Election Day is several weeks away, he’s barely registering in the polls, and US Senate hopeful Shiva Ayyadurai is on his way to talk to a group of high school government students.
And who better to address our youth? Ayyadurai, an independent who supports President Trump, is truly a candidate of our times. Few figures in the state can capture the bizarreness of the current political moment as he does, with all its outrage, decibels, and snaps of ugliness.
He’s provocative. The 54-year-old Belmont resident, who holds four degrees from MIT, likes to tweet with LOTS OF CAPITALIZED WORDS.
There’s name-calling. Ayyadurai calls Senator Elizabeth Warren a “Fake Indian,” a reference to her controversial claims of Native American heritage. He’s called her a “Racist Demonic Fake Indian.” A “fascist.” A “scumbag” “lawyer-lobbyist.” Geoff Diehl, who won the Republican primary for the race, is a “Fake Trumper,” “Dirty Diehl,” and “a moron.”
His preferred epithet for just about everyone who disagrees with him is “racist.” Warren’s supporters are racist. She is racist, he says, at least in part because — he claims — she said she was Native American to get ahead in her career. (Documents and interviews show otherwise.)
Warren recently released DNA test results that showed “strong evidence” she had a Native American ancestor dating back six to 10 generations. Ayyadurai crowed in response that Warren “is a BIGGER Fake Indian than we thought — even this test, clearly conducted because of my relentless expose of Elizabeth Warren’s dishonesty, confirms that she IS 99.999% WHITE.”
The Republican Party is racist because it “is still so insular that it can’t accept a dark-skinned, independent-minded, accomplished MIT PhD, who started seven successful companies in Massachusetts,” Ayyadurai, who first declared his intention to run for the GOP nomination last year, wrote on his campaign website before switching to run as an independent.
There are lawsuits. Ayyadurai sued the City of Cambridge for pursuing a “political vendetta” against him when it claimed the anti-Warren campaign sign he had draped on a former school bus that he and volunteers retrofitted for the campaign violated city ordinances.
The sign declares “Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian,” and includes a picture of himself next to a Photoshopped image of Warren in a headdress. The city backed off after he sued.
Now he’s suing the University of Massachusetts for excluding him from a Senate debate. (The Globe is a cosponsor of this debate.)
“If we only say Geoff Diehl and Elizabeth Warren, well what about this dark-skinned Indian guy who’s an American, who went through the American journey, who busted his butt to go to MIT. . . . Why is he left out? Is it because his campaign has captivated people? Is it because he is a street fighter — meaning he knows how to fight, he grew up in New Jersey, and he can be a statesman?” Ayyadurai lamented, sitting in the dim belly of his campaign bus, most of its windows blocked by two giant anti-Warren banners, as it thrummed down the highway in late September at roughly the decibel level of a jet engine.
“But when you limit this discourse to two — which is really one,” he continued, referencing his view that the Republican and Democratic parties are really part of the same oppressive establishment dedicated to maintaining the status quo, “what are we offering our kids? Is that really freedom? And I would say that ultimately we are all slaves in some sense if that’s what we’re being given.”
And, of course, there’s Trump. Perhaps it will come as no surprise that Ayyadurai would not be in this race if it weren’t for the president. Casting a ballot for Trump in 2016 was the first time he voted, Ayyadurai said.
Despite his penchant for online outrage, Ayyadurai sounded perfectly civil, if discursive, as he talked to a reporter at a handmade table bolted to the floor of the former school bus and shaking wildly.
He discussed policy ideas, like his plan to have the Postal Service launch a “public Internet” to protect free speech from private companies such as Facebook and Google. (“A brilliant solution!” he says Dilbert creator Scott Adams told him.) He wants to lower health care costs by creating a direct-pay health care system and improving access to organic food, to address racism and unemployment by beefing up vocational training, and to install term limits. He wants to crack down on agriculture giant and weed-killer-maker Monsanto and the proliferation of genetically modified food.
As far as candidate biographies go, his is compelling, imbued, in his telling, with a powerful American Dream theme. His parents overcame the lowest rung of India’s cruel caste system through education and hard work, immigrating to New Jersey when Ayyadurai was 7. He recalled how he was wearing shorts when he walked off the plane and it was snowing.
He continued his parents’ studious hard work. At age 14, he claims, he invented e-mail. His assertion is bitterly disputed by many in the tech world. Twice he’s sued media outlets who dared to disparage his claim.
He says he applied with a pencil, at the last minute, to MIT. He eventually earned four degrees there, culminating with a doctorate in biological engineering. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to study the intersection of Eastern and Western medicine traditions in his native India.
He’s launched successful startups, including in 1994 a company that would become EchoMail, which helps companies handle incoming customer e-mail and boasted big clients like AT&T and Nike in its heyday but is now much-downsized.
But Ayyadurai has a decidedly uncivil side that comes out elsewhere on the trail and online.
In late May, he freely tossed around the n-word during a podcast that was hosted by someone that People for the American Way, a liberal group, describes as an “open white nationalist.” Ayyadurai was discussing a tweet he sent a few weeks earlier declaring that “we’re all [n-word] on the White Liberal Deep State Reservation! Only when we break free and be Independent of both Establishment parties, are we truly free.”
In July, Ayyadurai used a bullhorn to hector Warren supporters waiting in line to see her, a typical campaign stunt for him and his clutch of supporters, except this time a 74-year-old Warren backer took offense at being called a racist. Video shows the man, wearing a T-shirt that says “Liberal,” cross the street to confront him as Ayyadurai taunted him as “racist” and “a white supremacist.”
The Warren supporter shoved the megaphone as Ayyadurai did this, bloodying the candidate’s lip.
That Ayyadurai was not evident as he stepped in front of those high school students. Between his tailored pinstripe suit with no tie, and the shiny blond wood and stadium seating of the classroom, he looked more like the MIT lecturer he once was than the caustic force seen online and outside Warren events.
America’s two-party system is “all controlled by the same plutocratic class,” he told the two dozen or so teenagers at Franklin High School. “This is not a conspiracy theory.”
Trump’s election, he told them, came about because “a whole wave of people started waking up” and rejecting the establishment, he said.
“The Renaissance took place in chaos and plague. . . . And what I saw with Trump’s victory was that he was creating a chaotic situation, which opened a window to perhaps have a real discussion,” he said. “You know, expose the fact that Elizabeth Warren is part of the not-so-obvious establishment.”
His team “worked their butt off” to gather more than the 10,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot, “and the mainstream media, the nonprofits, are denying us a place on the debate stage. Which is an attack on you, because that means you get the same old, same old, two-party system. Why is the dark-skinned Indian guy who came out of MIT, who’s an American, who has a wide range of thoughts, not allowed on the debate stage?” he asked the class.
“So I’m going to end with that so we can have a conversation,” he concluded. After a round of polite applause, he asked the teacher who had organized his appearance, “Is that OK on time? Because I could keep going.”Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.