By Kenneth Tiven
Vivek Ramaswamy used a breakout performance at the first Republican debate to demonstrate his rhetorical imitation of ex-president Donald Trump’s ideology and belligerence. Fellow panellists fixated on his lack of political experience, but Ramaswamy emerged the star of the show. The paradox is obvious: America has voted a businessman with no political experience as president earlier.
Ramaswamy’s run comes at a time when American politics is in ferment. Last week, a phone poll asked me for an opinion on the unprecedented multiple indictments of the ex-president. It felt like the wrong question. What is unprecedented is Trump’s alleged criminal behaviour and his non-stop insistence he won in 2020.
A new poll from Politico Magazine/Ipsos finds Trump’s indictments are not good news, politically or individually regarding his re-election. A majority—61%—of Americans want his trials to be held before the election and 51% believe he should go to prison if convicted. Politico notes that a substantial minority of Americans—about a third—say they’re not that familiar with the charges against Trump, especially in the classified documents illegally taken home to Mar-a-Lago. This is an evidentiary matter which suggests there’s plenty of latitude for deepening pessimism on the part of voters as the more serious indictments are litigated in the months ahead. A deeper look at the numbers shows that while 26% believe he is not guilty, 22% say they don’t know. Bottom line math: the official Republican Party public line—that Trump is innocent and the prosecutions are an abuse of power—appeal to perhaps just over 20% of the population, regardless of how much noise they make about this.
Meanwhile, the man making the most noise and media attention is Ramaswamy. He exudes certitude, the personal belief he has the skills, policies, and personality the position requires. His polling numbers spiked following the debate, but since then the numbers have barely moved. Perhaps, because Trump’s legal entanglements have sucked up most of the political oxygen in America, as well as Republican donations to help pay his legal bills. Ramaswamy’s political pronouncements seem more thoughtful since the debate accomplished what he needed there. His willingness to compare some prominent Black American leaders to Ku Klux Klan wizards was shocking. Yet his support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was less so because isolationism has been an animating tenant of conservative thinking in the US with opposition to involvement in both World Wars One and Two.
Nikki Haley, the Indian-American former governor of South Carolina, criticized Ramaswamy as having no understanding of foreign policy, perhaps having forgotten about GOP opposition to defending Europe against fascism. Haley opened her debate with a courageous denunciation of Trump and his policies, saying: “Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.” Yet two hours later, she said she would support Trump if he were the Republican nominee, notwithstanding his multiple legal indictments and any possible convictions. So much for consistent courage. An American comedian and social critic said: “When I was younger, I lied all the time, because once you understand the power of lying, it’s really like magic because you transform reality for people.” This thinking, amplified by constant repetition, has become a hallmark of political expression.
In 2016, consider that Republicans endlessly shouted for Hillary Clinton to be locked up for having a personal email server. This year, the trope that won’t stop is President Biden’s age and health. Trump, a relative youngster at 77, spent a day raging against judges, prosecutors and Biden while posting 102 social media comments, including 31 video clips of himself. Social network poster Ron Filipkowski said: “Pretty comical to hear the Projection King say about Biden: ‘I believe that he has gone mad. A stark raving lunatic.’”
Biden will be heading for India for a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi before the G-20 Summit in New Delhi.
Then there is Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell, who just had a second episode of freezing up for more than 30 seconds, standing motionless in mid-sentence at a press conference. He’s 81. The trope that Biden is mentally and physically impaired is an exaggeration repeated endlessly as if the stressed physical and mental condition of former president Trump was somehow not obvious to millions of people watching him on television.
Into this fermenting cask of misinformation, it is no surprise that Vivek Ramaswamy is capable of contradicting himself from day to day on policy issues, American history, and his accomplishments as a businessman. Many media sources will repeat untruths to an audience now addicted to consuming only information with which they agree.
Meanwhile, the former president waived his arraignment and pleaded not guilty to the Georgia state racketeering conspiracy charges against him. He wants nothing to do with a speedy trial in Georgia as several of the other 18 indicted persons desire. His chief of staff Mark Meadows wants his case moved to a federal court in an effort to improve his chances for getting the case dismissed. In Washington convicted Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and other paramilitary types involved in the January 6 insurrection at the capitol received substantial prison sentences for their part.
Trying to elevate the fear of a Biden victory, Jeff Roe, an advisor to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, says that Biden will defeat Trump in November because of Trump fatigue, the abortion and gun issues. He warns that a Biden sweep will make Republicans a permanent minority party because Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia will become the 51st and 52nd states, thereby giving Democrats long term control of Congress.
The media has whistled past the graveyard of democracy for eight years. It begs the question: Can’t they recognize this is not simply another election to be gamified in pursuit of clicks and audience ratings?
As for Ramaswamy, he has toned down his earlier rhetoric, but is still making some controversial statements, using social media as an election tool. In his latest X (Twitter) post he said: “Faith, patriotism, hard work and family are on the decline. That leaves a moral vacuum in its wake. Climateism, Covidism, transgenidology fill the void. We need to fill that void with truth.” He is also, as he describes it, “anti-wokeism,” and says that he is in the US presidential race because he expects to be the Republican nominee and lead the country forward. He’s certainly not lacking in confidence, but his shoot-from-the-hip style of answering questions could become a problem.
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels