Vivek Ramaswamy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing
His unifying, empathetic rhetoric obscures his Trumpist platform
Vivek Ramaswamy is running on a novel electoral strategy to take advantage of a Republican base that’s split on Donald Trump. Here’s a chart The New York Times published a few days ago in a long feature on the Republican Party and its voters:
Trump’s MAGA base makes up over a third (37%) of the GOP electorate; another 37% is “persuadable” (open-to-but-not-set-on Trump); and 25% is dead set against him.
Education is another way of looking at this. Many of the Republican voters without a college degree (a bit more than half of the party) are MAGA, but many of those who attended at least some college are not open to Trump, with the persuadable segment drawing from the college and non-college groups. Based on recent polling, which has him at 50%–55%, about half of the persuadable segment currently supports Trump. However, a meaningful plurality of Republican voters has been turned off by Trump’s aggressive and divisive rhetoric. This extreme rhetoric has helped Trump motivate and retain the largest and most passionate base of any GOP candidate, but of course has also made him deeply polarizing.
Since Trump lost in 2020, the anti-Trump faction of the Republican party has been looking for an alternative to Trump for 2024. Initially, the most viable alternative appeared to be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — a candidate with policy positions that are even more conservative than Trump’s, and whose rhetoric is similarly adversarial. However, since declaring his candidacy last May, DeSantis has been unable to gain much traction and his campaign has lost steam over the past couple of months. DeSantis assumed that educated voters would strongly prefer him, and therefore he took that group for granted and focused his energy on competing with Trump for the MAGA base. But as Noah Rothman put it in the National Review, “In focusing to a prohibitive degree on the GOP’s least persuadable voters, he [DeSantis] has sacrificed his appeal to its most persuadable voters.”
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is doing it in reverse. He appears to be targeting the educated, anti-Trump quarter of the Republican party that DeSantis took for granted — the segment most turned off by Trump’s aggressive, hateful rhetoric and the easiest group for him to win — with the hopes that success with these voters might translate to broader momentum. To be clear, Ramaswamy is trying to build momentum with these winnable voters without alienating the core MAGA segment. This is a tricky maneuver to pull off since this group is very protective of Trump. So far, Ramaswamy has been one of the most successful non-Trump candidates in the race. He has risen from being totally unknown to voters as of January 2023 to become a real contender polling higher than Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, with some polls even showing him catching up with DeSantis.
To win the support of educated, anti-Trump voters, Ramaswamy has a unique campaign strategy — proposing the same MAGA policies but wrapped in much softer rhetoric. On policy, he is running on a platform that is nearly identical to Trump and DeSantis, and in some cases even more extreme. But unlike his opponents, Ramaswamy’s public communications are much more focused on unity and empathy. Ramaswamy’s comments on PBS last week laid this out:
“I think he [Trump] was a good president. I agree with many, if not most, of his policies. But the reality is about 30% of this country suffers from psychiatric illness when he's in the White House. People start to disagree with policies they otherwise would have agreed with just because he's the one advancing them... Ask who's going to advance that [Trump] agenda even further... I’m achieving more than Trump did with our own shared agenda to put this country first — but at the same time, uniting the country in the process.”
In other words, Ramaswamy wraps his Trumpist policy proposals in gentler language. Ramaswamy clearly believes that this kinder, more empathetic rhetorical strategy is appealing to college-educated, non-MAGA voters. He is the wolf in sheep’s clothing of the 2024 Republican primary.
Ramaswamy is running on a Trumpist, America First policy platform
Ramaswamy is nearly identical to Trump on policy. He’s even named his platform “America First 2.0.” Both candidates are pro-life but don’t support a federal abortion ban. They both plan to ban gender-affirming care for minors. On education, they both vehemently oppose affirmative action. Trump promised to “cut federal funding for any school or program pushing Critical Race Theory or gender ideology on our children,” while Ramaswamy agrees America should “end unlawful DEI indoctrination.” They both support congressional term limits. Like Trump, Ramaswamy promotes conspiracy theories.
Both candidates express skepticism about the harms of climate change and both are pro-fossil fuels. Trump says he’ll “unleash the production of domestic energy resources, [and] reduce the soaring price of gasoline, diesel and natural gas;” Ramaswamy similarly promises to “drill, frack & burn coal.” They love Israel, hate China, and are neutral-to-positive on Russia. Trump has complained about the size of U.S. military aid to Ukraine and claimed he could end the war in 24 hours without providing specifics; Ramaswamy has proposed cutting a deal with Putin to end the war, which would allow Russia to “keep what it seized in Ukraine.”
