How is it that tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy, a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” who has never held public office, rarely even votes, and has been on both sides of numerous issues (including his take on Donald Trump), became the hottest commodity in the Republican Party? How was he considered one of the big winners of Wednesday night’s debate (second only to Ron DeSantis in the first post-debate poll), despite his unctuous and demagogic performance?
If you want my honest answer, why should we expect anything less?
In his classic 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek wrote about “Why the Worst Get on Top.” As Hayek explained, “the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending towards totalitarianism.” Sound familiar?
I’m thankful that “totalitarianism” is not yet synonymous with America—but the larger point is that bad systems inexorably promote bad people who are willing to do what it takes to claw their way to the top. Today’s Republican Party is that kind of system.
I’ve been making this point since before Trump won the Republican nomination. And it has been repeatedly confirmed by Trump’s rise in the polls every time he gets indicted (we’re at four now)—and by his ability to effectively monetize his mugshot for fundraising purposes.
Ramaswamy’s rise is merely the latest sign of dysfunction in a party that idolizes not only Trump, but also Kanye West, Elon Musk, and Marjorie Taylor Greene (just to name three examples).
Still, Wednesday night’s debate—and the concomitant buzz surrounding Ramaswamy—reminds us that the problem isn’t Trump, per se, but a culture that rewards and incentivizes Trumpian behavior (which explains why a smart guy like Vivek would ape The Donald).
Sure, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Mike Pence held their own during the debate (even garnering some applause). But as Never Trumper and ex-Republican Bill Kristol recently observed, “…about 75-to-80 percent of the Republican electorate is now for Trump, [Ron] DeSantis, or Ramaswamy.”
Once you understand (and accept) this reality, it’s easier to make political predictions regarding the GOP. Who wins? It’s almost always the “craziest son of a bitch.” Who wins? The people who have no sense of shame. The people who are willing to kiss your butt—or slit your throat—depending on the circumstances.
In this type of culture, attributes like decency, merit, and consistency become liabilities. Asa Hutchinson is too decent (read boring) to win. But the slick and fast-talking Ramaswamy is perfectly suited to thrive in this “Give us Barabbas!” era.
The fact that people like yours truly found Ramaswamy repellent during Wednesday night’s debate only proves that we are out-of-touch with the base of today’s GOP.
But at least we’re not alone. There are numerous reasons to dislike Ramaswamy. He’s cocky. He is often wrong, but never uncertain. And he’s a suck-up; he panders to Trump (calling him “the best president of the 21st century” during the debate).
In fairness, some of these criticisms say as much about us as they do about him.
Politicians who have paid their dues are understandably resentful of a rich, young tech-bro line-skipper, besting them.
And to more jaded journalist types covering the primary, Ramaswamy is the quintessential eager beaver who wants to be the teacher’s pet. He’s Uriah Heep. He’s Eddie Haskell saying, “Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver.” Sycophantic villains long ago became tropes precisely because audiences spotted and inherently disdained them.
“The real danger is not Ramaswamy or Trump…but what our enthrallment with politicians like them says about one of our two major political parties.”
— Matt Lewis
That’s not to say the core of my criticism has to do with style. Flip-flopping on serious policy issues for cynical political reasons (as opposed to a sincere change of heart) is telling. Showing up out of the blue and thinking you have all the answers demonstrates a lack of respect, humility, and wisdom.
More specifically, his shallow political worldview (which includes an eagerness to hand over much of Ukraine to Vladimir Putin) is dangerous and borders on sinister.
Getting back to Hayek, though, the real danger is not Ramaswamy (who may just be enjoying 15 minutes of political fame) or Trump, per se, but what our enthrallment with politicians like them says about one of our two major political parties.
Politics is a lagging indicator, inasmuch as it is downstream from culture. But America eventually gets the political leaders we deserve. Eventually, our values and beliefs inform how we choose the people who will, to some degree, rule over us.
Horrifying thought, isn’t it? But don’t take my word for it. Just look at who’s leading the polls and who’s generating all the attention and clicks. Be afraid. Be very afraid.