campaigner, but does he actually know what he’s talking about? Andrew Feinberg reports from a day on the campaign trail in New Hampshire

Wednesday 14 June 2023 10:32 BST

When he announced his campaign for president in February, it may have been easy to dismiss Vivek Ramaswamy’s unlikely candidacy as a vanity bid put on by a rich man looking to raise his profile, position himself for a Cabinet slot or build a mailing list for a future run for a less-prestigious office.

Many of the GOP insiders The Independent spoke to before heading to New Hampshire to cover Ramaswamy had kind things to say about his anti-woke, anti-Environmental, Social and Governance crusading, but were reluctant to say he was more than another rich guy cosplaying as a political candidate.

While he does fit that mould, upon a cursory examination, it’s much harder to dismiss Ramaswamy once you see him campaign.

One of his first major appearances as a political candidate — a speech at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference at a Prince George’s County, Maryland convention centre — demonstrated his undeniable political oratory skills.

He had announced his presidential campaign only a week or so earlier, and was given a mid-afternoon speaking slot commensurate with his status as a newcomer who’d never before held office.

The first-time candidate used his 15 minutes on the CPAC stage to work the relatively paltry crowd into a frenzy, garnering rounds of applause as loud and enthusiastic those observed for far more popular figures in the conservative political-media universe.  

Vivek Ramaswamy at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland in March (Getty Images)

He threw out red meat zingers about dismantling the FBI and ending affirmative action on “day one” of his administration, but he also talked about the “national unity” Republicans could achieve by winning such an overwhelming landslide in next year’s election that they could run roughshod over whatever Democratic rump remained in Congress.

The crowd at CPAC lapped it up, and while he hasn’t reached a level of support that would enable him to make a serious challenge to Mr Trump, in recent opinion polls his support has equaled or bettered that of more well-known figures, including former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie. He trails behind Florida Gov Ron DeSantis, but is hoping to make inroads as the campaign progresses.

At least two GOP campaign operatives suggested at different times that his campaign is a manifestation of pro-Trump intraparty sabotage — an operation meant to further split the Republican field to the ex-president’s benefit.

He was even asked about this possibility at one of his events. He denied it, of course, and it’s hard to see why he’d go through the trouble of putting together a full campaign team, dumping a seven-figure sum from his own pockets into his campaign’s coffers, and put himself out there just to benefit another candidate — especially one who is known not to return favours or have much loyalty to anyone but himself.

There was a time, not long ago, when the idea of a 37-year-old without a day of experience in elected office making a run for the highest office in the land would have been written off as the stuff of delusion — or at best, a pitch for a Saturday Night Live skit.

For better or worse, Donald Trump’s ascent from reality television host to the summit of American power seems to have permanently upended the notion that experience and traditional qualifications for office are what voters crave in their chief executive, leading to an influx of wealthy gadflies and other long-shots making their entries into presidential politics in hopes of replicating his unlikely journey.

“I don’t think that we all say let’s show up at the 50 yard line, hold hands, compromise, sing Kumbaya, and that’s how we get on with it”

Vivek Ramaswamy

With an estimated net worth of roughly $630m — gained largely from a string of investments in pharmaceutical and biotechnology startups — Ramaswamy certainly qualifies as uber-wealthy.

He has been a fixture on Fox News and other right-wing networks during the Biden era, and he’s made a name for himself as a crusader against all things “woke” through a string of books lambasting efforts to tackle racism and increase diversity in the corporate ranks, as well as “stakeholder capitalism” and the use of ESG criteria by investors and asset managers.

His campaign has been prolific in online fundraising, and when the Republican National Committee announced debate participation criteria that requires candidates to garner donations from more than 40,000 individuals, he easily met that threshold.

And while he may be caught in Mr Trump’s shadow this time, he clearly possesses some raw political abilities that could serve him well should he choose to remain in electoral politics after this election cycle.

At a New Hampshire diner, it was clear that Ramaswamy, whose middle-class upbringing in Ohio gave way to elite education at Harvard University and Yale Law School, knew how to work the room.

GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to Granite State Republicans at a Concord, New Hampshire diner on 2 June 2023 (Andrew Feinberg / The Independent)

Both on the stump and in one-on-one conversations, he projects preternatural confidence, rattling off complex answers about his view of how he’d govern as president.

He laced his remarks with a far more positive air than the GOP frontrunner, who constantly claims that America without him at the helm is “a nation in decline”.

Though he hardly ever mentioned Mr Trump’s name, Ramaswamy took direct aim at the ex-president’s pessimistic outlook on the United States, telling the diner crowd that he doesn’t believe that description has to fit America.

Instead, he describes the country he wants to lead as “going through adolescence” with the accompanying crises of self-confidence.

“I really think we’re just a little young, actually, as a country, going through our own version of adolescence, figuring out who we’re really going to be when we grow up … You go through adolescence, you go through an identity crisis, you go through self doubt, you lose your confidence. You lose your sense of who you are. But we get to adulthood stronger on the other — I think where we are as a country, I don’t think we have to be in decline. I think we might be in our ascent,” he said.