Regarding the 2020 election and January 6, Ramaswamy is right by Trump’s side. He’s promised to “pardon defendants of politicized prosecutions: Trump, Mackey, and peaceful Jan 6 protesters" and even stood outside of a courthouse in Miami the day when Trump was arraigned, calling on the other presidential candidates to commit to pardoning the former president. Moments after Jack Smith announced his most recent indictments, Ramaswamy reiterated his intent to pardon Trump.
If there’s any difference between the two candidates, Ramaswamy might be slightly to Trump’s right on certain issues.
Trump and Ramaswamy both support taking aggressive actions to end illegal immigration at the southern border, but Ramaswamy would go even further than Trump by advocating that the U.S. should “use the military, including drones, to secure our southern border.” Trump wants to defund the FBI; Ramaswamy wants to eliminate it. Trump wants to overhaul the civil service; Ramaswamy wants to get rid of entire agencies like the Department of Education and the IRS. And Ramaswamy wants to raise the voting age to 25, which would prohibit 18 to 24-year-olds from voting unless they serve in the military or pass a citizenship test.
Interestingly, Ramaswamy has recently come out as (at least somewhat) pro-free trade, his one real break with America First policies. My guess is that Ramaswamy is calculating that pro-free-trade positioning will strongly appeal to his college-educated GOP target voters (and wealthy GOP donors!).
Ramaswamy’s unifying, seemingly respectful rhetoric
While Ramaswamy shares Trump’s ideology and policy proposals, his rhetoric is completely different. Trump’s rhetoric is overwhelmingly characterized by divisiveness. On July 4, 2020, he stated: “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing.” He’s continued this us-vs.-them" language in the current election cycle: lashing out at “Thugs and Radical Left Monsters” on Truth Social, claiming “they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you” in a post-indictment speech, and vowing “revenge” and “retribution” against his enemies.
Where Trump pits his supporters against his opponents, Ramaswamy often speaks of unity — even while advocating for essentially the same policy positions as Trump. In an interview with Meet the Press in April, Ramaswamy described the core thematic narrative of his campaign:
We're all hungry for a cause right now in America. We're hungry for purpose and meaning. At a point when the things that used to fill our hunger for purpose: faith, patriotism, family, hard work, these things have disappeared. So, I see an opportunity to revive our missing national identity. I think that's something that Americans hunger for across the political spectrum, answering what it means to be an American today. You ask people my age that question, you get a blank stare in response. I think that is the vacuum at the heart of our national soul. I'm running for president to revive the ideals that actually set the nation into motion. And I think it's going to unite the country.
And when Chuck Todd asked Ramaswamy how he can present a unifying message while saying things like “the trans movement has become a cult,” Ramaswamy tried to contort his anti-trans views in the framing of compassion and empathy: “...more often than not, that [being transgender] is a case of a mental health disorder. That doesn't mean you disrespect that person. It means they're crying out for help... But what we need to do on both sides here is act with compassion, not really what makes us feel good about ourselves." This is the rhetorical polar opposite of Ron DeSantis, who recently released an ad bragging about how harsh his laws were against transgender people. The ad spotlighted a headline that said “this governor does not care.” DeSantis’ open hostility contrasts with Ramaswamy’s calls not to “disrespect” transgender people, and to act with “compassion.” But again, to be clear, these differences are purely oratorial, and not about substantive policy. Ramaswamy, DeSantis, and Trump have all taken very anti-trans stances, but only Ramaswamy has deceptively packaged his rhetoric as respectful and empathetic.
Furthermore, Ramaswamy frequently engages with people who disagree with him while remaining polite. He’s sought out these interactions by seemingly agreeing to nearly any interview request, in contrast to DeSantis’ aversion to appearing in mainstream, center-left media. When reporters disagree with Ramaswamy, he often responds by emphasizing his respect for the person arguing with him (emphasis my own):
CNN (April 19) — In response to Don Lemon arguing with him about race: “Look, with due respect, I find your explanation reductive and actually insulting, including to Black Americans, to say that Black people today compared to 1964, 1865, haven't made progress in part because of the freedoms we secured.”
Meet the Press (April 30) — In response to Chuck Todd claiming that “gender is a spectrum”: “Chuck, I respectfully disagree. Gender dysphoria for most of our history, although it's in the DSM-5, has been characterized as a mental health disorder.”
Squawk Box (June 3) — Ramaswamy tweeted out a clip of himself from a Squawk Box interview, responding to discussion of a hate speech bill passed by Ron DeSantis: “I respectfully disagree: the right answer to bad speech isn’t less speech. It’s more speech. That’s the American way.”
CNN (June 11) — In response to Dana Bash’s statement that President Biden is not responsible for the Trump prosecution: “With due respect, I think it is shameful that I, as a competitor to President Trump in this race, have to ask questions that the media isn't asking.”
PBS NewsHour (July 25) — In response to Lisa Desjardins’ statement about affirmative action that “some of your views...are out of step with where independents and some swing voters are nationally”: “I actually respectfully disagree with you on that, because there's something fundamentally un-American about using racial quota systems.”
Look at all this mainstream media engagement! And Ramaswamy’s politeness/respectfulness sharply contrasts with how Trump and DeSantis handle contentious exchanges with reporters. Hostility toward mainstream media is a key element of both Trump and DeSantis’ communications strategies. Let’s look at how Trump engaged with some of these same news anchors. Trump scolded Dana Bash for asking “very insulting... very rude question;” told Chuck Todd he was “Wrong. It’s wrong… it’s fake news;” and tweeted that Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on television.” And these are certainly not Trump’s most egregious interactions with the media — mocking a reporter with a disability, calling town hall moderator Kaitlan Collins a “nasty person,” and labeling the mainstream media the “enemy of the people.” DeSantis has taken a similar approach; for example, he recently snapped at a reporter, “are you blind?”
Similarly, Ramaswamy engages with voters who have different views much more gently than Trump does. When a voter at a New Hampshire town hall in May asked Ramaswamy if he would “be the candidate that has the courage to recognize Israel as an apartheid state,” Ramaswamy once again invoked his respect for the questioner: “So here's where I think you and I will respectfully disagree. We have different points of view on this, but I understand that no nation is perfect.” In a more potentially contentious exchange, a pro-choice protester interrupted one of his campaign events in Iowa in July. Instead of forcing her to leave, Ramaswamy encouraged her to share her thoughts, then responded:
“I want to say you’re doing one of the most important things… a mother raising more children in this world. Even if we have our disagreements, I want to say thank you for that. So thank you. And part of what it means to live in this country is we have free speech, we get to speak our minds openly, even if we all don’t agree on it. So, let’s actually applaud her for the courage, coming into a room and asking a question even though we don’t agree on everything, OK?”
Trump and DeSantis, on the other hand, both respond aggressively to protestors. When faced with protestors, Trump has said “get him the hell out of here,” “I’d like to punch him in the face,” and “maybe he should have been roughed up.” DeSantis has also opted for the Trump approach; in July, he yelled at a protester with a pride flag: "We don’t want you indoctrinating our children! Leave our kids alone."
The danger of Ramaswamy’s gentle Trumpism
Ramaswamy’s differences with Trump and DeSantis are purely cosmetic. He has almost the same views as Trump (and similar policies to DeSantis), but he presents the same extremist ideology as a unifying message in a seemingly respectful tone. This rhetoric obscures the true radicalism and illiberalism of his policy proposals: the Trumpist party line of denying medical care to transgender youth and women seeking abortions, siding with Putin, worsening the climate crisis, and his own additions of abolishing federal agencies and raising the voting age.
While DeSantis matched Trump’s toxic rhetoric and failed to compete with him for the MAGA base, Ramaswamy is using a different strategy. I imagine he is hoping that if he wins the educated, anti-Trump voters and gets to 20%–30% in the polls, he’ll create the (authentic) impression of momentum and potentially get a look from the MAGA base; this could be especially interesting if Trump’s legal problems start to concern the MAGA base or if other exogenous issues arise for the Trump campaign. However, given Trump’s strong starting position and passionate base, it seems unlikely that Ramaswamy will win the 2024 Republican nomination.
But Ramaswamy’s ascendancy in the primary from being completely unknown has been striking. By wrapping Trumpism in a potentially gentler and more appealing package, Ramaswamy could be setting himself up for a vice presidential nomination. If Ramaswamy emerges with strong support from college-educated Republican voters, Trump may conclude that a Trump-Ramaswamy ticket might unify the party and also be more palatable to suburban, college-educated voters in the general election. And if Trump wins the nomination but loses again in the general election, Ramaswamy could emerge as a frontrunner for the 2028 GOP nomination. Trump continues to dominate the Republican party right now, but Ramaswamy could be the future. And if Ramaswamy follows through on his campaign promises, that future is dark.