More than a decade and a half after Vivek Ramaswamy was described as an intense “debater-extraordinaire” in The Harvard Crimson in December 2006, he took centre stage at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee as one of the top two candidates.
Depending on who you ask, the biotech entrepreneur came out of the 23 August showdown as either the winner or the candidate who took the most punches from his more senior colleagues.
For part of his undergraduate career, Mr Ramaswamy headed the Harvard Political Union, a role in which he was referred to as simply “The Chairman”. In a moment of foresight, Mr Ramaswamy told The Crimson that “I consider myself a contrarian. I like to argue.”
“Harvard teaches you to be a better questioner… you can be heard even if you aren’t in the mainstream,” he told the school paper.
During the debate on 23 August, former Vice President Mike Pence attacked his age and inexperience, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, clearly frustrated at his lack of foreign policy knowledge, ranted at him about his policy of cutting aid to Ukraine and handing over large swathes of land to Russia.
He drew boos from the audience as he declared the climate crisis to be a “hoax” as even younger conservatives appear to be taking the issue more seriously when growing cities like Phoenix suffer 100+ degrees for days on end and people get burn injuries from touching the pavement.
More than 16 years have passed since The Crimson wrote about “Da Vek”, his rapping act. The student paper described the then 21-year-old Mr Ramaswamy as performing “libertarian prose with the utmost of ease”.
Da Vek “only emerges when Ramaswamy is outfitted entirely in black, complete with a black Kangol hat”, the paper added.
In 2023, that’s no longer true – Mr Ramaswamy was seen bringing back his old act at the Iowa State Fair, performing Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” – this time in a white polo and a red trucker hat.
Vivek Ramaswamy is performing Lose Yourself at the Iowa State Fair: pic.twitter.com/mCEMIfijZM
— Dylan Wells (@dylanewells) August 12, 2023
In 2006, he said it was the theme song of his life.
“I think that children should be forced to listen to it,” he told The Crimson. “The edited version, of course.”
“He was willing to get out there and have fun and be silly,” a college friend of Mr Ramaswamy, Nicholas Green, tells The Independent. “I think that was why people enjoyed talking to him, even if they disagreed with him – he wasn’t that person that was strident or condescending.”
In late August, Eminem asked the Ramaswamy campaign to stop using the song.
During his time at Harvard, Mr Ramaswamy debated for the university’s Republican Club and was active at the Institute of Politics.
He was on the Presidential Search Committee and a part of the South Asian Association. A nationally-ranked tennis player in his youth, he did his “debate prep” on the court ahead of the Wisconsin bout.
‘A boundless capacity to get things done’
“Vivek has a boundless capacity to get things done,” Mr Green was quoted as saying in The Crimson in 2006.
“I don’t remember saying that,” Mr Green tells The Independent more than 15 years later. “But I’d say if a strong statement like that could be an understatement, it was. And what he’s achieved since then I think reflects that.”
Now the co-founder and CEO of Thrive Market in Santa Monica, California, Mr Green says: “He and I were in the same house in Kirkland House. He was super active in the house, and you’d see him sitting in the dining hall, talking about anything with anyone.”
Mr Ramaswmay “had a big personality,” and was a “gregarious” individual with a “genuine interest in other people”. It was obvious that he had “big ideas and strong points of view”, but he was also “the guy that would be listening and asking questions. So I think he was very well-liked,” Mr Green adds.
Mr Ramaswamy is the son of Indian immigrants brought up in Ohio.
They got married in 2015 and have two sons.
Mr Ramaswamy's younger brother Shankar worked for him at one of his companies, Axovant, before going on to establish the biopharmaceutical company Kriya Therapeutics.
His father, V Ganapathy Ramaswamy, worked as an engineer and patent attorney at General Electric and his mother, Geetha Ramaswamy, was a geriatric psychiatrist during her career.
After leaving Harvard, Mr Ramaswamy made hundreds of millions of dollars in pharmaceuticals and biotech. In 2021, he released a book, Woke Inc, slamming business ideas focusing on equity and sustainability.
