Vivek Ramaswamy accepts it: running for president is “a weird thing to do as a thirty-seven-year-old.” The biotech multimillionaire and anti-woke capitalism crusader is a surprise entry into the 2024 Republican primary after announcing on Tucker Carlson’s show on Tuesday. He went straight from Carlson’s Florida studio to early-voting New Hampshire. I arrived in the snow-dusted city of Rochester at 9 a.m. on Wednesday to watch him kick off his first full day of campaigning — and to work out what the author of Woke, Inc. hoped to bring to the race.
Around thirty or so were gathered in Potter’s House bakery watching Vivek gear up for his third Fox hit in fourteen hours. Cable news plays a front-and-center role in Republican politics these days; some members of Congress see more camera crews than constituents. Ramaswamy has been a mainstay on the network since facing down calls from employees at the pharmaceutical company he founded, Roivant Systems, to issue a corporate statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter following George Floyd’s murder. But how well do softball exchanges with friendly television hosts prepare you for the rigors of a presidential campaign?
Vivek wore a charcoal-gray suit with an open white shirt and clasped a water bottle as he engaged with potential voters at the bakery. He was in full swing early. “Was there a time and place for reparations in America? Yes, in 1870,” he said enthusiastically. There were some familiar faces helping him with his grassroots operation: Stephanie Trussell, who was the Republican candidate for Illinois lieutenant governor in November, and Kathy Barnette, who was beaten by Dr. Oz in the GOP primary to be senator for Pennsylvania.
Ramaswamy’s packed day took him through the city hall and opera house, to a tire company and a construction site where six stories of apartments were being built. He was shown around the site of a new logistics firm in a business park by its founders, all quarterzip-wearing middle-aged men with Irish last names. Then it was off to a luncheon with business leaders, an off-the-record meeting with religious leaders in Manchester, dinner at a renowned diner and a moderated Q&A session at a bar in front of a crowd of sixty or so.
His cable news celebrity status proved a help at Hervey’s, the tire company. “I saw you on Fox News last night!” said the wild-haired co-owner in a suede Panama hat as we entered his business. A strong smell of rubber cut through the air as Vivek and his entourage went into the workshop.
“We’re out hearing from people about what you’ve got to say,” Vivek told one ruddy-faced worker, as machines squealed and death metal blared in the background. He then listened as the other co-owner, a hirsute gent, described his trouble finding employees. “Once people are used to not working as their way of life, they lose that sense of purpose… once you lose that, you lose your sense of identity,” Ramaswamy said. He offered his view that “we’re heading for really tough economic times” but expressed how he thought “economic hardship can be a source of strength.”
After attending Harvard and Yale Law, and a stint at a hedge fund, Ramaswamy made his $600 million-plus fortune heading up Roivant. His latest business is Strive, an asset management fund he founded to counter the ESG fad that has become the dominant philosophy at larger rivals.
Ramaswamy is best known, thanks to his books and TV appearances, as one of the most vocal ambassadors against “woke capitalism.” Politico called him one of the “intellectual godfathers of the anti-woke movement.” The New Yorker branded him the “CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.” This explains his campaign pledge to restore “merit” to the center of American identity — and his promise to repeal affirmative action by a pen stroke on his first day in office.
But if he’s a thought leader in the modern Republican Party, it’s worth stressing that some of his other ideas are a bit, uh, out-there. His flagship foreign policy objective for his single four-year term is to “decouple” from China, which is entirely consistent with the logic of many Trump and Biden-era initiatives. His second priority, though, is a little more madcap: bombing the Mexican cartels, an eye-catching policy that’s the bastard lovechild of the military-industrial complex and the war on drugs. How would he achieve this as president? “Air strikes, drone strikes, special forces, go bin Laden, go Soleimani,” he tells a roomful of Rochester business leaders over lunch. What might his Mexican counterpart think? “Obrador is basically in the cartel’s pocket.” He costs such an operation at “less than $10 billion.”
“Unless you decimate the cartels, you have the demand generating, you have the flywheel that creates the supply side push of some version,” Ramaswamy explains to me later. “I think China basically views this as the Opium War. And so fentanyl is their modern version of opium, but if not fentanyl, they can find something else.”
Ramaswamy also aspires to take a buzzsaw to the American administrative state. “I don’t think anybody should be working for the federal government for more than eight years,” he tells a Rochester businessman in the morning.
Civil servants as well, I ask?
“Yeah. So I call them sunset clauses. Almost no federal bureaucrat should work for the federal government for more than eight years, period.”
Wouldn’t limiting a federal career at eight years lead to a “brain drain” situation in the government among the administrators?
He couches his answer. “I would say for nearly any… I wanna leave a little bit of life, but that’s the default.”
“There’s no perfect solution,” he continues. “But I think we live at a point where the absence of accountability in government outweighs the risks. It’s not just, for me, a question of competence, it’s a question of democratic integrity. We’ve gotten to a place where the most important policy decisions are no longer being made by the elected officials.”
