INDIANOLA, Iowa ― A wealthy businessman and political newcomer accuses his rivals in the Republican presidential primary of being “bought and paid for.” He promises to use extreme methods to secure the United States’ borders and rails against the “deep state.” And while he sees China as an existential threat, he plans to cut a deal with Russia to end the war in Ukraine.
The comparisons between former President Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old biotech investor and self-funding Republican candidate running as a younger, more articulate tribune of Trump’s vision, are obvious. Ramaswamy’s populist brand has brought him within striking distance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in some 2024 GOP presidential polling and allowed him to stand out on the Republican presidential debate stage in Milwaukee last Wednesday.
“It’s going to take an outsider to dismantle the mechanisms of government that the others, the long-term politicians, have come to rely on,” said Bryant Alexander, an officer in the Marion County, Iowa, Republican Party, who is deciding between Trump and Ramaswamy, and summed up the two candidates’ shared appeal. “They created these institutions, and they’ve corrupted these institutions.”
Lost in Ramaswamy’s provocative rhetoric and self-styled image as a Trumpian maverick, however, is the world of difference between him and Trump on questions of economic policy. Unlike Trump, Ramaswamy supports free trade and unfettered legal immigration, wants to deprive the Fed of its mandate to reduce unemployment, and sees deregulation and tax cuts as the sole means with which to help struggling workers.
Those disagreements have not yet hurt Ramaswamy’s rise in the Republican primary. But Ramaswamy’s economic views could undermine his ability to replicate Trump’s appeal to working-class voters with a dim view of traditional Republican policies. And it’s already raising red flags for New Right devotees who see Trump’s presidency as a core set of nationalistic beliefs that supersede loyalty to Trump as an individual.
“If you go down to the real, basic philosophy of what MAGA is … it’s that all of our large decisions ― from foreign policy to immigration to trade ― have benefited the very few, while working-class Americans, specifically white working-class Americans, have been on the losing end for decades,” said Ryan Girdusky, a populist-aligned GOP consultant who is staying neutral in the Republican primary. “What of Vivek’s plans that he has specifically talked about, aside from his appreciation of Trump as a man, relates to any of those problems?”
A Free Trader With Libertarian Roots
Given Ramaswamy’s status as a first-time candidate, his bare-bones voting history and recent books provide the best insight into his core beliefs.
Ramaswamy has voted in just two presidential elections, 2004 and 2020. As a college student in 2004, and a then-registered Libertarian Party member, he says he cast a ballot for Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik. And in 2020, Ramaswamy says he voted for Trump.
In a speech at a Polk County Republican Party event in Clive, Iowa, on Friday evening, Ramaswamy described his Libertarian vote, and subsequent abstention from the process, as a product of being “badly disaffected from politics” during his young adulthood.
In an interview with the Washington Examiner in July, Ramaswamy elaborated on his transition from “libertarian to conservative,” which he said began in law school and intensified when he became a parent in 2020.
“The gist of my journey to being a conservative rather than a libertarian doesn’t actually involve abandoning most of my libertarian convictions,” he told the conservative outlet. “It actually involves caring about more issues than libertarians care about. Like, I think culture actually matters. Family actually matters.”
Unlike libertarians, who, in theory, focus solely on lifting government barriers to individual freedom, Ramaswamy wants to deport all of the country’s undocumented immigrants, identifies as “pro-life” (though he’d leave abortion restrictions to the states), and wants to ban algorithm-based social media applications for Americans under the age of 16. The 10 “truths” Ramaswamy touts at every campaign speech include at least three socially conservative declarations a devout libertarian would not touch: “God is real,” “There are two genders,” and “The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.”
But in other ways, Ramaswamy’s libertarian roots remain apparent. He wants to decriminalize marijuana and is open to making psychedelic drugs available as a way to wean people off of opiates. He would decline to reinstate Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military (though he would enact a “limited ban” for combat roles), and has no problem with adults getting gender reassignment procedures. Ramaswamy’s campaign website allows supporters to donate in Bitcoin, a popular cryptocurrency championed by libertarians.
The libertarian ethos of “free minds and free markets” extends seamlessly into Ramaswamy’s economic vision.
The starkest example is Ramaswamy’s unabashed support for free trade. In his 2022 book, “Nation of Victims” ― the second of three he has published since 2021 ― Ramaswamy wrote that while he voted for Trump in 2020, he “disapproved of his large-scale government spending and his tariff policies.”
