Vivek Ramaswamy, who four months ago most voters could not pick out of a police lineup, successfully made the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate all about his own outrageous-seeming statements, including the claim that all of his competitors were "super PAC puppets" interested in making "pilgrimages" to Ukraine to see their "pope," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
"If you have a broken car, you don't turn over the keys to the people who broke it again. You hand it over to the new generation," the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur said early in the broadcast. "The reality is, you have a bunch of people, professional politicians, super PAC puppets, following slogans handed off to them by their 400-page super PACs last week. The real choice we face in this primary is this: Do you want a super PAC puppet, or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth? Do you want incremental reform, which is what you're hearing about, or do you want revolution?"
The crowd and the assembled 2024 aspirants erupted in outrage. The Fox News moderators ripped up their questions and asked sardonically if Ramaswamy's opponents were indeed puppets. The edgelord smiled, victorious.
If, like the sliver of the population that consumes political news for several hours a day, you've seen chatter this week about the third-ranked 2024 GOP contender, it was likely under a headline like "Audio Refutes Ramaswamy's Claims He Was Misquoted on 9/11 Conspiracies" or "CNN Brutally Mocks 'Clown' Vivek Ramasamy's Topless Tennis 'Debate Prep.'"
Yes, after eight years of splenetic bewilderment at loose-lipped randos punching above their weight in American politics, journalists are still shaking their damn heads at candidates doing and saying things that would have torpedoed campaigns within living memory. In a pre-debate profile headline Wednesday morning, Politico characterized Ramaswamy's rise as "Astonishing" and "Unexpected."
But is it?
From the moment Donald Trump entered the 2016 GOP primary, there has been one numerical loser of a lane from which to compete against him: that of comparatively normal-sounding Republican politicians. Back then, the Normie caucus was composed of Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) plus former governors Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, who, as a group, polled most months right around 25 percent. Importantly, it wasn't just Trump hogging the Outsider/Insurgent Lane popular with two-thirds of the GOP electorate; it was also tech CEO Carly Fiorina and serial crazy-things-sayer Ben Carson, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) trying gamely to straddle the insider/outsider line.
Since September 2015, without interruption, a majority of Republican voters have been telling their party that they do not want a typical career politician running for president. Trump faced three former elected Republicans in the 2020 primaries and crushed them like grapes. This year's Normie Lane—Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and former Texas congressman Will Hurd—has combined to attract, very consistently, less than one of out of every six primary voters: 15.5 percent in August, 15.3 percent in July, 16.1 percent in June, and 14 percent or lower every month before that.
Chris Christie, at the debate, wasted little time dishing out the expected sick burn of Ramaswamy—"I've had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT standing up here." Mike Pence, visibly bristling, objected to Ramaswamy's alleged attempt to "redefine" what it means to be American; the youngster shot back at the ex-veep's trademark stab at Reaganism: "It's not morning in America." When the millennial went after his competitors for making a "pilgrimage" to Zelensky, you could almost see the blood vessels in Nikki Haley's head burst.
But there is little reason to believe that Christie, Pence, or anyone else emanating from Your Father's GOP will get more than 15 percent of the vote. Against that backdrop, the question might not be, Why is a 38-year-old speed-talking tech entrepreneur who raps awkwardly on the stump and says outrageous things rising in the polls?, but instead, How come there aren't more randos in the race?
Ramaswamy's two-step of asking provocative questions and then blaming the media for the way they report on his comments is, consciously or not, strategic. Animus against the press has been the ideological glue holding the Republican coalition together since long before Trump; if you think a GOP primary candidate is going to materially suffer from a CNN headline like "Fact check: Audio debunks Vivek Ramaswamy's false claim that he was misquoted about 9/11," then I envy your naiveté.
It's a bad, if unsurprising, look for any aspiring president to lie, especially those whose campaign motto is "Truth." But it's worth reflecting on how voters themselves have incentivized politicians—from Donald Trump to Joe Biden to Barack Obama to John McCain—to do precisely that.
The populist twist on this hoary old tactic, perfected by Trump but also embraced by both Ramaswamy and Democratic challenger Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is to use journalistic criticism of candidate dishonesty and sloppiness by not only claiming victimhood at the hands of the media but using it as an opportunity to open fire against the entire disgraced establishment.
So, in Wednesday's Politico Magazine article, Ramaswamy reacted to Mike Pence's criticism of him for his 9/11 comments by damning Washington's entire political class.
"They'll lie in the public about Pat Tillman; they'll lie to the public about weapons of mass destruction," he said. "So the same people who lied about Pat Tillman, who lied about the weapons of mass destruction, who lied to us today about the truth about how many police officers were in the field on January 6, who lied to us about the Nashville shooter manifesto, who lied to us about the origin of COVID-19, now say it is offensive to tell the truth about whether [Omar al-]Bayoumi was actually a Saudi intelligence operative. That is what's offensive and shameful. And that problem is bigger than Mike Pence. He's just one among the thousands constituting that establishment."
Whose side would you rather be on, the critic who sometimes colors outside the lines or a bunch of decorum-narcs who were or might as well have been on the wrong side of a quarter-century's worth of government debacles?
As long as official Washington and other centers of American power keep screwing things up, there will be a market for candidates who point accusatory and indiscriminate fingers. And as long as voters keep flocking to people who show zero compunction about lying, they will continue getting lied to.
The same dynamics also come into play when outsider populists engage in another activity previously thought to be politically injurious: flip-flopping. This week has seen the opposition research files fly open against the surging Ramaswamy, with lengthy zig-zagging dossiers prepared by the Washington Examiner's Gabe Kaminsky and conservative broadcaster Dana Loesch (in two parts).
"In June," Kaminsky reported, in one of several similar examples, "Ramaswamy posted a video on Twitter about the federal holiday Juneteenth, which aims to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., calling it 'a celebration of the American dream itself.'…Just two months later, in August, Ramaswamy told voters in Iowa that Juneteenth was 'useless.'" (The campaign responded to the piece by suggesting that Kaminsky was working on behalf of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.)
It is hard to believe, in the age of Trump, that a Republican candidate will suffer much from careening between one extreme position/opinion and the next. Recall that the 45th president, in addition to having voted for and backed various Democrats over the years, criticized as recently as 2012 Republican immigration policies as being "mean-spirited" and even "maniacal"; now he finds it normal to propose a naval blockade of Latin America.
Ramaswamy's opponents have plenty of contradictory material to work with. He's an avowed Reaganite who favors death taxes and wants to hand Crimea to Moscow? He wants to abolish the FBI, Department of Education, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (YAY, say libertarians); and make voting by 18-24-year-olds contingent on national service or a citizenship test (BOO). He describes himself as "America First 2.0" yet likes some international trade deals even while seeking to ban U.S. companies from doing business with China.
Where some might see philosophical inconsistency, Ramaswamy insists he's just following the facts like a policy entrepreneur, unbeholden to any ideology or donor base.
If you rope Ramaswamy in an Outsider Lane with Trump and DeSantis—who, in 2023, is occupying a straddling role not unlike Ted Cruz's in 2015–16—then regardless of their individual ups and downs, the polling results are monolithic: Three-quarters of the GOP electorate back one of the three, month after month after month.
Unless and until the Republican electorate changes its mood about normal politicians, media critiques of the comportment and policy among the GOP top three are likely to dent very little beyond the sense of potency among the journalists delivering them. It would be nice to believe that the most libertarian of the candidates' ideas had staying power, but fickle politicians unconstrained by accusations of flip-flopping are not likely to be long-term allies. Welcome to campaign 2024.