“Of all the descriptors attached to Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old political tyro enjoying a bizarre surge in the Republican primary race for second place, the most common one seems to be “annoying.” After the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, a Politico headline quoted a party strategist about Ramaswamy’s performance: “It just got to be annoying.” In a widely shared essay, the writer Josh Barro, a Harvard contemporary of Ramaswamy, probedthe quality that “makes Vivek so annoying.” CNN’s S.E. Cupp called him, in a column: “Obnoxious. Annoying. Disrespectful. Inexperienced. Conspiratorial.”
Matt Lewis, an anti-Trump conservative writer for The Daily Beast, marveled that there are some who actually like Ramaswamy’s cocky, know-it-all persona: “As Seinfeld might say, ‘Who are these people?’”
The answer, of course, is much of the Republican Party. The Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos polled likely Republican primary voters before and after last week’s debate. Following his performance, Ramaswamy’s favorability rating rose from 50 percent to 60 percent, even though his unfavorability rating rose even more, from 13 percent to 32 percent. Participants in a CNN focus group of Iowa Republicans declared him the debate’s winner, as did a poll released on Thursday from JL Partners. The day after the debate, his campaign reportedlyraised more than $1 million.
The question is what Ramaswamy’s supporters see in this irksome figure. Some Republicans, clearly, appreciate the way he sucks up to Donald Trump, whom Ramaswamy has called “the best president of the 21st century.” But that doesn’t explain the roughly 10 percent of Republicans who tell pollsters they’re planning to vote for Ramaswamy instead of Trump. It can’t only be his shtick as Fox News’s “woke and cancel-culture guru,” as one anchor called him, since at this point even the Florida governor Ron DeSantis has learned that railing against wokeness is a losing message. Nor is Ramaswamy’s appeal tailored to the downwardly mobile Trump voters who appreciated the former president’s pledges to protect their entitlements, since Ramaswamy’s promise to “dismantle Lyndon Johnson’s failed ‘Great Society’” makes Paul Ryan look like a social democrat.
Instead, I suspect that Ramaswamy’s fans are drawn to him for all the reasons his critics find him insufferable. Conservatives love being championed by representatives of groups that they think disdain them. Despite the right’s deep resentment of the entertainment industry, Republicans tend to adore celebrity candidates, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump. Think of the infamous tweet from Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee: “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” (They deleted it once the rapper Kanye West’s right turn veered into outright Hitler fandom.) At Democratic conventions I’ve seen famous actors walk around either unrecognized or ignored, while at Republican conventions C-listers are feted like superstars.
Ramaswamy, too, is a performer, but what he’s performing is a parody of meritocratic excellence. If you’ve spent time around entitled Ivy League grads, you likely recognize him as an exaggerated version of a familiar type: the callow and condescending nerd who assumes that skill in one field translates to aptitude in all others. But to his fans, the very fact that he’s such a pure product of elite institutions — in addition to Harvard, he went to Yale Law and made his fortune with a biotech start-up he ran from Manhattan — likely gives him extra oomph as a class traitor.
People who care about the basic workings of government are gobsmacked by Ramaswamy’s apparent ignorance — on Sunday, for example, he said that if he’d been in Vice President Mike Pence’s shoes on Jan. 6, 2021, he would have pushed through election reform “in my capacity as president of the Senate.” But he’s good at sounding like he knows what he’s talking about. Sarah Longwell, a political strategist who has conducted extensive focus groups with Republican primary voters, said that people who like Ramaswamy inevitably say, “I think he’s really smart.”
That’s why Chris Christie’s comparison of Ramaswamy to Barack Obama, whom conservatives saw as a smug, smooth-talking foreign interloper, fell flat. Ramaswamy’s very superficial similarities to Obama work for him, giving conservative audiences the satisfaction of hearing their resentments affirmed by a defector from the culture of the coastal gentry. At the debate, Ramaswamy encouraged the analogy when he ripped off an old Obama line to introduce himself as a “skinny guy with a funny last name.” Longwell doesn’t think Ramaswamy has a shot at beating Trump for the nomination, but, she said, “I think that Republicans want their own Obama.”
Many older white conservatives, after all, feel threatened by multiethnic younger generations that largely reject their most fundamental values about faith, gender and patriotism. Ramaswamy is part of this menacing cohort, and he’s telling Republicans that their suspicions about it are correct. “More than anything, he has portrayed his generation and younger ones as empty souls living meaningless lives,” Jonathan Weisman wrote in The Times. He’s a young man running an anti-youth campaign; a centerpiece of Ramaswamy’s platform is a call to strip the franchise from most people under 25 unless they pass a civics test. And he’s a person of color who argues, even in the wake of another white supremacist mass shooting, that most American racism comes from the left. If he annoys those who find him most familiar, that’s surely part of the point.
Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn“