Vivek Ramaswamy wants you to believe that the rightful successor to Donald Trump has arrived.
The 2024 presidential hopeful paints himself as another brash, incendiary, business-minded newcomer to Republican politics who will take Trump’s America First agenda to the next level: “America First 2.0,” he calls it. Ramaswamy is also introducing himself with a more youthful spin, as a 37-year-old entrepreneur with a better-fitting wardrobe, meat-free diet, and single-minded resentment of any big corporation that makes even tepid statements in support of social justice causes. In Ramaswamy’s own words: “There’s a new daddy in town.”
It may seem strange for a loud Trump supplicant to challenge the still-extant, still-formidable 45th president—maybe even stranger for a proud son of Indian immigrants to hope he can sop up Trump’s racist voter base. But the gambit is … kind of working, somewhat? Morning Consult declared back in February, after Ramaswamy announced his candidacy, that he was likely to have only a “minimal impact” on the GOP race, forget about the general election. Three months later, the polling firm has found him ahead of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and tied for third with former Vice President Mike Pence, only tailing current standard-bearers Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Now, Ramaswamy’s proposals are sparking fierce intraparty debate and attracting prominent GOP officials to his camp, such as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Even Twitter’s new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, appears to be a fan.
Vivek Ramaswamy has only a single-digit third place at 5 percent, to be clear—but he’s clearly elbowing out the other Trump-DeSantis challengers, accomplishing this feat by promising repeatedly to go deeper on the culture war than either of them would ever dare (especially DeSantis, whom Ramaswamy has belittled for not tackling “the woke agenda” the right way).
Indeed, his platform is a bit of a doozy: entreaties to abolish the Department of Education and the FBI while firing most of the Federal Reserve’s staff; to end race-based affirmative action at universities and companies; to forbid big corporations from pursuing environmental, social, and governance goals, more commonly referred to as the dreaded ESG specter; to undercut the power of the World Economic Forum; to reject the “climate cult” and pump more oil; to stop funding Ukraine’s defenses, and instead flood Taiwan with guns so it can defend itself from Chinese encroachment; and to reembrace a national identity that’s been whittled away by the United States’ replacement of true spiritual faith with false “religions” like “wokeism,” “climatism,” and “gender ideology.” He’s also prepared to wage all-out military war on Mexican drug cartels that traffic Chinese-supplied opioids across the southern border, never mind any potential civilian casualties that may result!
If Ramaswamy has now attracted more curiosity, it’s perhaps because he’s learned from political idol/rival Trump to establish himself as an ever-present media Main Character. There’s Ramaswamy, perched across Don Lemon during the fraught exchange that got the anchor canned from CNN. There he is again, earning a mention and enthusiastic endorsement from Scott Adams on the same podcast episode where the cartoonist went on a racist rant. Oh! There goes Ramaswamy once more, railing against transgender Americans on Meet the Press. All on top of his rounds with the usual suspects, from Sean Hannity to Greg Gutfeld to Jordan Peterson to Sebastian Gorka, as well as his bus tours across key electoral states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan. His appearances aren’t limited to the right-wing echo chambers; he’s made nice with Democratic candidates Marianne Williamson and RFK Jr., as well.
A full-on celebrity, Ramaswamy isn’t. But the right-wing praise stemming from all the attention—including from Donald Trump himself—has made for solid promotional fodder. There’s no telling how far the Ramaswamy coalition of “VekHeads” will go, loosely tied together as it is by “self-described moderates, family values conservatives, crossover voters, Trump/DeSantis fans and even those who are curious about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,” as Politico recently characterized it. But he’s no doubt proved influential among the field, with other GOP hopefuls echoing his talking points on waging literal war on opioid dealers, banishing social awareness from corporate decision-making, and even criticizing Ron DeSantis’ hypocritical tangles with Disney.
So, who is this guy? In classic fashion, Vivek Ramaswamy is a tried-and-true product of the types of elitist structures he now blames for ruining the USA: the Ivy League, Wall Street hedge funds, Big Pharma partnerships, Forbes’ 30 Under 30, Big Tech investors, the Mainstream Media. Raised by South Indian Brahmin Hindus in Cincinnati, he attended diverse Ohio public schools before completing high school at a private Jesuit institution; while growing up, he was introduced to right-wing politics by a piano teacher who gifted him a Ronald Reagan biography. At Harvard College in the 2000s, he converted from a libertarian ideology to straight-up conservatism and chaired the school’s Political Union while moonlighting as an amateur rapper stage-named “Da Vek.” After earning a biology degree there, he managed biotech investments at QVT Financial while simultaneously attending Yale Law School, where he brushed shoulders with J.D. Vance, Peter Thiel, and Jed Rubenfeld, the famed professor who was temporarily suspended following accusations of sexual harassment that Slate had previously reported on. (Notably, Ramaswamy’s Yale tenure was supported in part by a post-graduate fellowship funded by the Soros family, a detail his campaign tried to erase from his Wikipedia page by paying off site editors.)
