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Vivek Ramaswamy is still Trump’s heir

Vivek Ramaswamy isn't done yet
Vivek Ramaswamy isn't done yet - Giorgio Viera /AFP

With the word “TRUTH” perched just above his shoulder, Vivek Ramaswamy addressed a crowd of his supporters in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday night to say that he was suspending his presidential campaign to endorse Donald Trump. His Internet-fueled candidacy was at an end.

In the 2024 primary cycle, Ramaswamy was one of the more polarising and colourful characters – no small feat when Donald Trump is one of the other competitors. A pharma bro turned political provocateur, Ramaswamy handled his presidential bid like another start-up company.

He would test a message, see how it played, and calibrate accordingly. He targeted issues that generate gigawatts online. He hammered “woke” cultural politics and invoked shadowy forces attempting to manipulate American life from behind the scenes. He lambasted American efforts to support the Ukrainian government during Russia’s invasion.

In trying to carve out a space for himself in the expanded MAGA universe, Ramaswamy relied on the mimetic fluidity of the Internet. The Internet is a weird zone, in which everything is simultaneously indelible and fluid. It captures so much information, but that very informational overload also means that it’s easy to move on from data you find inconvenient. Thus, Ramaswamy didn’t feel bound by his past statements or positions.

In a 2021 tweet, he described Trump’s actions on the week of January 6 as “downright abhorrent.” By 2023, he was claiming that January 6 looked “like an inside job.” Donald Trump’s rise showed that voters were open to more protean, shape-shifting political brands, and Ramaswamy leaned into that opportunity.

The Internet rewards conflict, and Ramaswamy continually tried to define himself via opposition. In addition to tilting against the “establishment,” he made a particular foil of Nikki Haley in the debates. He slammed her as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels” and portrayed her as the embodiment of the “globalist” elite he opposed.

Long thought of as a stalking-horse for Trump, Ramaswamy helped keep the primary field divided, and his battles with Haley sucked up media oxygen that could have gone to Trump’s more serious foes. However, his love of rhetorical haymakers ended up souring many Republican voters on him. His disapproval shot up, and his polling numbers drifted down. In the days before the Iowa caucuses, Trump allies began a concerted attack on Ramaswamy, and the man himself delivered the last twist of the knife on Truth Social: “Vivek is not MAGA.”

Where does Ramaswamy go from here? He certainly has expanded his media profile, and the line between online influencers and politicians is very thin these days, so he may envision more of a political career ahead.

His rise points to deeper trends. Ramaswamy fashioned himself as the candidate of the young. While he ended up losing Iowa voters under 30 to Ron DeSantis, he did better with those voters than with older ones. Many of the themes he emphasised – from the fears of national division to the sense that, somehow, the American social compact has gone off-track – echo the anxieties of many Millennial and Gen Z voters. The Internet has spurred on radical economic and social disruption.

Especially in recent years, American politics has been marked by a kind of frenzied weirdness. The outsider candidates of the moment (including Ramaswamy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) have tried to match the tenor of that moment. The campaign’s “Vivek speaks truth” slogan may have been an attempt to address the desire of so many Americans to have some kind of grounding when everything seems up for grabs.

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