Column: Vivek Ramaswamy is the star of the GOP’s presidential amateur hour

A kneeling man stretches out his right hand and holds a mic in his other hand.
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy waves on the stump at the Iowa State Fair this month.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Every four years, it seems, we’re treated to a candidate (or six) who embodies a self-loving certainty that being president is a job for amateurs.

Spoiler alert: It’s not.

Of course, “amateur” is not how such candidates describe themselves. No, he or she is an outsider — the label that is catnip to voters disdainful of the two major political parties.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Call these contenders what you will, this year we have a bumper crop of them despite the fact that each party’s field is dominated by an incumbent or quasi-incumbent: the actual president, Joe Biden, and the defeated pretender, Donald Trump. Because both men are such flawed favorites, both unpopular with many voters, rivals are trying their luck against the front-runners.

Challenging Biden are Marianne Williamson, a self-help author and failed 2020 contender, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine activist and dynastic black sheep. Trump’s rivals include seasoned politicians but also an amateur hour lineup: Larry Elder, the conservative talk-show host and vanquished California gubernatorial candidate; Ryan Binkley, a Texas pastor and businessman; Perry Johnson, an entrepreneur who promotes quality management practices and yet fatally mismanaged his petition to get on the 2022 Republican primary ballot to become Michigan’s governor (too many voters’ signatures were invalid).


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Last but hardly least among the Republicans — especially when it comes to his own self-regard — is 38-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy, the youngest of the bunch, a wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur, son of Indian immigrants and author of the right-wing bestseller “Woke, Inc.”

Ramaswamy is the standout among the amateurs. He personifies the utter brashness and hubris of a high achiever who looks in the mirror and sees a president.

The job does require extraordinary confidence, and perhaps Ramaswamy’s cockiness helps explain why Republican voters lately have given him a bump in the polls. He has been registering support in high single-digit percentages, even breaking double digits in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, other than Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican aspirants languish in low single digits.

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Thanks to his polling gains, Ramaswamy will share center stage with DeSantis on Wednesday night in Milwaukee, when eight rivals assemble for the first, Trump-less Republican debate. And Ramaswamy’s mini-boomlet is why, ahead of the debate, a pro-DeSantis super PAC somehow thought it was smart to publicly post advice for the flailing governor — “take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy.

It’s certainly true that political experience does not guarantee a successful presidency. Yet political inexperience virtually guarantees failure. Governing a nation of 330 million people and leading the free world is not for beginners.

Of the five presidents who held no previous public office, three governed in the last century: Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald Trump. Hoover and Trump were defeated for reelection and rank among the worst presidents ever. Eisenhower was the exception to the rule and no wonder: He wasn’t really an amateur at all. He’d been the supreme commander of Allied forces in World War II, a job that required navigating politics in Washington and European capitals, not to mention mobilizing militaries on two continents.

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Even Trump, the narcissist who in 2016 proclaimed “I alone can fix it,” now inadvertently concedes the value of bringing political experience to the White House. He and his allies suggest repeatedly that in a second term he will be a far more effective autocrat — my word, not theirs — because he had four years of on-the-job training. Now he really knows what levers to pull, heads to roll and laws to bend or break.

Ramaswamy, running as Trump 2.0, insists that he’ll beat the original. “I believe with a high degree of conviction that I will win this election,” he said in the Atlantic this week. (And one of his first acts as president, he says after each Trump indictment, will be to pardon his predecessor.)


The challenger resembles Trump more than he knows. Ramaswamy represents “the complete amateurization of politics in the Republican Party that Trump has facilitated,” as Tommy Vietor put it on the “Pod Save America” podcast he co-hosts with other Obama White House veterans.

The only plausible mechanism to prevent Trump from winning the GOP nomination is the criminal justice system, which other candidates have attacked and delegitimized.

Aug. 22, 2023

Vietor brought receipts. He played a clip of Ramaswamy promoting his campaign foreign policy paper.

“Nobody’s gone into remotely this level of detail here,” Ramaswamy boasted. He added, “I didn’t know much of this six months ago. But the only difference between me and the other candidates is I’m the only one actually willing to admit that. … And so I think this depth of understanding combined with strategic clarity actually is what will keep us out of war.”

Think about that. Ramaswamy is putting up his semester’s worth of Foreign Affairs 101 reading against the experience of a former vice president (Mike Pence), U.N. ambassador (Nikki Haley), head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a congressman (Asa Hutchinson), a senator who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Tim Scott) and a CIA agent (Will Hurd). Oh, and if you count Trump, a former president.

So what are his genius foreign policy ideas? Essentially, retreat from global leadership. Reduce or end aid to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine. Allow Russia to keep the parts of Ukraine it now occupies and block Ukraine from NATO. Break up the China-Russia alliance, as if that’s within a U.S. president’s power.

At home, he’s said, it’s time for revolution — “a 1776 moment” — against forces including “wokeism, transgenderism, climatism, COVIDism.” Huh?


And should you want another conspiracist as president, he’s your candidate. In the Atlantic interview, Ramaswamy suggested federal agents could have been flying with the terrorists on 9/11.

Fortunately, Trump 2.0 has a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming president. No sledgehammer should be needed. Unfortunately, we still could end up with Trump 1.0.