After graduating from law school in 2013, Ramaswamy left finance for the biotech industry, spinning out multiple startups from under a new holding company known as Roivant Sciences. The most infamous of these startups, Axovant, reached a record-breaking IPO in 2015 thanks to Ramaswamy’s much-hyped business model of refining and retesting failed pharmaceutical drugs for serious diseases like Alzheimer’s (plus financial support from his former employers at QVT). The flurry of publicity that greeted the handsome 29-year-old wunderkind subsided when that Alzheimer’s treatment ultimately failed and he stepped down as Axovant CEO in 2017. The sweeping boom and bust, as the pharma news site BioSpace noted at the time, made it seem unclear “whether the enthusiasm for these companies is based on real science or Ramaswamy’s charm.”
Not all of Roivant’s endeavors ended in defeat—by the time Ramaswamy stepped down as Roivant chief in January 2021, two of its subsidiaries had successfully produced FDA-approved drugs. But the ex-CEO had already been acting on other plans that made it clear he wasn’t content to remain a sometimes-star in the biotechnology arena.
A turning point came for Ramaswamy during the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos of 2020. He became a father right as the coronavirus was spreading widely across the U.S., and he stayed home to care for his newborn son as his wife, a doctor, hurried back to work to help treat the surge of new patients. (Around this time, Ramaswamy also served on Ohio’s COVID task force, a fact his campaign would also attempt to remove from his Wikipedia page.) During this period, Ramaswamy began writing regular screeds for conservative outlets, mixing personal reflections and American-dream pablum with a gradually gelling ideological mantra. There was the Wall Street Journal op-ed decrying big corporations’ purported commitments to social justice ventures that distract from the “demands of U.S. corporate law, which holds that directors and executives have a duty to one master: shareholders.” That summer, a Dispatch essay defended the racist “Chinese coronavirus” phrase while also declaring that “the virus reminds us that the cure to our greatest ills, including racism, is not being more woke to our differences, but more awake to our commonalities.” In the fall, a Newsweek contribution proposed that corporate law do away with limited liability designations so as to restrict big companies from acting on behalf of social justice. And, after the 2020 election, a FoxNews.com column pointed to Donald Trump’s increased share of minority voters as the possible “beginning of the end of wokeism,” and rooted for color-blind economic empowerment over “affirmative action.”
Ramaswamy then kicked off 2021 with a big controversy, co-writing a WSJ op-ed with his Yale mentor Jeb Rubenfeld that criticized Big Tech platforms for suspending Donald Trump’s accounts following the “disgraceful Capitol riot.” It spurred some of Roivant’s more liberal advisory board members, like former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, to resign in protest. It also, however, led some Ohio Republicans to ask Ramaswamy to consider running for elected office.
In turn, Ramaswamy doubled down. Throughout 2021, he ascended among the post-Trump right-wing intellengtsia by raging against “the church of wokeness,” “woke smoke,” “woke capitalism,” and the “woke-industrial complex” on Fox News broadcasts, in opinion pages, and through conservative publishers. His first book, Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, was the last title acquired by editor Kate Hartson before she was fired from conservative brand Center Street. It became a New York Times bestseller following its August publication, earning Ramaswamy reviews in outlets like the Financial Times and Fast Company, plus exclusive podcast interviews with GOP veterans like Newt Gingrich. (He now has two more books out, the most recent being Capitalist Punishment.)
From there on out, Ramaswamy has been happy to take on this war on “woke” as a core part of his identity. Last year, he launched the financial firm Strive Asset Management—with monetary backing from Peter Thiel, billionaire Bill Ackman, and a hedge fund affiliated with J.D. Vance—to act as a rival to asset-manager companies that dedicate specific teams to corporate social responsibility (the dreaded ESG!), like BlackRock. He also served on the board of directors for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a key part of the Koch influence network, and personally went, hat in hand, to states like West Virginia and North Dakota to persuade state treasurers and pension managers to steer clear of ESG-oriented investments and businesses.
That ESG fixation remains a key plank of his campaign, even though the rural voters he’d need to persuade for a presidency don’t know what the heck that is. Indeed, for all the populist bravado, Vivek Ramaswamy tends to traffic an awful lot in esoterica. Common slogans include fealty to “first principles,” opposition to “stakeholder capitalism,” and updating the “Friedman doctrine” that asks corporations to focus solely on profits. His political philosophy cuts and pastes together ideas from Ludwig von Mises’ free marketeering, climate denier Alex Epstein’s prioritizing of “human flourishing” over environmental solutions, and Yale law professor John H. Langbein’s scholarship on corporations’ “sole interest”—i.e., maximizing shareholder value above all else. It’s one thing to sell yourself nationally as an enemy of some vague “woke” crusade. But you become a bit less Trump-like and far more wonky when you begin proposing “affirmative consent” solutions. Ramaswamy’s agenda has been interpreted as a “positive” alternative to Trumpian doom-mongering, but for it to succeed in American politics, he might need to pivot to the kinds of simple, repetitive slogans that Trump excels at.
