Why the Location of Ramaswamy’s Next Speech May Matter More Than What He Says

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Later this morning, Vikek Ramaswamy will stride into the lobby of a seven-story building on the boulevard between the Capitol and the White House to deliver what his campaign advisers call a major policy speech. The biotech investor intends to get in specifics of how exactly he plans to exploit the full powers of a unitary and nearly unlimited executive branch in ways that Donald Trump fell short of doing, like shutting down the FBI and the Department of Education.

This is not surprising policy fare coming from a presidential candidate in 2023. What is more notable is the location. Rather than traveling to an early primary state to spell out how he plans to scrap a huge portion of the federal workforce without consulting Congress, Ramaswamy is rolling out his framework at the offices of a think tank widely seen as largely existing to serve as a White House-in-waiting for his chief rival.

That’s right. Ramaswamy is speaking at the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit helmed by his loyalists and headquartered kitty-corner to his former flagship D.C. hotel. Officially independent of the Trump campaign and nominally nonpartisan, it nonetheless draws funding from his super PAC (along with anonymous megadonors) and counts former top Trump aides like Linda McMahon and Larry Kudlow as leaders. But much like The Center for American Progress was seen as ClintonLand in Exile, America First is Trump’s hot plate for the smarties who might, in the next term, finish the unfinished job. This one is, to its credit, doing some legitimate scholarship

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Even as he is chasing the same prize as Trump, the fact that Ramaswamy is dropping by a surprisingly large organization that has proven safe harbor for Trump’s policy-minded braintrust should he return to power is remarkable. That the seeming contradiction doesn’t matter will undoubtedly fuel suspicion that Ramaswamy is a sleeper Trump ally who’s not sincerely aiming to win the GOP nomination. After all, from the start, the first-time candidate has been in lockstep with the Trumpian elements of a party he hopes to lead, either this cycle or down the line. Maybe he’s a plant; maybe he’s something else.

Ramaswamy isn’t doing this for giggles. Perhaps the most cold-eyed sniper in the field, Ramaswamy has been Trump’s most loyal defender, if not apologist. Trump remains the frontrunner—he’s 40 points ahead of any rival in the national aggregate, including ahead of the 38-year-old Ramaswamey—and he clearly is not going to be partnering up with his first Vice President, a perceived disloyal Mike Pence. For some contenders, the race is more an opportunity for the candidates to audition as Trump’s running mate or members of a potential Cabinet. For Ramaswamy, it’s a hyperloop of a launch for someone who has hitched his wagon to the star of anti-wokeness.

A Wall Street Journal poll showed 55% of GOP primary voters have a favorable view of Ramaswamy, while 26% hold an unfavorable opinion of him—leaving him with plenty of potential for growth, certainly better than the likes of Pence or ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And with Trump’s legal woes showing no signs of abating, it’s not foolish to think that being a Trump understudy in a Trumpist party is a smart way to replace the former President at some point in the future. Trump, Trump, Trump has been the drumbeat of the GOP since he coasted down that faux-gold escalator, scratching the master recording of American politics.

Again: Trump, Trump, Trump. Even Trump’s most compatible competitors are gauged against him as the barometer for what it means to be a modern Republican. The conservative movement has set its own course, but it’s not apparent that it has a future beyond the Capitol Hill think tanks that date back to the 1970s and ‘80s. For much of the current GOP, the defining factor is rooted in what started on the soundstage of The Apprentice, bloomed in the grievance graveyard of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and metastasized in his White House. Two impeachments, one failed insurrection, four indictments—and counting—have left Americans exhausted, but as many of them are ready to vote for him as for incumbent President Joe Biden, according to polling.

Which brings us back to Ramaswamy, a tech bro of the first order who may be the shrewdest analyst of the contemporary Republican Party. Even when you catch Ramaswamy from a distance or in profile, it’s easy to think he’s wearing a Trump cap on his noggin. A second glance reveals he’s promoting “truth”—still not a far reach from Trump’s own social media platform, TRUTH Social. Given a chance to even ding Trump, Ramaswamy can only muster that he’s America First 2.0—positioning himself as the heir to the modern Trumpist reboot of rhetoric that has far, far darker roots than 2015.

And that, right there, is why Ramaswamy is heading to Trump’s de facto donor HQ in downtown D.C. He may arrive with hat in hand. But he may well walk out having left a good impression—either of himself or of the man he hopes to follow.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com