CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy had just finished a speech to the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting when he found himself chatting backstage with Donald Trump.
The 37-year-old political novice had just received a mid-address standing ovation in Indianapolis for proposing to arm and train every household in Taiwan to protect against an attack from China — one of many provocative ideas he has promoted in his long-shot bid. Trump “basically congratulated” him that day in late-April, Ramaswamy recalled in an interview, and expressed surprise at the warm reception his 2024 rival had gotten.
“I told him not to be surprised and to expect more of it,” said Ramaswamy, who predicted a nontraditional candidate would prevail in primary. “One way or another, it’s going to be an outsider,” he remembered telling Trump. “And he said, ‘One way or another, it’s an outsider.’”
While some Republicans are running as more electable or effective than Trump and others embrace a pre-Trump GOP posture or are outright anti-Trump, Ramaswamy is pitching himself as something different — the next iteration of Trump, who is at times chummy with his rival. An entrepreneur who made a fortune in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, Ramaswamy is a first-time candidate looking to break through a field of more conventional rivals touting a suite of proposals some experts have said are extreme and dangerous and would push the bounds of presidential authority.
The son of Indian immigrants won enthusiastic applause at some recent multicandidate events — including this month’s Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, an event focused on evangelical voters. Polls show him to be part of a crowded pack of current or former governors, an ex-vice president and other more experienced candidates running well behind Trump and trailing the distant second-place competitor nationally, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose struggles have opened the door for other underdogs to rise. He says he already qualified for the first debate and some Republican strategists regard Ramaswamy as a wild card who could alter the contours of the race as he taps his personal wealth to fund his campaign.
Billed as “America First 2.0,” an argument that Trump did not go far enough in passing his policy agenda as president, Ramaswamy’s platform — which leans heavily on executive actions — includes raising the voting age to 25 unless certain requirements are met, ending affirmative action “in every sphere of American life,” shutting down the FBI, and trimming 75 percent of executive branch employees to reduce the size of the “administrative state.”
“It shows, frankly, a historically unprecedented disregard for the powers laid out in the Constitution, which are that the President is supposed to execute the law, not just create new ones willy nilly,” presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky said of the plans. “This is unprecedented in its disregard for that power sharing structure laid out in the Constitution.”
On Thursday in New Hampshire, Ramaswamy unveiled the details of his plan to shut down the FBI, as well as the Department of Education and National Regulatory Commission, surrounded by charts covered in red strike marks and arrows. The next day, he was back in Iowa hosting an event that rhymes with the pronunciation of his first name: “Lunch Break with Vivek.” He recently followed in Trump’s footsteps by releasing a list of possible Supreme Court nominees if elected, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
Trump has frequently mentioned Ramaswamy in a positive context, recently pointing to him to amplify his taunts of DeSantis. Predicting earlier this month that DeSantis likely won’t be in second for much longer, he added, “I wonder who it is going to be. Maybe it’s Vivek, Vivek, could be. Could be. He’s doing well.”
Ramaswamy entered the race in February and has frequently traveled to early states to introduce himself to voters unfamiliar with him. Walking to an event in Cedar Rapids in May, he paused to greet two young people.
“I’m running for president,” he told them.
“What do you mean by president?,” a man asked him.
“President of the United States,” Ramaswamy responded, placing a hand on the man’s back before inviting them to the upcoming campaign event.
“Oh, congratulations, that’d be awesome,” said the man. He did not attend the event, but later ran into Ramaswamy again and had already formed some questions for him.
Ramaswamy’s proposals, which he says he wants to enact “without the permission or forgiveness of Congress,” have been polarizing. For some, it’s part of what they like about him.
“He’s got energy. He’s infectious,” said Pete Mathison, who attended a Ramaswamy event in Iowa and supported Trump in the past.
Tina Neyens, an undecided voter from Marion who attended his event in Cedar Rapids, said she likes how “he really does stand his ground.” She added that “he speaks the truth,” on affirmative action. “If he were a White guy saying that, they’d be like, ‘well easy for you to say.’ But he can say — and he said — ‘I felt this discrimination,” Neyens said.
Race, and the rejection of affirmative action, is central to his pitch. Ramaswamy argues that his generation celebrated diversity and differences too much, “so much that we forgot all of the ways that we are really just the same.” As an Indian American and millennial, Ramaswamy said he is able to push the envelope on race and age more than other candidates due to his identity.
Others see his ideas as unrealistic or damaging. His embrace of Trump and the former president’s agenda puts him out of step with other millennials of color, who have generally embraced more liberal policies. Some of his own young staff pushed back on a pitch to raise the voting age to 25 unless certain requirement such as passing a civics test or serving in the military are completed. The proposal was panned by young people in both parties and voting rights advocates, some who saw it as a throw back to Jim Crow laws. Ramaswamy argues that more young people would vote as a result of his plan, because it would have greater value.
He has also faced pushback on his approach to foreign policy, including ceding support for Ukraine to negotiate a peace treaty with Russia and his unorthodox approach on other matters. “You want to stop Xi Jinping from invading Taiwan, put a gun in every Taiwanese household!” Ramaswamy exclaimed in his NRA speech.