“My first and best choice is definitely bilateral agreements with each of those countries where we each get something out of the trade.”
- Vivek Ramaswamy
Indeed, Ramaswamy wants to expand U.S. trade with other countries, including in the developing world, rather than restrict trade with tariffs. He has called for reentering the modified Trans-Pacific Partnership ― a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade accord that former President Barack Obama negotiated and Trump shelved ― maintaining that the deal is part of “declaring independence” from China.
In his interview with HuffPost on Friday though, Ramaswamy emphasized his preference for two-country trade agreements with TPP signatories and other Asian nations like India.
“My first and best choice is definitely bilateral agreements with each of those countries where we each get something out of the trade, but without a whole bunch of garbage related to climate change to go along with it, which is one of my main problems with multilateral agreements,” he said.
More broadly, Ramaswamy views making the U.S. less dependent on Chinese and Taiwanese imports as a means of securing U.S. geopolitical power vis-a-vis China, rather than restoring American manufacturing as an end in itself. (He would end the U.S.’ reliance on microchips made in Taiwan too, since China’s hopes to subsume the island nation could effectively make the U.S. dependent on China for an essential technology.)
Asked whether, when he describes in his speeches a two-term presidency after which Americans are “no longer dependent on our enemy, Communist China, for the shoes on our feet and the phones in our pockets,” he means to have those products made in the U.S., he replied: “Preferably, but that’s a separate point from actually the need to declare independence from China.”
In “Nation of Victims,” Ramaswamy described the predicament of displaced manufacturing workers in ways that sound an awful lot like a Clintonian Democrat from the 1990s ― the type of person now regularly derided online as a “neoliberal.” He wrote in the book that he sees the “conscious policy choices” that lead to manufacturing job loss as worth the economic benefits they provide, calling them “the right policy choices for America to make,” even as he insists, “we also owe it to American workers in our manufacturing sector to acknowledge that their plight is a direct consequence of these policy choices.”
As for remedies to the collateral damage caused by free trade, Ramaswamy envisions displaced workers taking up jobs in education and elder care where demand is high and there are often personnel shortages. To ease these workers’ path to a decent standard of living in those professions, he proposes improving outdated job retraining programs, loosening housing construction regulations, and reducing occupational licensing regimes.
“It’s actually less fancy approaches of getting government out of the way and driving supply side-driven competition that makes housing and other important attributes of the American dream more attainable, while also actually offering individuals the ability to self determine where they want to go and produce more so you can get that productivity growth,” he told HuffPost.
While maintaining a hard line against illegal immigration, Ramaswamy would allow a “merit-based” legal immigration based on applicants having skills that align with job openings, as well as compliance with the U.S. civics exam currently only required to become a citizen. He would not require a hard cap on this form of legal immigration, instead allowing in as many people who meet the “meritocratic criteria” ― a change that would potentially increase the number of legal immigrants to the country from its current level.
“I’m a little bit of a departure from what I think is the Republican consensus here,” he conceded while outlining his plans on the “All In” podcast in July.
A Radical Vision For The Federal Reserve
One of Ramaswamy’s most radical goals is to pass legislation shrinking the Federal Reserve’s mission from its current “dual mandate” ― limit inflation and maximize employment ― to a “single mandate” of containing inflation alone.
Assuming it would take time to undo the 1978 law that established the Fed’s dual mandate, he would begin by appointing inflation hawks to lead the Federal Reserve, citing late 1980s Fed Vice Chair Manuel “Manley” Johnson as a model.
“Rand or Ron Paul, intellectually, would be a good mold for that,” he added, citing the father-son duo of libertarian-leaning Republican lawmakers whose plans to curb the Fed’s power are far outside the mainstream. (Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the father, wants to “end the Fed” and return to the gold standard, while his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would merely audit the Fed and have a commission study a potential return to the gold standard.)
The Federal Reserve’s use of interest rate reductions to improve the job market has been uncontroversial among mainstream Republicans for decades.
Trump himself took it a step further, accusing the Fed of letting its wariness of inflation get in the way of allowing a tight labor market that benefits workers. He repeatedly threatened to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, whom he appointed, if Powell did not keep interest rates as low as possible.
“Without the corrupting influence of cronyism, capitalism, left unto itself, is still the best system known to man to lift everyone up from poverty, and everyone up from struggle.”
