Vivek Ramaswamy: A problematic tech bro?
Success in the tech sector has lent many guys an undeserved gravitas and a gloss as unconventional businessmen. But, they’re only pandering to voters who want to wish away the complexities of America’s story
Here’s a question that vexes me: Why does it seem that so many men who have been successful in the tech sphere and then waded into politics prove so problematic on issues of diversity and equity? Vivek Ramaswamy, a hedge fund analyst turned biotech executive, is the fifth-ranked candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, going by the Real Clear Politics polling average. But he makes up for his modest numbers in exposure — announcing his candidacy in a Wall Street Journal opinion essay, pandering to the National Rifle Association at its convention and making the cable news rounds. He’s also the author of several books, including “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam” and “Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit and the Path Back to Excellence,” and has largely staked his campaign on anti-wokeness.
Ramaswamy has tried cosying up to Donald Trump — who leads Republican primary polls by a wide margin — including by saying in February that he doubted he’d wind up as one of the targets of Trump’s trademark vitriol “because we’re friends. I think we have a deep, mutual respect for one another. We’re both energetic people.” And many of Ramaswamy’s views aren’t far from those of Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is polling a distant second behind Trump and is another anti-woke crusader.
When he began his campaign, Ramaswamy tweeted: “We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis. Faith, patriotism & hard work have disappeared. Wokeism, climatism & gender ideology have replaced them.” His tweet came with a video that quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — the only King speech Republicans ever seem to quote.
Ramaswamy has checked many of Republicans’ current ideological boxes, saying he wants to “shut down” the F.B.I., declaring “I will end affirmative action in America” and calling for raising the voting age to 25 unless younger voters enroll in the military, work as first responders or pass citizenship tests. So it’s not surprising that he’s quickly become a darling of the right. What initially surprised me, though, was an essay this week in Politico Magazine by the former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang — a lawyer turned tech entrepreneur turned politician — advising Ramaswamy on how to win the Republican nomination.
But after I thought about it for a moment, I realized it’s not that surprising, after all.
I started out admiring Yang. When we met on the set of “Real Time With Bill Maher” in 2019, I was impressed. He had a refreshing way of explaining his policy proposals, particularly the economic ones, with clarity and charm. I called him a “futurist among conventionalists and Bolsheviks.”
A few months after dropping out of the race, he voiced qualified support for reparations, telling Time: “This country was built on the backs of slaves, and we owe them a massive debt. And I’m for H.R.-40, the bill that explores what reparations would look like,” a statement that suggested that he understood the centrality of race and racism in American history, regardless of where anyone might come down on the issue of reparations.
But the more he revealed himself, particularly around racial issues, the more I was put off: His campaign-trail jokes that leaned into the Asian American model minority stereotype — “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors” — caused a lot of Asian Americans, and me, to bristle.
In the early days of the pandemic, in a ham-handed attempt to address rising anti-Asian hate, Yang wrote, “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our Americanness in ways we never have before” — as if the problem were Asian Americans failing to prove their Americanness and not vile anti-Asian sentiment.
During his run for mayor of New York in 2021, he said, “I moved to Georgia to help win the Senate,” which struck me as trying to give himself too much credit for the election of two Democratic senators that year — and not enough credit to Georgians who’d worked for years to protect voting rights.
Last year Yang defended the podcaster Joe Rogan for his use of the N-word, tweeting, “I don’t think Joe Rogan is a racist — the man interacts with and works with black people literally all of the time,” before deleting the tweet and apologizing.
In March on his own podcast, he questioned the Democratic Party’s decision to make South Carolina — a state where most Democratic voters are Black — the first primary on its calendar, suggesting that the move sent this message: “Sorry, rural white Midwesterners, not a priority for the Democratic Party anymore.” When you add all of this up, you get the sense that what Yang is offering is a less barbed but still disingenuous platform of anti-wokeness, that now a big part of his brand is downplaying the significance of race. Why? Was this how he always felt but he was able to hide it when he needed the votes of a diverse Democratic electorate?
Or does it illustrate the way that a type of politician — in this case, tech bros, who often position themselves as apart from career politicians and fancy themselves as forward thinkers — can perpetuate positions on race issues that are dismissive, corrosive and backward? Ramaswamy and Yang certainly aren’t the only examples. The billionaire Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early Facebook investor, has been described by The Times as “the right’s would-be kingmaker.” When he spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said: “Now we are told that great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
The Republican Party that he has supported cares, and it is engaged in a relentless campaign of anti-trans legislation in states across the country. Thiel is also the author of the 1995 book “The Diversity Myth,” which argued against “the extreme focus on racism.” At the moment, perhaps the highest-profile political tech bro is Elon Musk, who styled himself as a free-speech champion when he bought Twitter but appears to use the site mostly as a soapbox to make his views explicit. He has tweeted about “owning the libs,” encouraged people to vote Republican in last year’s midterms and mocked shirts with “#StayWoke” printed on them.
Success in the tech sector has lent all of these guys an undeserved gravitas and a gloss as unconventional businessmen. (That, you’ll recall, is part of how we wound up with Trump.)
In the end, though, they’re just pandering to voters who want to wish away the complexities of our nation’s story — those who appear to believe that making America great means condescending to so many who’ve fought, for generations, for equality. As political figures, they’re not innovating. They’re peddling ahistoric drivel.