Vivek Ramaswamy was at the Iowa state fair, a must-visit destination for any presidential candidate, when he decided to rap.
Wearing a red cap and a baggy white polo shirt, the millennial founder of a biotech company launched into a spirited rendition of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, as the governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, edged further and further towards the edge of their shared stage.
“The whole crowd goes so loud, when he opens his mouth,” Ramaswamy rapped. The largely white crowd watched on politely.
“But the words won’t come out. He’s choking, how, everybody’s joking now but the clock’s run out time’s up, over, blaow!”
It was not a scene one usually associated with a Republican presidential candidate – especially a rightwing, deeply conservative one. But then again, the era of Donald Trump has upended almost all norms in US politics.
Getting his words out has rarely been a problem for Ramaswamy, who is the youngest candidate running for the Republican nomination. The 38-year-old son of Indian immigrants has given scores of interviews since he entered the race, and has spent more time wooing people in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire than any other candidate.
It’s working too. In some recent polls, Ramaswamy has now started to appear second only to the dominant frontrunner of Trump himself.
Before demonstrating his musical abilities, Ramaswamy had sat down with Reynolds for a “fair-side chat”, where he said as president he would fire 75% of federal employees and abolish a raft of government agencies including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which handled much of the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic – and the Department of Education.
As president he would “revive our national identity”, Ramaswamy said. For good measure, he declared “the climate change agenda” a “hoax”.
Hours after his appearance with Reynolds, Ramaswamy repeated much of the same things at the Des Moines Register newspaper’s “political soapbox”.
Onlookers seemed enthused by Ramaswamy’s combination of extreme rightwing populism and youthful energy – and by his ready willingness to engage with them directly.
“I like what he has to bring to us. He is on the same lines of where I’m at where there’s no reason to hide behind computers; actually speak to people and have open debates and talk real to people instead of being fake the way most of the world is now,” said John Meyers, a service director at a car dealership.
Meyers, 54, agreed with Ramaswamy on climate change, adding: “I believe it is a hoax. I don’t believe it’s happening in the way everybody feels it is.”
For someone who turned 38 in early August, Ramaswamy certainly has some extreme ideas: beyond just his head-in-the-sand approach to the cataclysmic environmental change happening on our planet.
He rails against “the cult of radical gender ideology” – a term which he seems to use to qualify his opposition to trans rights. Ramaswamy wants to ban “addictive social media” for under-16s, while under his leadership the federal workers whom he has not fired would see remote working – which Ramaswamy calls “pro-lazy” – brought to an end.
Like barroom bores across the country, he thinks the US has lost its “civic pride, civic identity, civic duty”. He has said affirmative action – the effort designed to ensure colleges and businesses offer equal opportunities to people of color, and people of all genders and sexual orientation – is “a cancer on our national soul”. His opposition to affirmative action, however, invariably lands on policies which may benefit Black or Latino Americans.
“Top companies now regularly disfavor qualified applicants who happen to be white or Asian,” he tweeted in June. “Time to restore colorblind meritocracy once and for all.”
Ramaswamy did not provide any evidence for his claim and did not respond to a question on the topic from the Guardian. Last year, a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that “one of the most durable and defining features of the US labor market is the 2-to-1 disparity in unemployment that exists between black and white workers”.
“African Americans have made considerable gains in high school and college completion over the last four and a half decades – both in absolute terms as well as relative to whites – and those gains have had virtually no effect on equalizing employment outcomes,” the EPI wrote.
Ramaswamy has also called Juneteenth, a federal holiday which recognizes the emancipation of Black people from slavery, a “useless” holiday.
Strikingly, he wants to strip the vote from people under 25; they can avoid being disfranchised if they agree to serve in the military or as a first responder (he did neither).
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Ramaswamy studied at Harvard and Yale before becoming a venture capitalist and investing in pharmaceutical companies, some of which focused on pharmaceutical drug development. It has made him very wealthy – his net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars – and as of late June he had loaned his own campaign $15m.
While Ramaswamy has pledged to use his business prowess to lead the US to fiscal glory, in part through revitalizing the coal industry, it is the ongoing American culture war where he has focused much of his attention.
A particular bugbear is “wokeism”. He wrote a book about the subject, and according to his website, education, capitalism, big tech companies, American Express and Mother’s Day have all been infected by wokeness, which he defines as “obsessing about race, gender and sexual orientation”.