- Vivek Ramaswamy
How does Ramaswamy plan to ensure that the displaced former manufacturing workers he expects to join the service sector have adequate bargaining power vis-a-vis employers, particularly since he would not use the Fed to foster tighter labor markets?
“I reject the premise of there being a bilateral, zero-sum game between the owners of capital and laborers in the sort of Karl Marx view,” Ramaswamy said. “Without the corrupting influence of cronyism, capitalism, left unto itself, is still the best system known to man to lift everyone up from poverty, and everyone up from struggle.”
To that end, Ramaswamy maintains that he can create annual economic growth in excess of 5% GDP by, among other things, removing all barriers to fossil fuel extraction; firing 75% of federal employees; and passing legislation reducing federal income, capital gains and inheritance taxes to a single flat rate of 12%.
Ramaswamy’s embrace of a 12% inheritance tax appears to be at odds with a non-libertarian position he articulated in “Nation of Victims.” In the book, Ramaswamy called for, at minimum, an inheritance tax rate of 59% so that Americans cannot “become billionaires just by having rich parents.”
Ramaswamy told HuffPost the passage in his book was a “thought experiment” for a far-fetched, hypothetical scenario in which there are no federal income taxes at all.
“Is it realistic to get rid of the income tax? It is not,” he said.
In fact, while Ramaswamy panned progressive plans to raise income taxes in “Nation of Victims,” and says he would favor a “flat (and low) income tax regime,” he does not explicitly state what he sees as the ideal income tax rate.
Will Voters Care?
In short, while Ramaswamy has much in common with Trump, he is not an economic populist in the New Right mold. His worldview diverges significantly from that of Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and J.D. Vance (Ohio) ― the Republican members of Congress most interested in reining in corporate power and most open to federal intervention for working families.
In some ways, he more closely resembles Blake Masters, the Peter Thiel protégé and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate in Arizona. Masters’ nationalistic rhetoric and Trumpian provocations helped obscure libertarian-leaning positions on topics like Social Security.
Ramaswamy need not be consigned to Masters’ fate of an embarrassing loss, which was determined in significant part by the latter’s penchant for conspiracy theories and a strong opponent. That’s especially true in a Republican primary where populist-minded, Rust Belt swing voters, who typically oppose free trade, are not as much of a factor in early contests.
“He’s the one on stage last night who appeals the most to the really anti-establishment, anti-politician MAGA base,” David Kochel, a veteran strategist for Republican candidates in Iowa, said in a Thursday interview.
Asked whether Ramaswamy’s more libertarian views on trade would create problems for him with GOP voters, Kochel predicted that the candidates’ style would matter more than policy details for most voters.
“I’m not sure that voters in Iowa are going over policy positions in that manner. It’s more about the vibe and the rhetoric,” said Kochel, who identifies strongly with the non-MAGA wing of the party. “They’re not gonna say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he wanted to go into TPP.’ Most Iowa voters aren’t sure what TPP is.”
“I’m not sure that voters in Iowa are going over policy positions in that manner. It’s more about the vibe and the rhetoric.”
- David Kochel, GOP strategist
Sure enough, in conversations with a dozen voters who came to hear Ramaswamy speak at campaign stops in Indianola, Pella, and Clive, Iowa, on Friday, the excitement was as much about Ramaswamy’s speaking chops and outsider status as it was about policy.
Karen Hogue, a retired college administrator who came to see Ramaswamy in Indianola, told HuffPost that she was considering Ramaswamy, Trump, DeSantis, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). She appreciated how Ramaswamy “defended himself” on the debate stage and likes his plan to redirect U.S. military resources away from Ukraine so they can be used to secure the southern border. When asked about the TPP, Hogue did not know what the accord was.
Trump, however, remains her top choice given the degree to which she believes he is being unfairly persecuted.
“We need to show them that what they’re doing is entirely wrong, and we can’t let it happen again in this country,” she concluded.
In that context, Ramaswamy’s adversarial stance toward the federal bureaucracy and willingness to slay sacred foreign policy cows is perhaps more important to GOP voters than his stances on trade or the Federal Reserve. He believes that his promise to tear down entrenched institutions ― whether by slashing the headcount in regulatory agencies or breaking up elements of the national-security state ― explains why he has elicited so much criticism, including from rivals in the first debate.
“We are seeing the broad establishment and the managerial class within government … threatened by my rise,” Ramaswamy said. “And I think people behave in unpredictable ways when they’re threatened.”