The shallow patriotism of Vivek Ramaswamy 

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during a campaign stop on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, in Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

In many ways, the 2024 Republican presidential primary is taking place from the shadows. Largely loomed over by the likely nominee, former President Donald Trump, and the four indictments leveled against him, candidates face the considerable obstacle of forcing the limelight on themselves through a range of gimmicks without alienating the rest of the Republican base.  

The first-place second-fiddle, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, struggles to distinguish himself in his crusade for a “Great American Comeback,” dodging softball questions on the Jan. 6 riots and Trump’s election lies. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appear to be playing a Tweedledee and Tweedledum routine over dancing around criticisms of Trump. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, one of two Indian-Americans and the the sole female candidate in the race, has stuck to traditional Republican culture war issues by advocating — albeit with some reservations — for a federal abortion ban and piling onto the right-wing bandwagon attacking transgender athletes. For what little there is to say about South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, whose popularity is just shy of 3% in polls, it’s not insignificant that he’s one of the only sitting politicians in the race, the only notable exception being Desantis. 

With the bulk of candidates being familiar faces in the Republican party with sizable gaps in their political resumes, it’s no mystery why so much attention has been paid to the star of the last primary debate — none other than the 38-year-old Harvard graduate and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. 

Ramaswamy’s credentials give the dead horse of “outsider candidates” an additional kick. Having never held public office, Ramaswamy has kept an arm’s length from the “swamp” that Trump has railed against for years. Ramaswamy’s stint in the private sector earned him a fortune as a biotechnology financier, raising money for drugs and benefiting from hefty payouts.  

But what’s interesting about Ramaswamy isn’t his career, nor his overbearing youth pastor energy. What makes the Vivek 2024 campaign a fascinating marker in Republican politics is the deep cynicism of an Indian-American presidential hopeful relying on hollow, play-it-by-ear rhetoric about the U.S. Constitution and American patriotism to sell a hot mess of libertarian and right-wing nationalist policies. 

In an interview with conservative political analyst Margaret Hoover for PBS’s Firing Line, Ramaswamy boasts a deep understanding of the Constitution, yet, in almost the same breath, he  supports prohibiting 18 to 24-year-olds from voting should they be unable to pass the same civics test immigrants must take to obtain U.S. citizenship. The shoutout to immigrants feels out of place in a proposal to limit suffrage and institute the modern equivalent of literacy tests

Seeing a Brown face espousing a revival of “American identity,” as the Vivek 2024 campaign website puts it, feels like a mess of contradictions, especially when the child of immigrants’ idea of American identity promotes the use of “the military, including drones, to secure our southern border,” axing all forms of affirmative action programs, and ending “unlawful DEI indoctrination.” It’s a jarring reminder that the immigrant population is far from monolithic, as liberal “melting pot” rhetoric often assumes; the privilege of legal migration is only granted to those with the money and human capital to afford it. It’s this “I got mine” mentality that informs his opinions on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as affirmative action programs such as the identity-based scholarship that helped pay his way through college.  

Ramaswamy’s clumsy and deeply ideological depiction of what it means to be an American, including fearmongering around crime and trans people, divulges the laziness of his campaign rhetoric. He can promote “dismantling the administrative state” in the form of abolishing the FBI, IRS and Department of Education while seemingly taking no issue with handing the Department of Defense billions to police the border; the complete lack of ideological cohesion between libertarianism and border fascism, among his other authoritarian policy proposals, can be compensated for by filing it under the “America first” drawer. Ramaswamy takes this intellectually bereft patriotism to new heights, using it as a pretense to deny climate change outright and invent a conspiracy about a “climatist” conspiracy to inhibit the nation’s prosperity. His ardent opposition to “woke capitalism,” which deserves an essay of its own, operates similarly. 

If voters look beyond his pseudo-intellectual jingoism, they will see a campaign that is deeply confused about what it wants to deliver for the country outside a nebulous fusion of anti-migrant, transphobic, anti-Black and anti-poor policies. Vivek Ramaswamy perfectly demonstrates the poverty of “America first” platforms and those of a similar ilk that try to generate the most inflammatory policy proposals without doing the work of reconciling them. 

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