It’s easy to look at Vivek Ramaswamy’s debate performances and dismiss him as a jerk. And, of course, he is. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that his jerkiness has been repudiated and he is, therefore, marginalized.
A more accurate interpretation is to view Ramaswamy as a product of his times, and that people who share his style are on the rise.
In case you missed it, Ramaswamy more than delivered on his promise of an “unhinged” GOP debate performance on Wednesday night. He began by attacking the moderators and saying that they should be replaced by Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, and Elon Musk. Later, he seemed to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “Nazi.”
In the more idyllic times before Donald Trump, Ramaswamy would have been mercilessly mocked for being obnoxiously thirsty. But the right has morphed into something unrecognizable since The Donald came down that gold-plated Trump Tower escalator in 2015.
It’s worth noting that Ramaswamy was just around 30 years old at the time, and I can’t help but think that is telling. Unlike DeSantis and the other Gen X and late-Boomer candidates on the debate stage, the millennial Ramaswamy didn’t have to reverse-engineer his persona to fit in with the MAGA movement.
He is part of a generation that came of age politically during the rise of alt-right shitposters. And it shows. He is a chaos agent. He is, perhaps, the next iteration of the Milo Yiannopoulos-ization of the American right.
Sadly, this is an international trend. I am reminded of something related taking place right now that has been overlooked by most Americans. In recent weeks, foreign livestreamers and YouTube “content creators” have traveled to Japan and proceeded to break the law and generally harass decent Japanese citizens (often older working-class folks)—all for the sake of lulz, clicks, and buzz.
These a-holes are making the world a worse place, but it’s not like they are acting irrationally. They are doing it because they are desperate for attention, and we have now created platforms and institutions that reward bad behavior with attention and money.
By showing up at a debate to troll the normie politicians—for the benefit of a largely-online far-right audience that recognizes all his rhetorical Easter eggs—Ramaswamy is the political version of these nuisance trolls. Again, though, in 2023, the trolls have the wind at their backs.
In so many ways, Ramaswamy is more in line with the zeitgeist than the other Republican candidates on that stage, including Haley, Tim Scott, Chris Christie, and even DeSantis.
Whereas the old guard seems uncomfortable parroting isolationist MAGA bullshit, Ramaswamy has internalized all the conspiracy theories of the day and recites them shamelessly in rapid-fire style.
On that debate stage, he is loathed and outnumbered. But ask yourself this: among the entire 2024 GOP primary field, who is most likely to be given a top job in the next Trump administration?
“He is part of a generation that came of age politically during the rise of alt-right shitposters…He is, perhaps, the next iteration of the Milo Yiannopoulos-ization of the American right.”
With his trademark glib manner, Ramaswamy is often wrong but never uncertain. This holds true, even as he confidently espouses positions that are either unfathomably naive or simply stupid—such as wanting to cut a “deal” with Vladimir Putin that would amount to allowing him to keep all the areas of Ukraine he has, heretofore, stolen (as long as he promises not to be friends with China anymore).
Regarding this absurd idea, Piers Morgan pushed back during a one-on-one interview, incredulously saying, “You would literally give Putin what he’s stolen.” In a debate format, however, many of these ideas go unchallenged; normal politicians are not prepared to adjudicate weird and unorthodox notions, and debate rivals and moderators do not want to take the bait and allow him to dominate the conversation.
It is, however, shortsighted to label him a mere gadfly or ambitious nerd, since the views he espouses seem to be ascendant on the right.
If Rogan and Musk could conceive a political lovechild, he might sound an awful lot like Ramaswamy. They couldn’t have done a better job if they’d created him in an online edgelord factory. He’s almost the perfect vessel for their very online version of right-wing politics: a smart and ambitious tech millionaire who is quick on his feet, hyper-confident, and has zero conscience whatsoever.
Shamelessness is a feature, not a bug. The same GOP electorate that has already made Donald Trump the runaway favorite for the 2024 Republican presidential nominee will probably turn to Ramaswamy (or someone like him) if and when it ever comes time to look for Trump 2.0.
If history is any predictor, these same voters will once again be immune to any information or warnings about Ramaswamy’s character, particularly if they come from someone like me or even those Republicans gracing the debate stage on Wednesday night.
Among a growing slice of the right, there is a sense that, if the establishment doesn’t like you, it just means you are a heroic truth teller.
Sometimes, of course, it just means you’re, as Nikki Haley might say, “scum.” But that’s a selling point for many of today’s right-leaning voters.