“He wrote that book before even the term ‘woke’ was really in the broad lexicon,” Mr Green says. “And he and I have definitely debated on some issues – I have different perspectives about the role of a mission in a business, the role of shareholders versus stakeholders, and the CEO of a public benefit corporation ... But I will give him a lot of credit for taking a stance purely from a principal position. And I think that position was prescient given the debate that’s now very much in the mainstream.”
But Mr Green adds that politics has “never interfered with our friendship. And I think that’s a real testament to him”.
‘You need to go where the passion and energy is’
Reflecting on Mr Ramaswamy’s focus on being anti-woke, Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, tells The Independent that “if you’re running this insurgent campaign ... he’s not going to get major politicians endorsing him or have a huge ground game, it’s based more on the potential you’re gonna catch fire”.
“So you need to go where the passion and energy is. And in fairness to him, these were the things he was talking about prior to running for president,” he adds.
Before announcing his campaign, Mr Ramaswamy made frequent appearances on right-wing media outlets, such as Fox News, criticising liberals for being concerned about identity politics.
While he was seen as fearless by his classmates back at university, and by many of his supporters now, Mr Ramaswamy told The Crimson that he wished he could have been “a little more tactful” during his undergraduate years.
‘These candidates just find Ramaswamy deeply annoying’
Several political observers suggested after the debate in Milwaukee that Mr Ramaswamy didn’t end up the centre of attention because he was seen as a bigger threat than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but simply because his opponents found him annoying.
McKay Coppins of The Atlantic wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter that his “working theory” on the frequent and aggressive attacks on the 38-year-old is that it wasn’t “strategic”.
“These candidates just find Ramaswamy—both his personal style and much of his worldview—deeply annoying,” he wrote, adding that Mr Ramaswamy ended up being a “proxy” for Mr Trump for the other candidates to go after.
Joy Reid of MSNBC said that Mr Ramaswamy was like “your annoying freshman roommate in college” and that it was unclear what he was trying to do “other than to be provocative”.
Vivek Ramaswamy called “your annoying freshman roommate in college”, a “snappy podcast host”, and “running to be Jesse Watters’ fill-in”. (Video: MSNBC) pic.twitter.com/cxT6To3Cte
— Mike Sington (@MikeSington) August 24, 2023
Mr Green says that when they were at university together, Mr Ramaswamy was “someone that people enjoyed interacting with – and regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with him on any given issue, found him to be fun and always an interesting person to spend time with”.
‘He is exactly what GOP voters crave these days’
Charlie Sykes of the Bulwark tweeted after the debate: “Vivek is a facile, clownish, shallow, shameless, pandering demagogue, but he is exactly what GOP voters crave these days. So, he will likely get a bump in the polls, at least in the short-run.”
Mr Green tells The Independent that Mr Ramaswamy “could literally riff on any issue”.
“My finding with him was that he always had a great point of view that was always extraordinarily well informed by research and facts and thinking that he’d done. But he also asked really good questions,” he adds.
He ended up being a “great litmus test for one’s own point of view,” Mr Green says.
Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and co-founder of The Lincoln Project, tweeted after the debate that Mr Ramaswamy “represents the most obviously anti-American, pro-Putin candidate since Donald Trump. In that regard, he’s even less subtle than Trump was about wanting to give up America’s allies and interests around the world and roll over for a murderous dictator”.
A few weeks before the debate, in a phone interview with The Independent, Mr Wilson said: “I think if Donald Trump offered Ramaswamy the position of vice president, he would kill his own dog to have that job.”
A man with ‘wacky charisma’ to appeal to ‘kooky libertarians’
The strategist added that Mr Ramaswamy is the “spiritual inheritor of the Ron Paul track” in a GOP primary.
Mr Paul, 88, the father of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, spent decades in and out of the US House as a representative for Texas between 1976 and 2013. He was the presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party in 1988 and ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012.
