“We’re like a bunch of blind bats. We human beings are, we millennials are, we Americans are,” Vivek Ramaswamy riffed. “We can’t see where we are.”
Bats send sonar signals, which bounce off objects and allow the mammals to navigate. “So we do that, we send out our signals, and it bounces off something that is true, something that is real, like family. The two parents who brought me into this world, my mother and father. The two children who I brought into this world,” he went on. “That is real. That is true. That means something to me.”
In person, his presentation is a lot more intense; it is also about a bleaker landscape of American life than the bright version of Trumpism he’s trying to project.
“We’re hungry for a cause,” Mr. Ramaswamy, who is 37, said of millennials when he spoke on a recent Friday night in Iowa, in a navy suit and white dress shirt, walking the stage and not pausing too often for applause. “We’re hungry for purpose and meaning. And identity. At a point in our national history when the things that used to fill that void — things like faith, patriotism, hard work, family — these things have disappeared.” Instead, he said, “poison” and “secular cults” had taken their place.
This is what a pro-capitalism candidate looks like in post-Trump Republican politics, in which the emphasis is on the creation of a national identity in the face of spiritual emptiness and the idea that big business and the customer aren’t always right.
The next morning, at campaign events held at one of those cool digital driving ranges and at a pizza place with a beautiful old tin ceiling, the American identity crisis talk continued. “There’s more to life than just the aimless passage of time, going through the motions,” he said standing in front of what looked like a floor-to-ceiling image of a Pebble Beach fairway. “You’re more than the genetic attributes you inherited on the day you were born,” he went on to say. “You are you.”
He is technically the business candidate, but not really. This is the elite corporate executive as culture warrior. Mr. Ramaswamy’s pitch in Iowa was not about the application of free-market principles to the federal government, at least not in the way you might expect from a pre-Trump Republican business candidate. Nor was it economic populism, either, not really, because his idea isn’t so much that corporations are ripping you off; it’s that they’re in bad-faith league with one another to advance liberal pieties.
Theoretically, he could be doing a business pitch. Mr. Ramaswamy started a pharmaceutical investment and drug development company that picked up pharmaceutical projects abandoned by other companies and aimed to bring the drugs to market. In 2020, as chief executive, he refused to support Black Lives Matter and in 2021 was an author of a Wall Street Journal opinion essay arguing that online platforms were censoring people when they blocked accounts in the chaotic aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021.
As Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review pointed out, Mr. Ramaswamy has chosen to “download and internalize” MAGA moods — shutting down the F.B.I., replacing the A.T.F., raising the voting age to 25 unless you pass a civics test or serve in the military or as an emergency worker. These are the kinds of proposals that are drafted to please and anger the right people and never happen.
Mr. Ramaswamy wants to restore an American identity that, in speeches, involves a lot of concepts but rarely anecdotes. That identity would involve the pursuit of excellence, which he described in an interview along vague, traditional lines — people achieving their maximal potential, free of societal hindrance. He contended this ethic is absent from corporate life. “I think that part of this is psychological, that in the moment people feel compelled to apologize for excellence,” he told me. To “be accepted as cool,” the most successful “have to apologize for the system that got them there by sticking the word ‘stakeholder’ in front of it,” he said and called “the racial equity agenda” an “example of prioritizing a different value.”
Mr. Ramaswamy came up in an elite world where some people employ the idea of charity or progressive impulses to get ahead, first in admissions, then in business, and they sometimes become deluded or self-interested ethical consumers. “Whatever justice is, surely it can’t be attained so incidentally, by just picking the right shirts, the right burgers and the right bankers,” he writes in the book “Woke, Inc.” He’s bothered by that thing many also dislike, which is a hedge fund putting in place a superficial diversity effort intended to disrupt as little as possible to prevent a lawsuit or make money, or a corporation with an aspirational brand made of cotton produced in the Xinjiang region of China.
This is the world summarized by Sam Bankman-Fried last year in a D.M. he later claimed he thought was off the record: “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shibboleths and so everyone likes us.”
In “Woke, Inc.,” Mr. Ramaswamy’s solution is to separate politics and business.
Over the past decade, many presidential candidates — especially the long-shot, unconventional kinds in both parties — have talked in secular-spiritual ways about voids in American life and the corruption among elites. There are different theories of the case (technological change, inequality, institutional decline, loneliness), including the omnipresence of corporations and the emptiness of material goods for justice. The vision that markets and capitalism would liberalize the world and accelerate the realization of a pluralistic America, full of choice and privacy and respect, has begun to dim.