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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

An Unmeritorious Start

Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign makes appeals to the head, but not the heart.

Forbes Under 30 Summit
(Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images)

Vivek Ramaswamy was a good student. Valedictorian of his graduating class at Cincinnati’s acclaimed St. Xavier's, he went on to graduate summa cum laude with a biology degree from Harvard and then a law degree from Yale.

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It is safe to say that students who matriculate into and graduate from these institutions know more information than the average person—Ramaswamy certainly knows more than I do. He likely dazzled college and fellowship interview panels with clean articulations of complex ideas and their relations at Jesse Eisenberg-levels of verbal speed.

And now he is running for president. Hugh Hewitt brought him on his morning radio show Monday, and asked him about the nuclear triad.

Are you familiar with the triad?

The triad.

You don’t know what the triad is?

Which context?

Nuclear triad.

What’s that?

The nuclear triad.

Oh, the nuclear triad! Yeah, you’re talking about the, our new axis of, uh, of sort of evil, here.

No, I’m talking about the air, the land, and the sea nuclear deterrent that we won the Cold War with.

I have to admit, I’m not familiar with that.

That is a tough spot for Ramaswamy to be in, and I don’t envy him. This was not Hewitt’s first presidential candidate interview, and a central objective during them is paying close attention to any deviations in his B.S. meter. Hewitt was gracious, and so was Ramaswamy.

But a presidential candidate interview is not the same as a fellowship interview. The sort of intellectual humility displayed by Ramaswamy might be valued by an Ivy League selection committee, but Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, Idaho are separated by more than distance.

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As a point of comparison, Hewitt asked then-candidate Donald Trump about the nuclear triad during a December 2015 primary debate. It became clear that Trump didn’t know what the term meant, so he talked about trust, responsibility, competence, his against-the-tide take on the American invasion of Iraq, and how strongly he had called it. And we have to be strong when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear is big, and it’s bigger than global warming. And Obama doesn’t understand that.

Jeb! found his answer “mind boggling,” but Trump’s poll numbers were unaffected.

We could chalk up the difference in instinctive responses between the two first-time candidates to temperamental asymmetry. Point taken: Ramaswamy is a generalist (researching science, investing in biotech, writing books, adhering to Hinduism), while Trump is a specialist (building skyscrapers). But there is a deeper difference between the two.

Ramaswamy gets to the head, while Trump gets to the gut. The boy-genius turned man-genius is accustomed to having most of the answers under his belt. When he doesn’t, he probably says that he will find the answer as soon as possible. Trump has always been in a special position because he doesn’t need to know the answer: Salesmen learned long before Maya Angelou that people forget what you said but remember how you made them feel.

While Ramaswamy’s campaign messaging hangs its hat on the value of merit—a rhetorical non-starter in the foreseeable post-Trump GOP—Trump excites the passions of his base: hope, despair, anger, courage, fear. Any quasi-democratic system obliges its elites to appeal to the demos as they are, not as they could or should be, and as a group.

Talk of merit isolates, both because it is a theoretical term and because it prioritizes winner-take-all, interpersonal competition. It is hard to vote for meritocracy when you view your own nation, community, or your individual self as repeatedly losing. Passions, on the other hand, collect: A mutually shared feeling of hope or fear will assemble more people than a seminar on expertise and competence.

When C.S. Lewis described men without chests in his Abolition of Man, he said that “it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” And on both sides of heaven, spirits don’t vote. Ramaswamy is confronted with the problem of communicating his belief in “American exceptionalism” and the notion that “the best ideas win” to voters who not only disagree but were punched in the gut with the bad ideas that won. They were fired because they wouldn’t get the Fauci ouchie, lost their brother in a sandy desert overseas, and paid taxes that bought Zelensky a clean sweatshirt.  

A political vision that relies on the best ideas to win the day is the stuff of utopia. It reminds me of how Richard Dawkins described it:

My utopia is a world in which beliefs are based on evidence and morality is based on intelligent design—design by intelligent humans (or robots!). Neither beliefs nor morals should be based on gut feelings, or on ancient books, private revelations or priestly traditions.

Dawkins’s faith demands that he see religion as a delusion. In his fantasyland of reason and science, the real stuff of human life—gut feelings, ancient books, private revelations, and priestly traditions—are supposed to be forgotten. Adherents to true religion rarely share Dawkins’s devotion to dogma: It is easy to be faithful to something fake.

Ramaswamy has seen success because of his knowledge of scientific design, but it is of little use here. Until he starts punching guts and puffing chests, he’ll be yelling “Merit!” to staid rooms, while stadiums fill elsewhere.