Thursday, 1 Jun 2023

Opinion | Vivek Ramaswamy vs. the Void

GOOSE LAKE, Iowa — “We’re like a bunch of blind bats. We human beings are, we millennials are, we Americans are,” Vivek Ramaswamy riffed. “We can’t see where we are.”

Bats send sonar signals, which bounce off fixed points and allow the mammal to navigate. “So we do that, we send out our signals and it bounces off something that is true, something that is real — like family. The two parents who brought me into this world, my mother and father; the two children who I brought into this world,” he went on. “That is real. That is true. That means something to me.”

In person, the Vivek Ramaswamy presentation is a lot more intense; it is also about a bleaker landscape of American life than the bright version of Trumpism he’s trying to project.

“We’re hungry for a cause,” he said of millennials when he spoke on a recent Friday night in Iowa, in a navy suit and white dress shirt, not pausing too often for applause and walking the stage. “We’re hungry for purpose and meaning. And identity. At a point in our national history when the things that used to fill that void — things like faith, patriotism, hard work, family — these things have disappeared.” Instead, he said, “poison” and “secular cults” had taken their place.

All of this — the bats and the void and the disappearance of our families from the collective American identity — was delivered to a county committee dinner in a friendly ballroom with an open bar, buffet, patriotic decorations and a fun local musician playing country hits from the past.

This is what a pro-capitalism candidate looks like in post-Trump Republican politics, where the emphasis is on the creation of a national identity in the face of spiritual emptiness and the idea that big business and the customer aren’t always right.

The next morning, at campaign events held at one of those cool digital driving ranges and at a pizza place with a beautiful old tin ceiling, the American identity crisis talk continued. “There’s more to life than just the aimless passage of time, going through the motions,” he said standing in front of what looked like a floor-to-ceiling image of a Pebble Beach fairway. “You’re more than the genetic attributes you inherited on the day you were born,” he went onto say. “You are you.”

He is technically the business candidate, but not really. This is the elite corporate executive as culture warrior. Mr. Ramaswamy’s pitch in Iowa was not about the application of free-market principles to the federal government, at least not in that way you might expect from a pre-Trump Republican business candidate; nor was it economic populism, either, not really, because his idea isn’t so much that corporations are ripping you off, it’s that they’re in bad-faith league with each other to advance liberal pieties.

Theoretically, he could be doing a business pitch. Mr. Ramaswamy started a pharmaceutical investment and drug development company that picked up pharmaceutical projects abandoned by other companies and aimed to bring the drugs to market. In 2020, as C.E.O., he refused to support Black Lives Matter, then in 2021, was the co-author of a Wall Street Journal opinion essay arguing that online platforms were censoring people when they blocked accounts in the chaotic aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021. He has published three books critiquing the E.S.G. practices of BlackRock and other fund managers, while starting an anti-E.S.G. asset-management firm himself.

As Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review pointed out, he’s chosen to “download and internalize” MAGA moods — shutting down the FBI, replacing the ATF, raising the voting age to 25 unless you pass a civics test or serve in the military or as a first responder. These are the kind of proposals that are drafted to please and anger the right people and never happen. He’s given $10,000 to the defense fund of Daniel Penny, the man accused of second-degree manslaughter in the subway chokehold death of Jordan Neely, and his campaign is selling a coffee mug that reads “Truth.” with the words “wokeism,” “climatism” and “transgenderism” crossed out above. He’s repeatedly portrayed trans people as mentally ill.

As a Ramaswamy campaign memo recently said, “the mistake every other campaign is making is that they see their path to the nomination through Trump, when our path is alongside Trump.” In reality, many Republican politicians have seen their path “alongside” Mr. Trump, as they wait for someone else to break him like a big piñata.

He wants to restore an American identity that, in speeches, involves a lot of concepts but rarely anecdotes. That identity would involve the pursuit of excellence, which he described in an interview along vague, traditional lines — people achieving their own maximal potential, free of societal hindrance. He contended this ethic is absent from corporate life. “I think that part of this is psychological, that in the moment people feel compelled to apologize for excellence,” he told me. To “be accepted as cool,” the most successful “have to apologize for the system that got them there by sticking the word ‘stakeholder’ in front of it,” he said, and called “the racial equity agenda” an “example of prioritizing a different value.”

Mr. Ramaswamy came up in an elite world where some people employ the idea of charity or progressive impulses to get ahead, first in admissions, then in business, and they sometimes become deluded or self-interested ethical consumers. “Whatever justice is, surely it can’t be attained so incidentally, by just picking the right shirts, the right burgers and the right bankers,” Mr. Ramaswamy writes in the book “Woke, Inc.” He’s bothered by that thing many also dislike, which is a hedge fund putting in place a superficial diversity effort intended to disrupt as little as possible to prevent a lawsuit or make money, or a corporation with an aspirational brand made of cotton produced in the Xinjiang region of China.

This is the world summarized by Sam Bankman-Fried last year in a DM he later claimed he thought was off the record: “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shibboleths and so everyone likes us.”

In “Woke, Inc.,” Mr. Ramaswamy’s solution is to separate politics and business. He argues that both stakeholder capitalists and Milton Friedman devotees miss something in the corporate system we have: A sole focus on fiduciary duty and profit maximization, keeps corporations from becoming extragovernmental bodies like Dutch colonial trading companies.

But it’s also not as if the only time anyone cares about racism in America is to sell Pepsi or to get into Columbia. The practical implications of keeping business and politics separate become complicated quickly for this reason — the economy is made up of millions of individuals who live in the larger world. “This is a business,” as Dolly Parton said of her decision to remove “Dixie,” the nickname for the South often associated with the Confederacy, from the Stampede, two dinner show attractions she owns: She didn’t want to offend the prospective customer. What if Chick-fil-A wants to stay closed on Sundays? What if a company wants to market fratty beer to trans people and supporters as customers in and of themselves? What counts as maximizing profit, or respecting the employees, and what counts as politics? What is politics?

Over the last decade, many presidential candidates — especially the long-shot, unconventional kind in both parties — have talked in secular-spiritual ways about voids in American life, and the corruption among elites. There are different theories of the case (technological change, inequality, institutional decline, loneliness), including the omnipresence of corporations and the emptiness of material goods for justice. The vision that markets and capitalism would liberalize the world and accelerate the realization of a pluralistic America, full of choice and privacy and respect, has begun to dim.

Mr. Ramaswamy has isolated a problem in that vision (the hollowness of so much of corporate social policy). His national-identity-based explanation for the void is winning with some post-Trump conservative politicians who see the “power, dominion, control and punishment” Mr. Ramaswamy believes are behind climate activism in much of American elite life. It’s a lean time for the sunnier version of a capitalist pitch — in which climate change is a problem but also a business opportunity, just like the valued employees and customers in a pluralistic, ever-changing American society.

Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.

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