August 31, 2023

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In the arena of modern American politics, few figures have enjoyed an ascent as rapid as Vivek Ramaswamy. This 38-year-old son of Tamil Brahmin immigrants has positioned himself as the intellectual heir to Donald Trump in the current Republican primary — with a heavy emphasis on “intellectual”.

By the standards of American political discourse — never quite on a par with the UK’s Oxford Union tradition — Ramaswamy has displayed all the quintessential qualities of a great debater. Each of his words, whether you agree with it or not, strikes with laser precision. He knows exactly what he is doing. And it’s working: his poll numbers are on the rise, resonating well beyond Trump’s staunchest supporters while retaining this critical base.

Yet Ramaswamy’s adept leveraging of Trumpian language is less an embrace of ideology than a shrewd tactical move. In a political climate where Trump’s influence looms large, Ramaswamy has made Trumpism his own, albeit with a bit more nuance. When it comes to politically sensitive topics such as Ukraine or Taiwan, Ramaswamy is adept at threading the needle. He panders to Trump’s base with an initial broad stroke — arguing for a more hands-off approach to these nations’ security affairs — only to follow it up with a meticulously detailed explication that he can seemingly recite from memory. This strategy allows him to engage a broad swathe of Republican voters, from the most zealous Trump supporters to those who prefer a more nuanced stance, as well as some anti-imperialists on the isolationist Left. When media outlets or rival candidates accuse him of U-turning or selling out his own party, Ramaswamy counters by claiming his remarks are taken out of context. And then, with remarkable alacrity, he delivers the much-needed context, nullifying the critiques.

For all the attention he commands, however, Ramaswamy remains an enigma. Yes, he’s a family man, a monotheistic Hindu, a Harvard and Yale graduate, and an an accomplished national-level tennis player. But what else is there to him? Is it pure, unadulterated ambition, or is there more than meets the eye?

In the realm of American politics, few debaters have shown Ramaswamy’s rhetorical skill. Consider Senator Ted Cruz, who served as Solicitor General for the state of Texas and has appeared before the US Supreme Court nine times — securing victories in five cases. Cruz has delivered 34 appellate oral arguments, a record unmatched by any practising Texas lawyer or current member of Congress. Yet Ramaswamy’s talent eclipses even Cruz’s considerable gifts. Cruz is smooth, but he is thoroughly unlikable and can’t respond in the off the cuff the way that Ramaswamy has mastered.

At this point, the competition seems less between Ramaswamy and his Republican opponents and more between Ramaswamy and the boundaries of political discourse he is continually pushing. In that battle, he seems to be carving not just a niche but an entirely new landscape.

Ramaswamy’s aptitude for floating between conspiracy theories and fact-based arguments places him in a league above contemporaries such as the gravelly-voiced Robert F. Kennedy Jr. On the subject of climate change, Ramaswamy demonstrates an intellectual dexterity that allows him to reach across the ideological aisle. While he claims not to deny climate change, he simultaneously challenges the prevailing scientific consensus. During last week’s primary debate, he decried the climate-change agenda as a “hoax” and contended that “more people are dying from climate policies than actual climate change”. Later, he acknowledged the impact of burning fossil fuels but lambasted the “climate cult”, advocating for increased oil production and criticising support for a carbon tax.

As always, he has a way of squaring this circle. It’s this acuity that allows him to touch on sensitive topics such as federal-agent involvement in 9/11 or the Capitol riot without igniting the firestorm one might expect from Trump or other less nimble Republicans. It seemingly grants him a greater latitude to explore controversial opinions, as he can unfailingly add layers of caveats and qualifications to everything he says.

Given his talent for argumentation, what Ramaswamy truly believes will remain elusive; this is a man who can say anything. His admiration, for instance, of Elon Musk’s lean approach to business management reflects his libertarian core, exemplified by a desire to reduce the federal government’s workforce by 75%. Yet his political ambition goes beyond libertarian ideals; he aims to exercise presidential power almost akin to an elected monarch: he vows to fire the majority of federal employees, dismantle civil service protections, abolish numerous federal agencies such as the Department of Education and the FBI, and challenge long-established executive orders — a government-trimmer in personnel, if not in budget.

To implement his audacious vision, Ramaswamy would have to topple two political “kings” — the exiled Donald Trump and a seemingly fading Joe Biden. It is a project whose scale mirrors that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who spoke of “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. While it’s difficult to ascertain what Ramaswamy truly seeks or who he fundamentally is, the force of his drive is undeniable. And as with Macbeth, it is a double-edged sword: a driving force and a potential downfall.