Aug 29, 2023

The rise of Vivek Ramaswamy.

Vivek Ramaswamy speaking at AmericaFest in 2022. Image: Gage Skidmore
Vivek Ramaswamy speaking at AmericaFest in 2022. Image: Gage Skidmore 

Ramaswamy is now polling ahead of Ronald DeSantis in some places.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 15 minutes.

Today, we're covering the rise of Vivek Ramaswamy. Plus, an under the radar story about some near-misses at American airports.

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Quick hits.

  1. Former President Trump's federal trial on election interference charges is scheduled to begin on March 4, 2024, just one day before Super Tuesday. (The date)
  2. President Biden had a rare phone conversation with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to approve an emergency declaration as Hurricane Idalia approaches Florida. (The call)
  3. A University of North Carolina faculty member was killed in a campus shooting. A suspect is in custody and classes at the university were canceled on Tuesday. (The shooting)
  4. The Biden administration unveiled the first 10 prescription medications that will be subject to Medicare price negotiations in an effort to reduce drug costs for older Americans. (The drugs)
  5. Hawaiian Electric released a statement confirming the first fire in Maui started after a power line was downed in high wind, but faulted firefighters for a second fire that reignited and sparked the deadly wildfires across the island. (The statement)
  6. BREAKING: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) announced on Tuesday he has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a treatable form of blood cancer. (The diagnosis)

Today's topic.

Vivek Ramaswamy. The Republican candidate for president has surprised pundits and the political class by climbing up the ranks of the GOP primary, and is now tied for second place with Ron DeSantis, according to a new Emerson poll.

While Ramaswamy is still trailing DeSantis by 4 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight's polling average, his performance at the first GOP primary debate drew attention and donations to his campaign. Ramaswamy raised more than $1 million in the two days after the debate, according to his campaign.

Ramaswamy is 38, and was born in Ohio to parents who immigrated from southern India. He attended Harvard University and then Yale Law School, and after a career as a hedge fund investor started his own biotech company, the success of which has made him one of the 20 youngest billionaires in the country.

Before starting his campaign, Ramaswamy was best known for his 2021 book "Woke, Inc.," in which he criticized the way major corporations and American institutions are making decisions based on divisive social issues like gender equality, climate change, and “woke” politics. He has frequently criticized "woke" culture as having a negative impact on capitalism, meritocracy, and hard work. On the campaign trail, he has strongly aligned himself with the policies of Trump, describing him as the best president of the 21st century.

During last week’s debate, Ramaswamy stood out by pledging to pardon Trump if he gets convicted, calling the climate change agenda a hoax, and insisting he would not extend funding for Ukraine while also suggesting Ukraine should agree to a peace plan that gives up some conquered territory to help end the war. He is staunchly opposed to affirmative action, supports a ban on abortions after six weeks (with exceptions for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother), and says he wants to expand the powers of the presidency while dismantling agencies like the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service.

After the debate, his favorability among conservatives who watched the debate rose from 50% to 60% (according to polling from FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, and Ipsos) while his unfavorability rose from 13% to 32%. A CNN focus group of Iowa Republicans declared him the winner of the debate, as did a poll from JL partners that was released on Thursday. The New York Times referred to him as "Trump's heir" and he was the most Google-searched candidate during and after the debate.

Given Ramaswamy's ascension to a contender, and his performance in the debate, there has been a tremendous amount of commentary about his candidacy.

We decided to dedicate today’s issue to that commentary, with views from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize Ramaswamy, saying he’s trying and failing to be "the next Trump."
  • Some argue that Ramaswamy is very annoying, which is driving both opposition and support.
  • Others suggest he is an inexperienced amateur and has no business being near the White House.

In The New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang said Ramaswamy "is not the next Trump."