As we walk through the streets of Rochester, I follow up on China. “Consciously uncoupling” from them… that’s going to cost money, right?
“It’s gonna cost money.”
Could it result in inflation?
“I don’t know… I think it would cause inconvenience. There will be frictional short-term costs. I’ll be very transparent about that. Switching costs — there’ll be supply shortages. A short-term cost in virtue of the right destination is the place we need to go. I also think we pull the economic rug from underneath China when they’re actually still vulnerable. I think Xi Jinping shot China in the foot to keep his third term. That creates a window for us now to defeat them economically, so we never have to militarily.
If we don’t, then you foresee conflict?
“I do… This is one of the things that compels me to want to do this now, to need to do this now. Because I think this is the single most important issue we’re dealing with, is that dynamic with China. And I’m optimistic. I think there’s a window because of the Xi Jinping self-inflicted damage to be able to act now. But if we don’t, I fear that there may be a permanent new status quo that I’m intent on making sure that we don’t reach. That’s why I’m running for president.”
Throughout the day, Ramaswamy repeated the mantra that “2023 is about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ for the Republican Party, not the ‘who’.” He also says he’s running for president to promote his answer to the question, “what does it mean to be an American?” You could read that and draw the conclusion, “this man does not think he’s going to win.” You also might then wonder if there’s some ulterior motive. Does he have an eye on a cushy role in a Trump or DeSantis administration, such as commerce secretary? Is he looking to head down the “presidential campaign to podcast” route like Andrew Yang, or the presidential campaign to Senate seat pipeline like John Hickenlooper? Cynics have been quick to point out that there’s an opening in the 2024 Republican primary against Senator Sherrod Brown in Ramaswamy’s home state of Ohio. But he insists that anyone asking these questions is misreading his motivations.
“I had an opportunity to run for Senate in 2022,” he said, midway through a burger and a quesadilla at the Red Arrow Diner. He’s the first presidential candidate to visit the presidential campaign mainstay this cycle. “I decided not to because I believe in having greater change through the private sector, through thought leadership… I just think that right now the national identity crisis that we’re in demands a vision for our nation.”
But if his presidential campaign did lead to an appointment in the next Republican administration, if not the president…
“That’s not what I’m running for.”
And the Senate?
“If I was going to do that, I’d be running for Senate already. I’m honored to be in a position — last week, or a month ago or three, six months ago — of having significant positive cultural impact. Strive is, I’m proud to say, off the ground in an impressive way, writing my third book that’s coming out this April… I’ve given speeches to half of Congress. I’m invited to speak to the Senate Republican Caucus, et cetera. I’m able to drive change informally. That sets a pretty high bar for me to say that I’m going to take a different track to drive change in an even different way. I think that the exception to that rule would be running for president with an agenda of actually solving our national identity crisis. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing exactly what I was doing right before doing this.”
Ramaswamy hasn’t yet featured on any election polls — but his entry into the fray has drawn the ire of some on the national conservative wing, perhaps a side effect of announcing on Tucker. A number of Florida-based conservatives have been drawing attention to the fact he once did a (Paul and Daisy) “Soros fellowship” and his “business ties to China.”
“I’m kind of honored,” he tells me. “I didn’t expect to be seen as as much of a threat on day one. I thought it might take a couple of weeks. I think it’s I think it’s clear from some of the allies in the conservative movement I’ve been talking to.
“I absolutely have done business in China. That is exactly where I got my views. And the World Economic Forum? That’s hilarious. There’s probably not a person in America who has been more vocal… a combination of being more vocal and actually doing something about it, to tackle that new globalist religion, than me. Find one, and let me know, and I will applaud him or her.”
Vivek’s first day on the trail concluded at Murphy’s Tap Room, where a crowd has gathered to watch him be quizzed by Drew Cline, a New Hampshire journalism veteran. Two or so attendees were youngish, with the rest a bespectacled bunch in late middle age. Towards the back, a man in a cowboy hat and a leather coat wore a sandwich board reading “GENDER IDEOLOGY DOES NOT BELONG IN SCHOOLS.” “I actually don’t fetishize holding public office at all,” he tells Cline early on.
The first audience question came from a gnomic-looking hipster fellow who asked him about his views on CBDCs, or central bank digital currencies. It was downhill from there — the next head-spinning hour saw mentions of “malcompetitiveness,” a “Sarbanes-Oxley”-style law to ensure members of Congress read bills and the “new Alphabet Soup,” which involved the stock codes of various big tech firms.
Most revealingly in the session, Vivek described how he believes that former president Donald Trump “cares about national unity… but he’s not gonna deliver it.” That’s a simple message, and one that might stick with primary voters. Vivek Ramaswamy, the Republicans’ first millennial candidate, needs to take pithy ideas like it on the trail with him to Iowa and beyond. After that, who knows? Come friendly bombs and fall on Sinaloa…