Mr Wilson refers to this slice of the electorate as “kooky libertarian” where Mr Ramaswamy may appeal with his “wacky charisma”.
“Traditionally, that has not been sufficient to get you home in the primary. Like, not even close,” he adds.
Mr Wilson says that while Mr Ramaswamy is “good on camera,” he has gained traction as a result of the collapse of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“He’s been a much more effective presence on social media and earned more media than a lot of the rest of them. He’s an unknown quantity,” he says. “He’s not a politician. He’s not an elected official. That is something that has a lot of appeal inside today’s Republican Party.”
“But again, we are still looking at the guy whose best-case scenario is being Trump’s Secretary of Transportation. His chances of actually winning [are] de minimis,” he adds.
“Part of the success he’s had has been still having … provocative points of view, but also really open to engage in a dialogue, hearing criticism, taking feedback, doing interviews with outlets that probably don’t agree with him,” Mr Green says. “And he was definitely like that, in the dining hall at Kirkland.”
Asked why he thinks Mr Ramaswamy is running for president, Mr Lowry says: “As the first Queen Elizabeth said, I don’t have a window into men’s souls.”
“But I would say it has the classic feel of a campaign that it wants to make a point but he also wants to raise his profile for other things down the road, whenever they might be,” he adds. “Maybe it’s something else politically, another campaign, maybe it’s business, maybe it’s media. He would obviously vehemently deny that. But that’s certainly what it looks like.”
“He’s just good at this, right?” Mr Lowry says. “There’s no substitute for being good at this. He likes being at the centre of attention, he has a knack for getting attention, and is clearly enjoying himself.”
“None of that means you should run for president or be president,” Mr Lowry notes, adding that Mr Ramaswamy’s message is perfect for the current mood of the Republican Party.
“Combating the woke stuff, ending the FBI, having Trump’s back, which is a little weird if ultimately you’re gonna beat him,” he says.
Ramaswamy’s ten principles
Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told The Independent in an email that “In my interactions with Vivek, I have found him to be intelligent, articulate, engaging, and highly solicitous of outside advice and counsel”.
“His ten principles ‘that are true’ have resonated powerfully at the grassroots. He’s also a happy warrior with a good temperament, which matters in a campaign that is a marathon and can become a long slog for candidates. Vivek is definitely one to keep an eye on,” he added.
Mr Ramaswamy’s 10 principles, which form the basis of his campaign, are as follows:
1. God is real.
2. There are two genders.
3. Human flourishing requires fossil fuels.
4. Reverse racism is racism.
5. An open border is no border.
6. Parents determine the education of their children.
7. The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.
8. Capitalism lifts people up from poverty.
9. There are three branches of the US government, not four.
10. The US Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedoms in history.
It’s a list of red meat for conservatives involving all of the new Republican right’s favourite issues – defending religious conservatives, bashing progressives on social issues, denying the existence of the climate crisis, slamming migrants, and for good measure, giving the media a good kick.
Speaking about their time at Harvard, Mr Green says “I think what stood out most about his views is he’s extraordinarily principled. And at the time, it was really around being libertarian”.
“I think his views have evolved since then,” he says, adding that what holds true today is Mr Ramaswamy’s passion for the “ideals of the founding fathers”.
“His philosophy, in terms of how you use the scepticism towards entrenched power in government, the commitment to the Founding Fathers’ principles, being a student of history, those things were very intact in college. And I think [they were] part of the reason that he did become a leader in those organisations,” Mr Green says.
“If you had asked me then ‘Who in our class do you think would be most likely to be president at some point in the future?’ I suspect Vivek’s name would have been at the top of the list,” he adds.
Mr Green notes that while he’s not surprised that Mr Ramaswamy is entering the political realm, he’s surprised that he’s choosing to do so at this time.
“His parents were immigrants and he will be the first to tell you that he’s been the beneficiary of meritocracy and some of the things he believes this country stands for,” Mr Green says. “I think the reason that ... he’s running for president is because he believes those things are imperilled.”
