OPINION - ‘Tech bro’ Vivek Ramaswamy is the latest madman to rattle traditional US Republicans field

OPINION - ‘Tech bro’ Vivek Ramaswamy is the latest madman to rattle traditional US Republicans field

Donald Trump will be a no-show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the first Republican presidential primary debate tonight. The former president has seized the chance to snub TV hosts Fox News for not sucking up to him enough (fancy that!), leaving eight lesser rivals for the Republican nomination to slug it out for second place on the off-chance the 91 criminal charges facing Trump will finally bring him down.

Until recently there was only one contender for runner-up: Florida governor Ron DeSantis. But sharing the coveted centre spot on stage with him tonight will be Vivek Ramaswamy, a super-rich 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur who has been sprinting past better-known figures such as former vice-president Mike Pence, senator Tim Scott and ex-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and is threatening to finish off the ailing DeSantis.

Ramaswamy has leveraged his status as a charismatic outsider running a vanity campaign into a real tilt at power, which could earn him a cabinet position under Trump — and possibly more. Ramaswamy’s biggest admirers are talking him up as a future president. He is not short of confidence, having been born under a lucky horoscope according to his parents. He also enjoyed success with his 2021 book, Woke Inc, an attack on “woke” capitalism and ESG (environmental and social governance).

Ramaswamy is Ivy League educated but, like many self appointed populists, claims contempt for liberal elites

Only now, however, is Ramaswamy being scrutinised after getting an easy ride as a pundit on cable news shows, podcasts and online forums. Rattled rivals are conducting frantic research and the media is finally weighing in. The questions are coming in thick and fast. Is he another rich, nerdy financier, like our own Rishi Sunak? Is he a bigger culture warrior than DeSantis? And is he Trumpier than Trump, when it comes to draining the Washington “swamp” and touting America First foreign policies?

Ramaswamy is all these things, with an added dollop of conspiracist thinking. He wears the classic uniform of a tech bro: black slacks, black T-shirt and black jacket. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Indian immigrant Hindu parents, he is part of a new wave of US politicians of South Asian descent that includes vice-president Kamala Harris and Haley, whose parents are Sikhs from the Punjab. He is Ivy League educated (Harvard and Yale Law School) but, like many self-appointed populists, professes contempt for liberal elites.

A series of own goals has led some members of Ramaswamy’s team to scratch their heads, as when he came out in favour of raising the voting age to 25 (with exceptions). He is also big on speaking the “truth” but pivots to the conspiracy-mongers’ cop-out of “just asking questions” when he encounters blow-back.

In an interview in the Atlantic this week, Ramaswamy hinted that the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021 was an inside job by armed FBI agents. “We can handle the truth about what really happened on January 6,” he suggested. “How many government agents were in the field? Right?” He then claimed the 9/11 attacks in 2001 were shrouded in mystery. “I think it is legitimate to say how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the twin towers…Maybe the answer is zero. It probably is zero,” he mused. He has vowed to disband the FBI and fire over half its staff. On CNN, Ramaswamy said he was misquoted on 9/11 until the Atlantic author produced a recording. He regularly attacks “isms” such as “climatism” and “covidism”, enabling him to curry favour with climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers (his family is vaccinated).

He has caused conniptions in traditional Republican circles by offering to let China invade Taiwan, once the US increases its own supply of semiconductors, and to hand a big chunk of Ukraine to Russia. He also told actor Russell Brand last week he wanted to end aid to Israel by extending Middle East peace accords.

Then there is the question of how he made his fortune, now standing at $950 million, according to Forbes. In 2014 Ramaswamy’s former biotech company Roivant Sciences acquired intepirdine, a purported Alzheimer’s drug which had failed clinical trials, for $5 million. The company soared in value to nearly $3 billion in the hope it might work. It didn’t. But it worked out very well for Ramaswamy.

All this should make skewering him easy in tonight’s debate. But the rest of the field may be too busy throwing brickbats at DeSantis. If so, Ramaswamy could emerge as the night’s winner, further inflating his artificial value. The real victor will be Trump, whom “president” Ramaswamy has kindly promised to pardon should events in 2024 take an unexpected turn.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting