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Vivek Ramaswamy’s surprising surge is tied to his extremism

It’s not Vivek Ramaswamy’s style, but his toxic substance, that’s so appealing to MAGA voters.
Vivek Ramaswamy the "Vision '24 National Conservative Forum"
Vivek Ramaswamy the "Vision '24 National Conservative Forum" in North Charleston, S.C., on March 18.Sam Wolfe / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Just 10 weeks after launching his campaign, Republican presidential hopeful and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy has risen enough in some polls to match the popularity of well-known candidates such as former vice president Mike Pence and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. He’s pulling respectable crowds in early primary states, and he’s reportedly already got some fans who cry out of happiness when they talk about him.

While he still poses no threat to former President Donald Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the surge of interest is still a striking development in an already-packed race. Why are people paying attention to this guy? 

Two short profiles in The New York Times and Politico this week focus a great deal on Ramaswamy’s personality and always-say-yes attitude toward media interviews as a way of explaining the surge of Republican interest in him. But what these reports overlook in their narratives is that he’s also getting traction because he’s promising to be more extreme than Trump. Ramaswamy remains a total long shot, but his ability to secure attention is a function of his extremism — and the extremism of the party he’s trying to win over.

Ramaswamy is affirming the Republican base’s instincts by promising to succeed where Trump failed to deliver.

Politico’s report discusses how Ramaswamy “blends the youthfulness and hustle of Pete Buttigieg’s run in 2020 with the extremely online nature of Andrew Yang’s millennial fan base,” and notes how “he’ll say ‘yes’ to almost any interview request — no matter the outlet.” The New York Times explains that “confidence is Mr. Ramaswamy’s gift,” that this “smooth-talking” can be “infectious.” 

These accounts are not wrong per se, but they don’t tell the whole story. Ramaswamy, like Buttigieg in 2020, has correctly identified the power of intense retail politics and media overexposure as a tactic for building a narrative, and, like Yang, he likely profits from being very online. But there’s an essential ingredient to why the matters are paying off: Ramaswamy is affirming the Republican base’s instincts by promising to succeed where Trump failed to deliver and perfect MAGA politics. And people are eating it up.   

Much like the politician he emulates, Ramaswamy sprints toward controversy and embraces a toxic blend of right-wing nationalism and anarcho-capitalism every moment he can. He casually tosses out promises to launch military strikes in Mexico. He promises to abolish the Department of Education his first day in office. On global warming, he revels in telling audiences that climate change has been co–opted by a “cult,” attempts to mislead people by saying more people die from cold temperatures than hot ones, and that the solution to global warming is to “drill, frack, burn coal.” He boasts about how he'll use drones to secure the border, dismantle social services that date back to LBJ, shutter the IRS and gut government agency staff. And, of course, Ramaswamy promises to wage war on “wokeism” — he even wrote a book critical of equity efforts. While it’s a good thing for politicians to engage with media outlets across the political spectrum, it’s evident that Ramaswamy loves going on networks like CNN in order to get viral clips of him jousting with reporters.

Ramaswamy is a fresh-faced, buttoned-up and more militant version of Trumpism in a race where most contenders are a familiar face and operating within the parameters that Trump has already created. Most reporting on him so far, including the profiles mentioned above, has not downplayed his extremism. But they imply his success is attributable to his communications strategy when the reality is that his communication is landing because of his position on the tip of the spear of MAGAism. 

I am not concerned that Ramaswamy will displace Trump in this race. I’m concerned about what he signifies: a growing appetite for reactionary extremism.