Several voters who have attended Ramaswamy’s events, like Allen Schmid, said they liked his proposals but don’t believe they are realistic. “There are just some things that are too entrenched,” said Schmid, a retiree from Clinton, Iowa.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, a rival GOP candidate, recently said in an interview with The Washington Post that his goal of appearing at the first debate would be to get across the message that “Vivek’s policies are terrible for our country.”
Some have criticized Ramaswamy for shifting positions. After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, Ramaswamy tweeted that what Trump did was wrong and “downright abhorrent” regarding his handling of the day. Now, as a candidate, he has continued to criticize Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 but has also been one of his loudest defenders, including against a potential indictment over the day.
In June, when Trump was arraigned on federal charges at a courthouse in Miami, Ramaswamy was in front of the courthouse, calling on every other presidential candidate in the race to commit to pardoning Trump if elected.
On the trail, Ramaswamy’s lexicon often departs from traditional campaign speak and reflects new movements percolating among some on the right. He says that he doesn’t like to use the labels Democrat or Republican, preferring to categorize people as pro or anti-America, or part of “the managerial class” or “the everyday citizen.”
The day after proposing to raise the voting age, he said he saw a comment on social media comparing him to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Ramaswamy worked the comparison into his speeches in the following days, telling a county GOP dinner, “Somebody on social media today called me ‘Brown Mussolini,’ somebody else would call me a moderate Republican, the labels don’t matter.”
At a meet and greet at an indoor golf range the next morning, he brought up the title again, saying it was his “favorite label.”
In his stump speech, Ramaswamy often tells attendees he is going to talk about “different cults popping up in America,” such as “the cult of radical gender ideology.” He says that “as millennials, we are hungry for a cause,” and often, “poison fills the void.”
During his May Iowa bus tour, voters asked him questions about China “plaguing us for years … like an anaconda,” and their fears of being threatened by organized crime. At a pizza parlor in Cedar Rapids, one man thanked Ramaswamy for talking about the “climate cult,” “because I think it’s one of the biggest hoaxes we’ve ever had,” adding, “my theory is the anti-Christ will use that as a platform to usher themselves into the world.”
Ramaswamy made a name for himself in conservative circles by crusading against “wokeism” — he is the author of a book called “Woke, Inc.” — and ESG, environmental, social and governance goals. But while Ramaswamy still mentions it on the campaign trail, he has in recent months reframed some of his messaging to make it less central to his political identity, saying he wants to run toward something not just against wokeism.
The Republican takes a hands-on approach to his social media, requesting his team clip specific videos from events to post — approximately every 37 minutes, with the exception of every hour on Saturdays. At every event, he is mic’d and filmed by a videographer, who on the Iowa trip earlier this year wore a hat reading “this actually is my first rodeo.” The campaign’s accessible approach to media is similar to that of Democrat Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 campaign (they overlapped at Harvard).
Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist tech entrepreneur who joined Ramaswamy’s Iowa bus tour to help with fundraising, compared working with Ramaswamy to his experience working with Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.
“I’d say that Obama was the first data president, he really understood data segmentation getting to the audience. Trump was brilliant at using Facebook. I think for the lack of a better term we’ll call him the Reels president,” Kvamme, clad in a pinstripe suit and Louis Vuitton loafers, fresh off a Formula One racing trip, said over burgers in Eastern Iowa, referring to Instagram’s video player.
Ramaswamy’s grass-roots strategy is helmed by the failed Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette. Barnette, who finished third in the primary, has made homophobic and anti-Muslim comments in the past, and participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. She said that they connected after Ramaswamy direct messaged her on Twitter during her Senate bid.
A Ramaswamy campaign memo this spring said that all the other presidential contenders see “their path to the nomination through Trump, when our path is alongside Trump.”
“The way I look at it, it’s not two cars on a collision course. It’s two cars on a racetrack alongside and we’re going to pass in the left lane — or the right lane, as the case may be here,” he said in an interview aboard a private plane ferrying him between bus tour stops in Iowa in May.
Ramaswamy argues that the Trump of today is not the same man that ran and won in 2016, and that “you only get to be an outsider once.” Echoing other Republicans who have alleged without evidence that Trump is being unfairly targeted through criminal investigations, he said, “In some ways, the fact that Trump is the subject of a politically motivated prosecution, there’s good evidence that he didn’t actually solve the problem.”
Between bites of veggie omelet on the flight, Ramaswamy homed in on where he believes Trump went wrong: “I think that the number one mistake that Trump made was to push his legislative agenda first.”
“He neither repealed nor replaced Obamacare, because it was a legislative priority,” he said of his current rival for the GOP presidential nomination. “I’m not going to make that mistake.”
Many are unconvinced. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), who has endorsed Trump and is a member of the congressional Anti-Woke Caucus that hosted Ramaswamy at a meeting in June, said “the problem with executive orders is the next executive can rip it up and toss it.”
In their conversation backstage at the NRA conference, Trump’s warm words also came with a warning of sorts.
“If you start polling near me, we’re going to have a problem,’” Ramaswamy recalled Trump saying. “But he was saying that with a smile on his face. And I said, ‘stay tuned.’”