Anyway, how did Vivek Ramaswamy come to embrace “wokeness” as his bête noire? By his telling, it’s in part because younger Roivant employees, during the summer of 2020, expressed their displeasure with Ramaswamy’s refusal to come out in support of the anti–police brutality protests or commit the company to addressing systemic racism. This story may be just a little too neat, though—earlier this month, a Roivant employee told Endpoint News that Ramaswamy, as CEO, had signed off on establishing a company Social Ventures fund that would explore diversity, equity, and inclusion opportunities for biopharma executives, even as he would later claim to oppose those very terms. [Update, May 17, 2023, at 11:02 a.m.: In an email to Slate, Ramaswamy’s campaign denied that he’d signed off on a diversity-oriented approach to the fund before he stepped down as CEO, and claimed that the fund went in this direction after he left Roivant. A company spokesperson declined to comment.] He’s also invested in some of the same companies—Disney, Nike, Apple—that he now describes as damaged by ill-advised woke capital. He even cosigned a 2017 “Open Letter to the BioPharma Community” that includes an explicit commitment “to drive diversity as a top priority.”
Then again, it’s too pat to perceive Ramaswamy’s anti-elitism crusade as mere hypocrisy. What it maybe reflects, instead, is a far more pernicious sense of entitlement and resentment that may have everything to do with Ramaswamy’s identities, no matter how much he may wish to bypass them.
One constant of Ramaswamy’s writings is a professed sense of hardship and targeting. In childhood, this came for him as a dorky child of immigrants who was roughed up by a Black student at his diverse public school and found intellectual stimulation in the majority-white Catholic school to which he transferred (and from there, majority-white Ivy League halls). Indeed, as the New Yorker once pinpointed, “a strain of animus toward Black Americans runs through much of Ramaswamy’s public commentary.” In Ramaswamy’s view, the real racism of today comes from colleges and businesses hurting white and Asian Americans by artificially boosting Black Americans—conveniently setting aside the fact that large, ESG-oriented companies like Google still tend to hire more white and Asian employees than Black employees. (Also, when it comes to his anti-Asian racism concerns, he doesn’t seem to have much to say about Trump’s bigoted remarks, or about how the “Chinese virus” line helped fuel a surge in hate crimes.)
Nevertheless, Ramaswamy often says on podcasts that part of the philosophical “cancer” he wishes to cure is the identarian targeting in recruitment, employment, and academic programs that reduces people to certain markers—race, sexuality, religion—instead of embracing them as whole beings. It’s a diabolical “arranged marriage” between wokeness and free enterprise, he calls it. And, he says, it’s this kind of misguided social justice targeting that would deny future Vivek Ramaswamys from achieving the very same American dream he did (i.e., raising loads of money off failed pharmaceutical drugs while whining about corporate efforts to benefit nonwhite scholars and workers, such as that Soros fellowship he earned).
In Ramaswamy’s view, the vision of unfettered American capitalism—the dream of pursuing profit only for profit’s sake and nothing more—is the only way Americans can find freedom. A typical conservative maxim, to be sure, but he takes it to even further lengths. While acknowledging his high-caste family background in Woke, Inc. (“Kings were below us”), he insists that only American capitalism can empower lower-caste workers who wish to escape oppression—never mind how many lower-caste populations continue to suffer in the capitalist economies run in both India and the U.S. Corporations that strive to make the most money they can without much oversight are best for everyone, he claims, no matter how many exploited workers or U.S. homeowners are hurt by the financial, environmental, and economic side effects of business as usual.
One can see and understand not wishing to be tokenized by skin tone. (I certainly can relate!) Yet more curious is Ramaswamy’s pitch to save America by insisting on not doing anything for others, not even society’s less privileged, while embracing self-service and empowerment. It’s a run for public office based on scuttling any sense of public service. It may well resonate to point out the hypocrisy of BlackRock embracing ESG while investing in China’s repressive regime. Still, in a time when broader American skepticism of corporations has increased for reasons that go far beyond ESG controversies, Ramaswamy’s demands that everyday Americans should accept the prospect of big businesses hoarding more money for themselves, sans any sense of the public good, might not land too well.
Ultimately, it’s an insular political vision that homes in on the story and example of one Vivek Ramaswamy alone, without extending anything to people who were not born with the advantages Ramaswamy had (native-born citizenship, Brahmin castehood, ability to attend expensive private high schools and colleges, riches made by investor back-slapping over actual product output). In that sense, the Vivek Ramaswamy 2024 campaign slogan may be less about “America First” than about Ramaswamy First. Why else would he try to persuade GOP voters to try America First 2.0 when the first America First guy is still around?