Yet for all his optimism and self-confidence, the first-time candidate also showed signs that he may be in over his head.

Ukraine ‘peace’ plan

Ramaswamy’s predilection for right-wing rhetorical tropes over a solid command of the facts became further evident when the topic of discussion turned to the reason Ramaswamy’s campaign had invited The Independent to ride along with him in New Hampshire: His plan to end Russia’s war against Ukraine.

That conflict, the worst land war on the European continent since the defeat of Nazi Germany, is, according to most experts, one born out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrogance and epic miscalculations of how the West would respond to an all-out effort to topple the pro-western government in Kyiv.

While those on the more traditional side of the Republican Party field such as Pence and former South Carolina governor turned UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have been steadfast supporters of US efforts to bolster Ukraine’s defence forces, Ramaswamy’s more populist instincts have him hewing closer to the side of Trump, who, as the invasion kicked off last year, praised Mr Putin’s aggression as “genius”.

The basic premise of his “peace plan” is that the US should somehow force Ukraine to accept massive territorial concessions from Russia, and at the same time induce Russia to exit its longstanding relationship China and make some other concessions in exchange for control of a big chunk of Ukraine and sanctions relief.

Ramaswamy claims this plan would cleave in two what he describes as a mutual defence pact between Moscow and Beijing based on a two-decade-old “Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation” between the two countries and the “no limits” partnership Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced early last year.

Yet neither the decades-old Sino-Russian agreement nor the five-year extension of it announced by Putin and Xi last year amount to a Nato-style defence agreement in the mould of the North Atlantic Treaty, despite Ramaswamy’s claims to the contrary.

He also suggests that in exchange for the sanctions relief and formalised control over Crimea and the Donesks region of Ukraine, Russia would be induced to cease its use of Kaliningrad, a small exclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, for basing nuclear-capable weapons systems.

One Russia expert who spoke to The Independent actually laughed out loud when asked about the topic of Kaliningrad. The expert noted that the city is the home base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet, the country’s only ice-free seaport, and part of the hard-won spoils awarded to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

The longtime foreign policy scholar, who asked not to be identified because they don’t want to get pulled into GOP primary politics, said the mere suggestion that Russia would ever give up Kaliningrad calls into question whether Ramaswamy has thought through his plan or ran it by any actual experts before going public with it.

I don’t know the answer to that question

Vivek Ramaswamy

The Independent followed Ramaswamy over the course of his three morning events. He embodies a particularly Trumpian archetype — a charismatic, telegenic personality with an Ivy League pedigree and raw political talent who, upon closer examination, appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.

During a brief interview with a correspondent from CBS News who had come to Concord, New Hampshire, for his second event of the day — a roundtable with New Hampshire legislators — Ramaswamy drew attention to another part of his plan.

He told CBS that part of the Western end of the deal would be for the US to announce an end to “any military aid to Ukraine or even former Soviet Union bloc states”.

Ending aid to Ukraine puts him firmly in the Trumpian part of the GOP field, but the second part of his statement raised eyebrows for a different reason.

In the three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the vast majority of former Warsaw Pact countries have elected to become full members of Nato.

Ramaswamy’s off-the-cuff remark to CBS went even further than what he’d suggested in prepared remarks, which indicated that he planned to call for Nato to pull back from bases in Eastern Europe that had been built up in the years following Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

As we left the Concord hotel where his campaign had reserved the room for the legislator roundtable, The Independent asked who had advised him when he was formulating his Ukraine policy.

He said “the thesis” of the proposal came “from him,” but he also suggested that there were others involved, but he declined to name any of his foreign policy advisers, citing concerns for their privacy.

Back in the SUV and en route to his third morning event, this reporter pointed out to him that he had essentially called for the United States to abandon mutual defence commitments to nations that were members in good standing of Nato.

At first, he appeared not to understand the question.

When The Independent explained that most of the former Soviet Bloc nations are now part of the 31-member defensive alliance, he attempted to walk back his call for the US to abandon those countries and said he had been “just speaking fast” during his interview.

He said that what he meant to say was that the US should stop aid to “former Warsaw Pact countries that are not part of Nato,” even though the only signatory to that defunct treat that has not joined Nato is Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union. 

GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy stands in a makeshift television studio for an appearance on right-wing television network Real America’s Voice on 2 June 2023 (Andrew Feinberg / The Independent)

The vision he was articulating — a wholesale abandonment of Ukraine as a way to appease Russia and induce Moscow to break from its partnership with China — may not have made complete sense in terms of the details, but it became clear as The Independent followed Ramaswamy throughout the day that his intended audience isn’t foreign policy gurus or detail-obsessed journalists. At every stop, each time he mentioned the idea of giving up support for Ukraine as a wedge against China, he was greeted with applause.

War against ‘the administrative state’

Over the course of the day, the Yale Law School graduate repeatedly offered his take on how to address the most Trumpian of boogeymen, a freedom-sucking villain he calls “the administrative state”.