“Ramaswamy’s insult-comedy show had its desired effect on the press. According to a report in The Free Press, reporters from media outlets like CNN ignored other candidates in the post-debate scrums and beelined for Ramaswamy,” Kang said. “So begins a now familiar sequence of events: Ramaswamy’s gleeful trolling got the most attention, which will, in turn, drive more press coverage, which then will lead to better name recognition and a boost in the polls. As long as he’s willing to entertain—and it must be said that Ramaswamy’s provocations were the only lively part of an otherwise boring show—he will be following the Trump playbook for staying in the headlines.

“But does any of that really make him Trump’s heir?” Trump could inspire fear in his political enemies with his message: “Let the ‘real people’ of this country rise up against the cabal of élite swamp-dwellers who let violent criminals stream over the border... Menace like that can’t be faked. Ramaswamy might have trolled Pence and Nikki Haley and titillated the pundits, but I did not see one person say that they were afraid of him,” Kang wrote. “He never misses an opportunity to trot out his list of ‘truths,’ which include ‘there are two genders,’ ‘reverse racism is racism,’ and ‘there are three branches of the U.S. government, not four.’ But these slogans sound like cursory rebuttals to liberal talking points, rather than deeply felt indictments of the status quo.”

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg said Vivek Ramaswamy is "very annoying," which is why he's surging in the polls.

"I suspect that Ramaswamy’s fans are drawn to him for all the reasons his critics find him insufferable. Conservatives love being championed by representatives of groups that they think disdain them," Goldberg said. "Despite the right’s deep resentment of the entertainment industry, Republicans tend to adore celebrity candidates, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump... Ramaswamy, too, is a performer, but what he’s performing is a parody of meritocratic excellence. If you’ve spent time around entitled Ivy League grads, you likely recognize him as an exaggerated version of a familiar type: the callow and condescending nerd who assumes that skill in one field translates to aptitude in all others.

"But to his fans, the very fact that he’s such a pure product of elite institutions — in addition to Harvard, he went to Yale Law and made his fortune with a biotech start-up he ran from Manhattan — likely gives him extra oomph as a class traitor... Many older white conservatives, after all, feel threatened by multiethnic younger generations that largely reject their most fundamental values about faith, gender and patriotism. Ramaswamy is part of this menacing cohort, and he’s telling Republicans that their suspicions about it are correct."

In The Los Angeles Times, Jackie Calmes said Ramaswamy was the star of the Republican "amateur hour" and has no business running for president.

"Every four years, it seems, we’re treated to a candidate (or six) who embodies a self-loving certainty that being president is a job for amateurs. Spoiler alert: It’s not. Of course, 'amateur' is not how such candidates describe themselves. No, he or she is an outsider — the label that is catnip to voters disdainful of the two major political parties," Calmes said. “Trump's rivals include seasoned politicians but also an amateur hour lineup,” which includes Larry Elder, Ryan Binkley, Perry Johnson, and Ramaswamy.  "Ramaswamy is the standout among the amateurs. He personifies the utter brashness and hubris of a high achiever who looks in the mirror and sees a president.

"It’s certainly true that political experience does not guarantee a successful presidency. Yet political inexperience virtually guarantees failure. Governing a nation of 330 million people and leading the free world is not for beginners," Calmes added. "Of the five presidents who held no previous public office, three governed in the last century: Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald Trump. Hoover and Trump were defeated for reelection and rank among the worst presidents ever… Even Trump, the narcissist who in 2016 proclaimed 'I alone can fix it,' now inadvertently concedes the value of bringing political experience to the White House."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on Ramaswamy, with some hoping he wins the nomination and others suggesting his candidacy is lie-filled and cynical.
  • Some argue Ramaswamy is Trump without the Trump baggage.
  • Others suggest he’s not the truth-teller he claims to be.

In Newsweek, John Pudner said Ramaswamy should be the next president of the United States.

Ramaswamy is the best way to get Trump's agenda without the baggage of Trump. "The overwhelming majority (roughly 97.1 percent) of Republicans want to vote for Trump's agenda, based on the Real Clear average of 2.9 percent voting for one of the three anti-Trump candidates (Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, or Will Hurd). And they want a nominee who will fight effectively to advance the goals of the expanded Republican coalition he put together, which includes anyone who works for a living or believes parents should have the right to make decisions regarding their children," Pudner said. "That is the agenda that will win policy and poll battles with the Democratic coalition of university elites, public unions, and big city political machines.

