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Donald Trump’s conspiracist challenger offers a chilling vision of the right’s future

Vivek Ramaswamy’s moment in the sun signifies that Trump is only the beginning

With the debate stage in Milwaukee bathed in blue light, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy greets admirers in the audience. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty

You need to know about Vivek Ramaswamy – and not only because he is running for the US presidency. In most polling, the 38-year-old biotech tycoon is in third place for the Republican nomination, behind Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, who himself trails Donald Trump by a whopping 44 points. For all his self-belief (and he has plenty of that), the chances of Ramaswamy being the GOP candidate, let alone the 47th president, are very small indeed.

What makes him important is what he represents, and what his audacious campaign tells us about the direction of travel that the populist right will take from now on. At the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee last Wednesday, he differentiated himself brazenly from his rivals – including former vice-president Mike Pence, DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – with a combination of sheer impertinence and generational swagger. This is not to say that he won the rhetorical contest. But he was indisputably its star.

Like Trump (who was conspicuously absent from the debate), Ramaswamy is dismissive of the party he aspires to represent. His loyalty lies instead with the MAGA movement which, as he puts it, “is bigger than Donald Trump, it is bigger than me, it is bigger than any one of us. This is a movement that will outlive Donald Trump”.

It is this insistence that lies at the heart of his campaign (into which he has already sunk $15m of his own money) and its broader significance. Since 2016, many progressives have concluded, tacitly or otherwise, that Trump’s victory, Brexit and other populist right uprisings were aberrations, driven by a very specific suite of social, cultural and economic forces, and that normal service will be resumed soon. But Ramaswamy – the first millennial to run for the GOP candidacy – personifies the folly of such hopes.

Around the world, the populist movement has not called a halt to product development. The DeSantis variant was engineered in the lab to give MAGA an aura of Ivy League seriousness and competent leadership. But it is not flourishing in the political field (the Florida governor did not perform well in Milwaukee).

Ramaswamy’s pitch is very different. It flows explicitly from his youth, his entrepreneurialism and the spirit of generational optimism in which he wraps his nationalist creed. “I’m able to even go further than Trump did for our own ‘America First’ base,” he says.

What does this amount to? First, Ramaswamy has a deep understanding of the post-2016 political landscape and the transformative forces that Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Giorgia Meloni and others have already turned to their advantage.

In this new world, the most precious currency is attention. It matters more than experience, wisdom, credentials or persuasive argument. This is why Trump’s four indictments, the 91 criminal charges made against him, and the menacing mugshot taken when he was arrested at the Fulton County Jail on Thursday have only boosted his popularity with Republican voters.

It is also why, second, Ramaswamy devotes so much time to digital campaigning and, in particular, to long-form interview podcasts. Like Robert F Kennedy Jr, Joe Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination, he grasps that cable news is no longer the dominant medium in political campaigns and that an appearance on, say, The Joe Rogan Experience, will reach tens of millions of voters rather than (in the case of CNN) a few hundred thousand.

On stage, he specialises in demotic attacks upon his rivals; online he quotes Hobbes, Hayek and Wittgenstein. He flirts dangerously with conspiracy theories, claiming that “the government” has not been truthful about 9/11 and insinuating that “government agents” were involved in the January 6 insurrection. Until recently, such reckless speculation would have consigned a presidential contender to well-deserved oblivion; but no longer.

Third, Ramaswamy represents an unapologetic hardening of the MAGA strategy rather than (as would have been expected under pre-2016 rules) an opportunistic moderation of its harsher features. Though he has the countenance and demeanour of a sneaker-wearing tech bro, he is ferociously right wing, proposing, for example: the use of military force to secure the southern border (like Suella Braverman, he describes illegal immigration as an “invasion”); the abolition of many federal agencies including the FBI, the IRS and the Department of Education, accompanied by the sacking of 75% of the federal workforce; a sharp turn away from the “hoax” of the “climate-change agenda”; and American isolationism of a sort that would delight Charles Lindbergh. According to Ramaswamy, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky are just “two thugs sorting out differences in eastern Europe”.

In this country, the Conservative Party is following a similar, if not identical trajectory. To realise that this is so, one only has to recall the National Conservative conference held in London in May, or the launch in July of “New Conservatives”, a group of more than 25 Tory MPs demanding an even tougher line on immigration and social conservatism.

Look at the growing demand on the right for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (or, as one cabinet minister put it to me, “to finish the job that Brexit started”). Look at Rishi Sunak’s shifting position on climate change and his denunciation of “eco-zealots”. Look at the Conservative fixation with “wokery” – a fixation that is shared with Ramaswamy, whose Woke, Inc.: Inside the Social Justice Scam (2021) was a New York Times bestseller. The “cold cultural civil war” that he identifies is now deeply wired into the Tory psyche.

Ramaswamy may yet fizzle out. There are still four and a half months to go until the formal primary process begins with the Iowa caucuses. But he is already a consequential candidate. In the years to come, there will be others like him.

What Ramaswamy’s moment in the sun shows is that, in contemporary politics, Trumpism and its international counterparts are not a bug but a feature. It signifies something both profound and deeply unpalatable: that Trump is only the beginning.

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