It’s not unusual for a Republican running for President to vow to shrink the federal workforce. But this week, two candidates escalated their rhetoric against Washington’s civil servants in ways that suggested the goal was not about cutting spending, but exacting revenge. In at least one case, attendees cheered the candidate on.
Hours after former President Donald Trump was arraigned on charges related to trying to overturn the 2020 election in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took his first question of the night from a voter at an event in New Hampshire.
“If everything goes right, and you become president, will you commit to firing everybody in the government who had a hand in the four-year persecution of Donald Trump?” asked an attendee during the Concord GOP’s Politics and Pies event. “All the lies, all the baloney—I would use a bigger word, but—”
“Baloney’s fine,” Ramaswamy interjected, nodding along.
“Ok,” the question-asker said, a smile in his voice. “Will you do that? Because that’s the person I’ll support. But if someone will not do that, I will not give that person my support.”
“That’s an easy answer,” said Ramaswamy. “Absolutely yes.” The crowd cheered as if a beloved pop star had just joined the 37-year-old candidate onstage.
Slimming down the federal government has been a key plank of Ramaswamy’s campaign from the start, but his messaging has often been more focused on the dangers of a bigger-than-necessary government, and less about targeting individual employees.
Four days earlier in New Hampshire, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis employed darker rhetoric as he talked about cutting the number of federal employees.
“We’re going to have all of these deep state people, you know, we are going to start slitting throats on day one,” DeSantis said at a barbecue.
While New Hampshire Public Radio reported that not every voter in attendance liked his word choice—federal employee unions certainly didn’t—the escalating attacks on government bureaucrats probably won’t hurt either of the candidates among the voters they’re courting.
Nearly all of the voters who spoke to TIME at various Ramaswamy events on Thursday were more concerned about the demeanor of the candidates, national unity, and the economy than about the fate of paper-pushers five hundred miles away. Most of the attendees said they were undecided on who they would support but planned to vote in the Republican primary next year. Many also said they were particularly interested in DeSantis and Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy’s star has been rising. Though he’s still polling in the low single digits in New Hampshire, he’s risen to third place behind DeSantis in most recent national polls. Both men have likely qualified for a spot on the stage of the first GOP primary debate scheduled for August 23 in Milwaukee.
On the stump, Ramaswamy’s frequent refrain is that Americans should be represented by those they elect, not by unelected bureaucrats. If elected, he has committed to reducing the federal workforce by 75% by the end of his first term.
“Most people are inherently good as individuals,” Ramaswamy said at the event in Concord. “But when you create a machine that should have never existed in the first place, that exists outside of the bounds of the three-branch constitutional republic we set into motion, that's when you create a demon that's actually far bigger than any of the human beings comprising it. It is what Hobbes called that Leviathan. So I believe you cannot tame that Leviathan. We have to slay the Leviathan.”
Ramaswamy also plans to take a wrecking ball to the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Education, and the Internal Revenue Service. DeSantis has vowed to also eliminate the Department of Education and the IRS, as well as the Commerce and Energy departments.
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