For years, Republicans have railed against the very idea of a nonpartisan civil service, staffed by career professionals who, like all federal officials, swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”.

In the last days of the Trump administration, the outgoing president even proposed to create a new category of federal employee who could be fired at will and move tens of thousands of career experts, scientists, and anyone with a role that so much as touches policy formulation, into that category so they could be fired and replaced with loyalists.

More than one GOP candidate in the 2024 primary has suggested reviving that proposal, known as Schedule F. But Ramaswamy wants to go even further.

In almost every public appearance, he says he will “eliminate” the Department of Education and other federal agencies that are viewed as enemies of the conservative movement, including the FBI and much of the rest of the federal intelligence and law enforcement apparatus.

One aspect of his plan would be somehow ditching the century-old civil service laws in favour of establishing an eight-year “term limit” for federal employees, a category that could encompass anyone from the National Park Service groundskeeper who cuts the grass at the White House, to the people who process Social Security applications and cut the checks, to the IRS employees who make sure Americans get their tax refunds on time.

But to Ramaswamy, they’re “bureaucrats” who need to be reined in from acting as a “fourth branch of government,” even though most federal agencies operate under the supervision of one or more Senate-confirmed appointees who are named by the President himself.

In Ramaswamy’s view, only when the US president has unilaterally eliminated the nation’s top law enforcement agency and the agency responsible for writing safety regulations for nuclear power plants can America “stand up with a spine” to “actual threats” on the world stage.

Also ripe for a root-and-branch uprooting, he says, is the “managerial class” at the Pentagon, who he blamed for “wokeness” in a military he described as “failing”.

When this reporter finally had a chance to ask him about the legal underpinnings of his plans to gut the majority of the federal government, his reply opened up even more chilling possibilities.

He first opined that the Supreme Court’s landmark 1984 opinion in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc — which states that courts should defer to federal agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous federal statutes – was “wrong,” a not uncommon belief among Trump-era conservatives who’d like agencies to have less power to enact regulations they dislike.

But he quickly went even further, telling The Independent that the Chevron decision has become “an excuse for sidestepping the nondelegation doctrine” and opining further that Congress “legislate lawmaking authority to an administrative agency”.

In essence, what Ramaswamy was saying is that most — if not all — federal programmes and laws enacted since the Supreme Court stopped using nondelegation in 1935, are unconstitutional.

Taken at face value, this would mean much of the federal infrastructure we take for granted, including the Federal Reserve, New Deal creations such as Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, would simply vanish if he had his way.

When asked if his aim was to “party like it’s 1934” — a reference to the last time the high court struck down a statute using the non-delegation doctrine, he replied: “I do, but maybe even earlier, like 1922”.

The Independent pressed him to elaborate further by asking if he was saying that he wants to roll back the entire New Deal — the architecture on which the modern United States was built.

He said rolling it back was his “domestic policy priority”.

“And more than that, the legacy of it — the Great Society thereafter … set into motion its own metastasis of the administrative state,” he added, referring to the suite of Lyndon Johnson-era programmes including Medicare, Medicaid, and host of other federal initiatives that were enacted as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty.

What Ramaswamy was proposing would be the fulfillment of a dream held by Republicans going back nearly a full century, to when the Supreme Court’s “switch in time that saved nine” stopped getting in the way of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic programmes.

Trump, who spent much of his presidency railing against the “deep state” and trying to expand the limits of executive power far beyond what had ever been considered, had made an attempt to downsize the government through consolidating a few executive departments and eliminating the Office of Personnel Management — the independent agency charged with overseeing the civil service.

But even Trump knew he had to do these things lawfully. His GOP allies in Congress introduced legislation to carry out the executive branch reorganisation he desired. It went nowhere, thanks to resistance from members of both parties in the House and Senate.

Perhaps with that failure in mind, Ramaswamy wants to go further. In his view, the problem starts when Congress writes the federal budget each year.

At multiple points during the day, he told Granite State residents how the “administrative state” somehow brought about a fiction that when Congress appropriates funds, these funds have to be spent.

He also said he’d force departments to run their annual budget requests through the White House — perhaps not knowing that the budget request process has for decades been run through the White House, by way of the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the Executive Office of the President.

In his hypothetical administration, all this could be solved by changing the word “shall” in budget bills to “may,” leaving the choice of whether to spend any money to run entire departments up to him, and him alone.

Barring that, he claimed that long-expired reorganisation powers last granted to Ronald Reagan could be revived somehow through executive fiat, and he said firing the entirety of the Department of Education could be done without running afoul of civil service laws if he only were able to eliminate agencies by decree — with the support of a 6-3 GOP-appointed Supreme Court.

The Independent asked him if he was explicitly stating that the court would give him the power to nullify entire swaths of the United States Code laying out the structure of the Executive Departments — whole swaths of the government with histories dating back to the Washington Administration.

After a long pause, for the first time that day, this reporter saw something previously unseen creep into view on Ramaswamy’s face: Doubt.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.

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