‘He’s hoping for some exogenous event, some externality that blows up Trump’
Mr Wilson says that “like all the people in this race, he’s hoping for some exogenous event, some externality that blows up Trump – Trump gets eaten by a shark or dies of a heart attack or whatever it is, and they become the chosen one”.
The Republican strategist adds that there’s a “profound Christian bias” within the Republican Party, meaning that Mr Ramaswamy, a Hindu, may struggle with these voters.
These evangelicals “are a meaningful and dangerous part of the political equation for him,” Mr Wilson says.
While it doesn’t disqualify him, it will make it harder in early states such as Iowa and South Carolina, “which are hardcore, evangelical Christian states,” Mr Wilson notes.
Asked about Mr Ramaswamy’s possible cross-party appeal, the ex-GOP strategist says: “He’s got this libertarian thing that in a lot of ways is probably disqualifying with broader moderate Democrats. It doesn’t sing to them the way it does in the minds and hearts of hardcore Republicans.”
Mr Wilson thinks that after this election, Mr Ramaswamy will probably “have built up enough credibility and his email list to be able to go and compete somewhere statewide. I don’t know if that’s Ohio. The guy has options and the old thing of carpetbaggers doesn’t really matter anymore”.
Mr Green tells The Independent that “I think a lot of people at Harvard, their success, their ambitions, even their achievements, were driven by insecurity or neurosis or a workaholic tendency”.
“I think Vivek’s very different – he was really passionate about the things that he studied,” he says, adding that “he’s as much a people person as an academic”.
While Mr Green calls Mr Ramaswamy, “intellectually honest to a fault,” the candidate has faced criticism from those who argue he’s willing to say anything to get ahead.
He has made inaccurate claims about the climate crisis, the insurrection on January 6, 2021, as well as about his own previous comments and stances.
Appearing on Fox News, even Sean Hannity called him out for attempting to backtrack on previous statements he made about Israel.
Hannity: You said aid to Israel should end in 2028.
Ramaswamy: That’s false
Hannity: That was the exact quote. You want me to read it? pic.twitter.com/SUS2XooAK1
— Acyn (@Acyn) August 29, 2023
Mr Lowry says his “self-confidence is a huge part” of why Mr Ramaswamy has been able to cut through the noise.
He also mentions his “fluidity of speech” and his “pungent and pointed way of speaking”.
“Donald Trump isn’t the cause of what happened on January 6,” Mr Ramaswamy has said. “The real cause was systematic and pervasive censorship of citizens in the year leading up to it. If you tell people they can’t speak, that’s when they scream. If you tell people they can’t scream, that’s when they tear things down.”
“That’s a memorable way of expressing what he’s trying to get at. And something he clearly thought about, and has a certain music to it,” Mr Lowry says.
Asked if he thinks Mr Ramaswamy has a chance of winning a single Republican contest in the spring, Mr Lowry says, “I’ve been surprised before [but] I’d be very surprised”.
Mr Green says Mr Ramaswamy’s contrarianism comes from a “desire to get to the truth” and is not motivated by ego or a desire to simply be right.
The CEO says his old friend has a commitment to what he “believes is true,” something which came under scrutiny after Mr Ramaswamy’s comments suggesting government involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Mr Ramaswamy claimed to have been misquoted by The Atlantic, prompting the outlet to publish the audio of its interview, confirming the statement.
“I also think he’s just fundamentally a nice kind person who’s empathic and likes people ... his personal style is not one of bludgeoning or levelling an ad hominem attack,” Mr Green adds. “I’ve never seen him be disrespectful to someone.”
WATCH: In 2003, Rev. Al Sharpton schools a young student named Vivek Ramaswamy who questioned the then-presidential candidate's political experience. https://t.co/NKp94fHi4d pic.twitter.com/55btP73Bgx
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) August 29, 2023
In 2003, Mr Ramaswamy, then aged 18, appeared on an MSNBC town hall with Rev Al Sharpton, who was running for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 primary.
“Of all the Democratic candidates out there, why should I vote for the one with the least political experience?” he asked.