Why Vivek Ramaswamy Is Donald Trump’s Most Obvious Heir

4 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Vivek Ramaswamy sat sipping his decaffeinated green tea in the center of a Capitol Hill hotel’s restaurant. He was extolling the awesome powers of the federal executive, which he insists would allow a President Ramaswamy to shed 75% of the federal workforce and reorganize the bureaucracy in ways that would make the most senior McKinsey bros giddy. It was obvious this wasn’t the first time he was running this deck, even if no laptops, tablets, or projectors were in sight.

But, when I pushed back on his argument, making the case that if presidents are empowered to unilaterally slash and burn entire agencies, then they also can dramatically expand government just as easily, Ramaswamy didn’t respond like the typical presidential candidates. Instead of simply repeating his own point or waiving away mine, the 38-year-old paused and gave the matter careful consideration. 

“If you're coming in from that angle,” he told me, “I would actually answer the question a little bit differently.” Which is what he did, leaning back a little before explaining why he didn’t think the executive power he hopes to wield “goes in both directions.” 

“It's different if you're actually shutting down agencies that Congress never authorized,” he continued. “It's a one-way ratchet.”

Nuanced. Careful. Reasonable. It also may be complete hogwash that wouldn’t pass muster with even the current Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the conversation cut directly against the image of Ramaswamy to this point. On the trail, in ubiquitous media appearances, and on the first debate stage, Ramaswamy often comes off as a brash bully, a privileged prig with a chip on his shoulder and “wokeness” in his sniper’s scope, a candidate who seethes with contempt for expertise or experience.

His detractors have assessed that Ramaswamy will say and do whatever is needed to please the audience before him. But that wasn’t the guy sitting across from me, by now picking at a plate of spaghetti and snacking on deviled eggs. Here, it was a Socratic seminar on the promise and limits of government, the kind of dialogue that doesn’t necessarily do well on a soapbox at the Iowa State Fair. Ramaswamy’s ability to transition so seamlessly between those two aspects of his personality explains, at least in part, why he may be the most interesting and unknowable factor in the unfolding fight for the future of the GOP.

Republicans in 2016 nominated a candidate who also seemed to lack any ideological core but knew how to put on a show, a walking contradiction of a man who could win over the Christian Right and white women voters, despite being a thrice-married philanderer who bragged about sexually assaulting women.

Why wouldn’t the modern GOP at least consider someone who openly advertises the same intellectual flexibility, readiness to fight, and disregard for consistency? Especially now that their first foray into nominated nihilism finds himself indicted in four separate criminal cases? 

Ramaswamy, for his part, is careful here. Publicly, he is perhaps Donald Trump’s most loyal—if lonely—defender. From the start of his nascent run, he was careful to stand next to Trump and Trumpism, recognizing its potency. When the FBI raided Trump’s Florida club, Ramaswamy had Trump’s back. When the charges started to come, Ramaswamy screamed about a weaponized Department of Justice and sounded every bit like a mob boss hinting that it sure would be unfortunate if loyalty mattered for nothing.

Heck, Ramaswamy even chose the office of Trump’s unofficial braintrust last week to make a major policy speech about the hows of a Ramaswamy agenda.

And there was a central contradiction of Ramaswamy. While he professes contempt for the power centers of D.C., he really wants them to at least acknowledge him, even if that takes plenty of hyperbole delivered through a smirk.

Ramaswamy is due to deliver his next big speech on Thursday in Ohio. The topic: how the U.S. can win its technology rivalry with China. A week later will come the second GOP debate, where he may once again find himself ganged up on by his rivals, who don’t even try to hide how little they think of him.

Still, Ramaswamy holds a talent here. Whether or not Trump sees the 2024 race through, Ramaswamy may well be his heir apparent. Unless he wants to cash in and disappear, he isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads From TIME

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