Probably not coincidentally, all of Ramaswamy’s shtick fits in with current rightwing Republican dogma, and Trump’s agenda.
Billing his plan as “America First 2.0”, he has clung tightly to Trump’s lengthy coattails, defending the former president against the four indictments he faces. In Iowa he said Trump was the “most successful president in our century”.
What Ramaswamy offers, in his telling, is Trumpism, but with more competence, and with a youthful vigor.
He has leaned into his youth – as well as the rap he frequently mentions his prowess on the tennis court – as a point of difference from both Trump and Biden. He is also not short on confidence: in Iowa he went so far as to compare himself to the US founding fathers.
“Thomas Jefferson was 30 years old when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Alexander Hamilton was 24 at the time. Years later, he wrote the Federalist Papers, along with John Jay and James Madison. So do I think those guys were too young to set this nation into motion? You’re darned right they weren’t,” Ramaswamy said.
Jefferson was actually 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, while Hamilton, who was 19, had nothing to do with the famous breakup text, but in any case Ramaswamy’s tender years are not the only obstacle he faces.
It remains unclear whether a person of Indian descent can charm Republican voters, 85% of whom are white. In Iowa, Ramaswamy was asked by the Guardian about his experience of racial discrimination.
“I have faced racial discrimination in my life. It has come from people of diverse races. I don’t think racism is limited to one race, actually, but I also don’t let it ruin my life. Have I stubbed my toe? Yes, I have. Is it pleasant when your toe is stubbed? No, it is not but you don’t let it ruin your life. So hardship is something that happens to you; victimhood is a choice,” he said.
Hopefully Ramaswamy does not spend too much time on Truth Social, the social media network established by Trump as a safe space for his supporters to rant and rave.
On the rightwing platform Ramaswamy’s eligibility to run, as a child of immigrants, has been questioned (Ramaswamy is eligible to serve as president), while Trumpers frequently draw attention to Ramaswamy’s Indian heritage, and his Hindu faith.
Moreover, he is running in a party that undeniably has a racism problem.
A Trump supporter was arrested last week after threatening to kill Tanya Chutkan, the judge who is overseeing the election interference case against Trump in Washington. The threat against Chutkan, who is Black, included racist terms. Fani Willis, the Fulton county district attorney in Georgia who is prosecuting Trump over alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, has also received racist threats, while this week Trump himself used the word “riggers” in a social media post – which a former Trump aide described as a racial “bullhorn”.
As for Ramaswamy’s chances of winning the Republican nomination, they – along with all other candidates not named Trump – seem small at the moment.
Trump has a 40-point lead over his Republican rivals in an average of national polling, with 54.6% of party members planning to vote for the twice-impeached former president. Ramaswamy is in third place, at 6.7%, but has gone from an unknown to a near ever-present face, and on Wednesday one poll put him in second place among Republican primary voters – albeit 47 points behind Trump.
He has so far thrown everything at the key early voting states of Iowa – where he has spent at least 26 days, far more than his rivals – and New Hampshire, but it remains to be seen if ubiquity will be enough.
“He has no political background, which in this day and age could be a very big plus,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor emeritus in the department of political science at Iowa State University.
“People are tired of professional politicians. He seems to have an outgoing, engaging personality, which is what you need to have when you’re going and meeting people who have no idea who the hell you are.”
There’s no rest for a presidential candidate, and on Sunday, fresh from the fair, Ramaswamy traveled to New Hampshire, where he won applause as he railed against the “rotten, corrupt federal bureaucratic state” at a “No BS BBQ”.
The next night, Ramaswamy, who frequently pops up on the influential Fox News, was the focus of a town hall hosted by NewsNation, a right-leaning channel popular among Trump supporters, as he tries to expand his national profile.
“He will talk to any media who will have him,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
“That’s all part of the game now. You can’t just rely on Iowa and New Hampshire catapulting you. Because in some ways if you wait until then, the catapult is too late.”
People tend to like Ramaswamy. In New Hampshire, he has the highest approval rating of any Republican candidate, and people who come to his events invariably have good things to say. But Scala pointed to an old political adage that people in early-voting states “will date candidates, but marry someone else”.
“I think Ramaswamy’s dilemma is he’s generating a lot of good word of mouth, and people like what they see,” he said.
“But ultimately will they go beyond dating to actually marrying – especially if that means abandoning someone like Trump?”
• This article was amended on 21 August 2023. An earlier version said that NewsNation was “far-right”, rather than right-leaning.