RYE, N.H. — Politicians can’t buy this kind of stagecraft: It’s a rainy day at a picturesque New England farmhouse, and the downpour is dampening the mood at an outdoor barbecue event for local Republicans — that is, until 38-year-old presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, the sudden sensation of the 2024 Republican primary, takes the podium.
The once-unknown Ohio entrepreneur starts his stump speech about lifting the cloud progressives have cast over America, and, as if on cue, the skies clear and the sun shines. Though Ramaswamy’s a self-described “political outsider,” he speaks like a statesman and each Republican attendee in this first-in-the-nation primary state is hanging on every word from a guy none of them had heard of a year ago.
Ramaswamy is clearly having a moment — notwithstanding the odd foreign policy views that made him the main target at Wednesday’s Fox News Republican presidential debate. But that he’s even a target is the point; though he’s still a long shot for his party’s nomination, Republicans should pay attention to what has propelled him above more established GOP politicians like Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Chris Christie in the polls.
Yes, Ramaswamy’s a slick talker. On Wednesday he slammed his fellow candidates for using “ready-made, pre-prepared slogans” when he himself was repeating many of his own slogans that he had used on the stump in Rye. But with his dazzling smile and unapologetic confidence, his sloganeering is simply better than everyone else’s.
He’s also a rough draft of what the post-Trump party could look like. Wednesday’s debate was more than anything a discussion of what the Republican Party is going to look like in 2024. Will it continue to embrace its MAGA moment, or will it revert to what is now considered “RINO” conservatism?
Ramaswamy has described himself as very pro-Trump. Though he told me they’re “fundamentally different people,” he also says that plenty of his policy agenda “overlaps very much with that of Trump,” and “in some ways, it goes further than Trump did.” How? He names just a few: “Militarizing the border, shutting down the Department of Education, ending affirmative action.”
But he also makes it clear that he’s bringing a different type of leadership to the MAGA movement. Ramaswamy says that presidential leadership “sets the tone of our national character” and he wants to lead “consistent with the values that we want to raise our kids with … grounded in integrity, grounded in family life, grounded in the virtues of citizenship.” He also attacks what conservatives often call the “woke” ideology on the left, which he links to “loss of identity, loss of self” in polished and almost spiritual prose you’d never hear from Trump — but that clearly touches a nerve. Though Ramaswamy is largely funding his own campaign, he’s also attracted 75,000 small-dollar donors, 40 percent of whom are first-time political donors to Republicans.
In the process, the first-generation Indian American has also created a template for courting voters of color that’s completely counter to what political orthodoxy wants you to think. Ramaswamy says he wants to build a “multi-ethnic working-class majority,” building on the modest recent gains Republicans have made with Hispanic and Asian American voters. But he’s not doing so by tempering his opposition to affirmative action and diversity initiatives; instead, he’s doubling down on them. By doing so, he’s speaking for — and connecting to — a long-ignored contingent of voters of color who feel patronized, not uplifted, by the left’s identity politics.
Of course, Ramaswamy’s not the only Republican candidate to criticize left-wing ideology on transgender issues, diversity and inclusion efforts, affirmative action, and other hot-button topics. That’s part of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s pitch, too — and Trump’s, of course.
But Ramaswamy’s success — and the relative struggles of DeSantis — suggests it’s not enough to simply be anti-woke: Republicans have to have a positive cultural agenda, too. “We have been running from something, now is our moment to start running to something,” he tells the New Hampshire crowd at the farmhouse where former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has been hosting gatherings for candidates. For Ramaswamy, the “something” is the kind of sunny, Reaganite God-and-country conservatism that Trump replaced with doom and gloom.
At the end of this speech, Ramaswamy pledges to make America “greater than even the great country that we all grew up in.” Trump’s campaign slogan puts America’s greatness in the past.
Brown emcees a few questions from the audience, which Ramaswamy fields with unfettered enthusiasm. The crowd sings “Happy Birthday” to his wife, Apoorva. Then Ramaswamy leaves the stage and it starts raining again.
Afterward, I caught a ride with the Ramaswamys in the candidate’s Ford Expedition as he headed back to the airport in Portsmouth. The couple shared a sandwich, skipping out on the beer and hot dogs from the event.
His campaign, he tells me, is meant to offer an alternative to the progressive left’s increasingly divisive policies. If the left is “feeding our children race, gender, sexuality, and climate,” as he told Brown’s guests, he wants to talk about “the value of each individual, the family, the nation, and God.”
Of his own racial background, he says that his candidacy — he’s part of a diverse GOP field that also includes former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina — makes “an appropriate mockery of the left’s victimhood narrative.”
But while Ramaswamy’s cultural message holds a broad appeal to Republican voters, his actual policy beliefs may be alienating. In Wednesday night’s debate, he called the climate change agenda a “hoax.” Defending democratic Taiwan from communist China is typically a GOP priority, but Ramaswamy says that once the United States is no longer dependent on Taiwanese factories for semiconductors — which he promises will happen by the end of his first term — “our commitments to Taiwan, our commitments to be willing to go to military conflict, will change.” He’s dubious of US support for Ukraine, too. He wants to raise the voting age to 25 and dismantle the FBI and Department of Education. Those stances may cause trouble in a general election; whether they will bother the Republican primary electorate, though, is an open question.
And when it comes to Trump, his zealous defense of the former president — he promised to pardon Trump should he be convicted of any federal crimes — has raised questions about if he’s just angling for a Cabinet seat in a second Trump administration or trying to take out DeSantis for the big guy.
Regardless, his candidacy is showing something important as the Republican Party struggles to define itself. Ramaswamy may fizzle, but even if he does, he’ll have proved that candidates don’t have to copy the Trump playbook wholesale to make inroads with the post-Trump electorate. Republican voters want a culture warrior, and Ramaswamy is definitely that. He achieves the tricky feat of embracing the Republican Party’s new populist tilt while repackaging its tone, mission, and image — moving away from Trump’s politics of retribution without moving away from Trump voters. “It takes people willing to exhibit courage in order for [courage] to spread,” he tells me as we drive through another wave of rain. “Courage can be contagious,” and he means to be the figure that spreads a new message.
As we pulled into the local airport where Ramaswamy would board his jet — and I’m not making this up — a rainbow formed next to the airstrip. Like him or not, Vivek is on to something.
Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.