“The challenger most effectively articulating this agenda has been Vivek," Pudner said. "Who better positioned to see today's glory and hear the stories of younger and non-white voters than a 30-something son of Indian immigrants?" Trump, Biden, and the other Republican candidates are "disliked" by majorities of voters, and "the only candidate in the Republican primary who is popular today beyond the margin of error, despite having a considerable media presence, is Ramaswamy (26/18). Imagine, in this climate of polarization even within the same party, a candidate whose name could be mentioned without causing family gatherings to implode."

National Review's editors criticized Ramaswamy's "cynical crusade."

"He’s put his no-hope presidential campaign on the radar screen with his media ubiquity, his willingness to go anywhere and answer any question, the sense he’s having fun out on the trail, and his pungent expression of certain timeless truths. That’s all to the good — we need more happy warriors," they wrote. "Smart enough to know where the MAGA energy is, though, he hardly ever criticizes his supposed opponent, Donald Trump, who has openly welcomed Ramaswamy’s rise in the polls, and he’s offered tawdry justifications of January 6 and flirted with conspiracy theories. His ongoing 9/11 fiasco is the latest example."

"Of course, despite his self-styled commitment to truth-telling, Ramaswamy can’t bring himself to admit that the Capitol Hill rioters were hepped up on a frothy stew of lies fed to them by Donald Trump and his minions, some of whom have now admitted they were lying. Instead, he’s played footsie with the idea that the riot might have been caused by federal provocateurs," the editors wrote. "For anyone truly paying attention, he’s been making it obvious how much the truth, his calling card and slogan, means to him."

In The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe Doescher said she believes Ramaswamy is serious, but asked if he can convince the country.

"Despite the countervailing narrative that Ramaswamy is a Manchurian candidate clandestinely operating on behalf of Donald Trump… this young son of immigrants has caught fire not just in national polling, where he is running third after the former president and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, but also in the lily-white exurbs of Iowa," Doescher said. "I reported in live time when Ramaswamy went viral for inviting a distraught pro-choice heckler to speak, but perhaps more shocking is watching these disproportionately old, white, twice-Trump-supporting crowds become transfixed by a Hindu promising to bring about a cultural revival of Judeo-Christian ethics.”

"While he can defend Trump on the merits, Ramaswamy has to prove to both the donors and the electorate that he genuinely believes that he, not Trump, is the man for the moment and that ‘Conservative Inc.’ is wrong in its assumption that he's auditioning for a Trump Cabinet position," Doescher added. "Lower-information voters tuning in for the first time won't care much over the media fracas about Ramaswamy's 9/11 remarks. But a voter can smell poppycock from a mile away.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

Editor's note: Unlike other news outlets, Tangle does not make endorsements of any particular candidate or political party in any race. You can read more about editorial policies here.

  • As was the case with Trump, there is something satisfying about watching Ramaswamy lambast mediocre politicians.
  • Still, he has a lot of very bad and half-baked ideas.
  • More than anything, though, he lacks the qualifications to be president.

The first time I heard Vivek Ramaswamy talk, I was struck by two things: Just how good he is at what he does, and just how half-baked so many of his ideas are.

For all the talk of his "outsider" status, Ramaswamy has all the classic markings of a modern politician. He is rich — in this case, unfathomably so — Ivy-educated, smooth-talking, and seemingly willing to change his positions in a way that garners him the most attention politically. The appeal is obvious: Here is a young, successful man championing meritocracy, an immigration story, honesty, and an anti-establishment fervor. He criticizes the idea of “present-day discrimination” as a remedy for “past discrimination,” calls for re-discovering a unifying American identity, calls out the need to prioritize education, and champions hard work and American ingenuity. Sign me up.

Yet, I also want to state bluntly that some of Ramaswamy's ideas are just plain bad.

He has proposed, for instance, instituting a "civics test" for anyone under the age of 25 to qualify them to vote. Let me be clear: Nobody should ever have to take a test to vote in America — certainly not a test that is designed by a Ramaswamy administration and Congress. This is doubly true when the test you are proposing is meant to cull the herd of young voters, when what we should really be doing is expanding the number of young voters who cast ballots. Ramaswamy, of course, has proudly boasted that the only two times he's ever voted was a throwaway vote for a libertarian in 2004 and a ballot for Trump in 2020, so maybe he simply doesn't value this civic duty the way others do.

His foreign policy positions, as Nikki Haley aptly showed during the debate, are amateurish if not totally nonsensical. For instance, he has suggested resolving Russia's invasion of Ukraine by proposing to give Russia portions of Ukraine's territory it has annexed in exchange for Vladimir Putin agreeing to "exit his military partnership with China."

It sounds good until you think about it for two seconds. As Josh Barro pointed out in a scathing (and, warning, profanity-filled) piece on his former Harvard classmate: "What would that even mean? Is Putin going to make a pinky-swear? This is a ridiculous and unworkable one-weird-trick strategy — even from the perspective of a normal isolationist who might still think Ukraine is not worth spending money on — that’s barely worthy of bong-fueled 3 a.m. dorm room commentary."

He seems to hold other ideas insincerely. During the debate, the moderators played a video of a young Republican asking, "How will you as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party calm [generational] fears that the Republican Party doesn't care about climate change?" Then the moderators asked the candidates directly if they believed human behavior was causing climate change.

Ramaswamy responded by saying that the "climate change agenda is a hoax," which was not exactly an answer to the moderators' or young Republican’s question, but seemed intended to give the effect that he didn't believe human activity was causing climate change. As if wanting to clarify his point, he went on to promise to burn all the coal and fossil fuels necessary for energy independence. This seemed like an odd response for a guy who, five months earlier, said human activity is causing climate change.

Did the truth-sayer change his mind, or just change his answer? It's anyone's guess.

More than anything, though, the biggest problem with Ramaswamy's candidacy is that — as Jackie Calmes put it — he's an amateur. Former Vice President Mike Pence got booed during the debate for saying we don't need a rookie in the White House right now, but it was actually one of the most honest things anyone said all night. This is something I've harped on before and will harp on again: Being president is the hardest job in the world, and we should not elect someone to do it who doesn't have any experience governing. If you want an anti-establishment candidate, there are plenty to choose from who have experience in Congress or in state governance.

Yet every four years, a bunch of amateur-hour candidates throw their hats in the ring without any experience in public office, the military, foreign policy, balancing a budget, passing legislation, weighing the pros and cons of policy, or operating giant organizations. This year Democrats have professor Cornel West, self-help author Marianne Williamson, and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Republicans have talk-radio host Larry Elder, entrepreneur Perry Johnson, Texas pastor Ryan Binkley, and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Like Trump, Ramaswamy can say he's super rich and has managed large companies before. Yet it is worth noting, as Calmes did, that even the "I alone can fix it" Donald Trump tacitly admits now that his amateur status hurt him in his first four years as president. If you listen closely to his campaign for Trump 2.0, it's right there: He has repeatedly said that he learned how Washington works and who his enemies were, and is assuring voters he won't make the same mistakes again. This time, Trump promises, I’ll waste no time tearing down the deep state and getting my agenda passed. So what happened the first time? The answer is that he was a rookie.

To his credit, Ramaswamy has been forthright about his inexperience, even sharing that his foreign policy experience was drawn from “six months” of thinking about these issues, something he claimed was also true of his opponents, and adding that what makes him different is that he is “willing to admit” it. Again: Sounds good, until you think about it. Because it’s totally untrue. Pence, a former vice president and congressman, has a lot more than six months of “thinking about it” as experience. Haley was U.N. ambassador. Tim Scott is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Trump was actually president for four years. The list goes on. 

Funnily enough, this anti-amateur position was one seemingly once held by... Vivek Ramaswamy. You can go watch a video currently going viral of a young Ramaswamy asking Rev. Al Sharpton why he should vote for him, the Democratic candidate with the least experience in politics. Perhaps Sharpton's answer changed Ramaswamy's mind, but the question itself expressed how many voters should feel about inexperienced contenders — and how Ramaswamy once did.

Trust me, I get the appeal of Ramaswamy. Aside from just having a “Trump agenda” candidate without the legal troubles, I enjoy watching him the same way I loved watching Trump. Seeing Ramaswamy call out Chris Christie for running a presidential campaign based on personal grievance or mock the candidates around him when they recite obviously rehearsed monologues that don't answer the question they were asked reminds me of Trump pointing to the donors in the audience clapping for pre-canned talking points in 2016. It's satisfying to hear the uber-rich Ivy Leaguer talk about "how the sausage is made" from his real world experience atop American institutions.

But it feels good to watch him isn’t a good reason to support a candidate for the presidency. I'm unsure what Ramaswamy believes, certain he has the wrong ideas on foreign policy, and totally unconvinced he's qualified for the toughest, most complicated job in the world. Maybe he’ll change my mind, but right now I have my doubts. 

New YouTube video.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question to give our main story some extra space. Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Airline "close calls" are happening far more often than previously known, according to a preliminary Federal Aviation Administration report. The near misses were recently highlighted in a New York Times piece, which described 46 close calls between commercial airliners during just the last month. In one instance, an American Airlines jet and a German airliner came so close to hitting a Frontier Airlines plane as they took off that internal records described the encounters as "skin to skin." Many insiders say these potentially dangerous incidents are the product of an air traffic control system stressed by a nationwide staffing shortage. The New York Times has the story


  • 28%. The percentage of registered Republicans who said Ramaswamy "won" the GOP debate, according to a JL Partners survey.
  • 27%. The percentage of registered Republicans who said Ron DeSantis "won" the GOP debate, according to a JL Partners survey.
  • 67%. The percentage of GOP voters who said they are considering voting for Ron DeSantis, according to an Ipsos, Washington Post, and FiveThirtyEight poll.
  • 61%. The percentage of GOP voters who said they are considering voting for Donald Trump, according to an Ipsos, Washington Post, and FiveThirtyEight poll.
  • 46%. The percentage of GOP voters who said they are considering voting for Vivek Ramaswamy, according to an Ipsos, Washington Post, and FiveThirtyEight poll.
  • 46%. The percentage of GOP voters who said they are considering voting for Nikki Haley, according to an Ipsos, Washington Post, and FiveThirtyEight poll.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Mar-a-Lago affidavit.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was our subscribers-only Friday mailbag.
  • "I mean, come on": 922 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking how likely it is that Putin was behind Prigozhin's death. In our most lopsided poll result ever, 94% of respondents said "Extremely likely," while 5% said "Likely." "I mean, come on," said one respondent. 
  • Nothing to do with politics: Tech billionaires are buying land to build San Francisco 2.0.
  • Take the poll. Where do you see Vivek Ramaswamy ending up if Republicans win in 2024? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Connor Halsa, a freshman at Moorhead High School in Minnesota, hooked a summer vacation story that few can top. Halsa was out fishing with his family in the Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota-Canada border, but instead of a walleye he pulled in a wallet containing over $2,000 in cash. He agreed with his father that keeping the money wasn't the right thing to do, and tracked down the wallet's owner, Iowa farmer Jim Denney. "We didn’t work hard for the money, he did. It was his money,” Halsa said. Denney was beyond grateful, and after the Halsas refused his offer to keep the money, he gave Connor a nice cooler and an even nicer compliment. “I would take Connor as a grandson any day, and I would fight for him any day,” Denney said. KSTP has the story.

This story was sent in by Merlin, a reader in Minnesota. Have a nice story that you want to share? Simply fill out this form with your suggestion!

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.