Vivek Ramaswamy is leaning into economic populist messaging as he looks to distinguish himself from the other Republican primary contenders in the presidential contest.
He’s talking about “revolution” and labels his opponents “super PAC puppets.” He applauds small-dollar donations and calls his campaign a “grassroots uprising.” He criticizes the mainstream media and praises anti-establishment figures on both the right and left.
Parts of Ramaswamy’s rhetoric echoes that of insurgent figures across the political spectrum, including former President Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), raising questions about whether this playbook will equate to a similar rise in popularity for the Republican upstart.
As the young tech investor aims to shake up the GOP primary, progressives want no association with him. They see him as Trumpian in style and substance and denounce any crossover between his campaign and their favorite figures on the left.
“Revolution over reform,” Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, this week, one of many musings meant to inspire a groundswell of support from the outside.
Many say he’s offensive and view his campaign as a grift, taking parts of both parties’ populist streaks as he sees fit.
“He’s a fake populist using revolutionary language to cover for a largely billionaire friendly agenda,” Krystal Ball, host of the leftist podcast “Breaking Points” and author of “The Populist’s Guide to 2020,” told The Hill. “He does not want to get money out of politics.”
“He does want to protect fossil fuel profits. And he would keep the war machine churning in China and Mexico,” she added.
As Ball suggests, Ramaswamy shares essentially nothing ideologically with Democrats from either wing of the party. He came under fire for using the word “hoax” in the same sentence as climate change during the Fox News debate in August and is socially conservative on issues like transgender rights and affirmative action. He most recently caught the ire of civil rights leaders for characterizing Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a Black congresswoman and Squad member, as a “modern grand wizard” of the KKK — a comment he did not retract.
While his policy positions and personal gripes about “woke” identity politics are indeed objectionable to Democrats, Ramaswamy does overlap with the left when it comes to certain areas of campaign strategy, such as his broad critique about the country’s establishment class.
“He is a shape-shifter with no conviction whatsoever,” said Nina Turner, a top surrogate and former co-chairwoman of Sanders’s 2020 campaign. “The type of revolution he is calling for is one towards … bigotry and hatred.”
Sanders, whose presidential campaigns are synonymous with the word revolution, effectively criticized decades of centrism by pointing out politicians’ ties to corporations. The senator’s embrace of small contributions was part of a larger rejection of super PACs spending millions of dollars to influence policy in Washington. Many progressives have won down ballot with that approach.
“People like myself or Sen. Sanders or anybody else that’s considered a leader on the progressive left, members of the Squad and others, are really just calling for wholesale systemic changes that will help lift material conditions,” said Turner. “Even for people who may not even believe in the change we’re calling for.”
As it became a powerful mobilizing tool on the left, progressives say it was Trump who, in their eyes, cynically was able to rally enough people around those grievances to make it worth replicating on the right. Liberals see Ramaswamy’s use of grassroots messaging as equally brazen and prefer to link him to the former president than the progressive movement’s parallel appeal.
“Trump is really the one who first rolled out this rhetorical style on the right, and I see Vivek as taking his inspiration from Trump and trying to copy his political formula,” said Ball.
Peter Daou, a prominent activist and critic who has been outspoken against President Biden and centrist Democrats, said that Ramaswamy’s language is not particularly innovative. But it does come with a very specific warning for the party in power looking to remain in the White House.
“I see it as typical populist language, but from the right,” he said.
Free-flowing talk about a revolution and emphasis on the need to form a “multiethnic working-class” coalition come with their own challenges for Democrats, especially when the Trump wing also uses such tactics effectively for their side, progressives say.
The fact that Biden doesn’t speak that way, and is not offering a similar rhetorical counter, could be problematic if faced with another populist opponent, some on the left argue.
Biden’s administration is filled with Democrats who are less outspoken about political uprisings, insurgencies and movement politics and govern in a more traditional way. Some Democrats have expressed concerns about that when faced with rivals like Trump and Ramaswamy as a newer face.
“It’s going to cost Democrats not being willing to shake up the system. Or even talking about it,” said Daou. “‘More of the same’ or ‘let’s finish the job’ is weak,” he said in a not-so-subtle reference to Biden’s plea to voters for a second term in office.
Trump and Ramaswamy have praised each other at various junctures of the campaign. On Tuesday, Trump said he’d be open to considering the millennial businessman as a running mate should he win the nomination for the third time. “I tell you, I think he’d be very good,” Trump told host Glenn Beck, who had referred to him tongue-in-cheek as “Vice President Ramaswamy.”
There is no such admiration on the left. Progressives have not so much as even hinted that he’s brought needed attention to their long-standing crusade against money in politics and the power of grassroots movements. They’re careful not to prop up a figure that they see as ideologically similar to Trump, but without an existing base.
“Ramaswamy is a slick politician posing as an outsider, but I’ll always take yes for an answer,” said Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks.” “If he is running with no corporate PAC money, then that’s commendable. If he actually wants to end the private financing of elections, which is just legalized bribery, then great.”
“But I don’t trust him at all because everything else he says is contradictory, and the rest of his policies support corporate rule.”
For all the initial intrigue around Ramaswamy’s campaign, for now, his support seems to be malleable. Democrats were delighted when, after his center-stage debate performance where he was targeted by his fellow rivals, he dropped in standing with voters. A poll from Morning Consult depicted a higher unfavorability number after the Fox News debate aired.
Ramaswamy did not respond to a request for comment over text message.
“He is the antithesis to the type of revolution that the progressive left is calling for,” said Turner. “He can try and use the words of the progressive left, but he’s a phony.”
“I do believe that ultimately his tactics are going to backfire on him because he has no conviction,” she said.