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Will Vivek Ramaswamy Confront Conservative Victimhood at CPAC?

If you accept the conventional wisdom about anti-woke crusader and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, he’s the Republican version of Andrew Yang, the compelling, yet obscure long-shot candidate from the Democratic presidential primary field in 2020. On the other hand, Ramaswamy may be this cycle’s Trump, the candidate who comes out of nowhere, defies expectations and ascends because he knows how to master modern communication tools and has a message that is the most tapped into today’s “zeitgeist,” or mood of the moment. 

>>>READ: Nikki Haley Gearing Up to Take on the Climate Left

Ramaswamy entered the race promising to address our “national identity crisis.” He says, “Faith, patriotism & hard work have disappeared. Wokeism, climatism & gender ideology have replaced them. We hunger for purpose yet cannot answer what it means to be an American. We long for that answer. That’s why I’m running for President.”

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Ramaswamy wants to reboot the shared American idea that our rights don’t come from the state and aren’t defined by our race, gender, or ethnicity (i.e. identity politics). Instead, he wants to rally Americans around the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

As I wrote in the Dispatch this week, the two challengers who have officially announced, Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley, show that a “normal” (not moderate) conservative candidate can win the nomination. The center of gravity in today’s GOP is still Reaganism more than Trumpism. I explained: 

Reaganism is not misty-eyed nostalgia about a bygone era or mere reflections about the man and his unique attributes. Instead, it’s more of a shorthand expression for a strategy. Reaganism asserts that balancing factions, channeling populist impulses toward productive ends, and maintaining the three-legged stool of fiscal, foreign policy, and social or cultural conservatism gives conservatives the best chance of success. It’s a formula that has been consistently successful for four decades and resolves tensions on the right that existed long before Reagan and will exist long after 2024.

Ramaswamy’s message has much more in common with Reaganism (and our founders) than Trumpism, which is really a one-legged stool comprised of one man’s instincts and whims. Case in point: Ramaswamy’s call to defund the Department of Education is straight out of the GOP’s 1990’s playbook and is completely at odds with so-called leading “Trump intellectual” Sohrab Ahmar who says we must be, “FOR the administrative state.”

Still, Ramaswamy’s message contains some off notes and cognitive dissonance. He rightly wants to avoid overt nostalgia and “1980’s slogans” yet he often repeats the 1940’s slogan “America First” and promises to bring about “America First 2.0.” If Ramaswamy wants to succeed in helping America’s rediscover our shared national identity, he’ll have to fight off not just the identity politics crowd but also “national populists” who want to define America as a place more than an idea. Promoting border security is the right policy for myriad sound reasons, but American exceptionalism has never come from our borders but rather from our beliefs. Reducing our national identity to geography is as corrosive as bowing to the “woke mob” on gender. 

On climate, Ramaswamy is right to criticize the doctrinaire and often anti-science positions of the woke left, such as opposition to nuclear energy or lower-emissions fracking. And he’s right to call out the left’s hypocrisy. In Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam one episode about a tree planting “service day” from his internship at Goldman Sachs speaks volumes: 

When we showed up at the park in Harlem, very few of my colleagues seemed interested in … well, planting trees … After an hour I noticed that very little service had actually been performed. As if on cue, the co-head of the group showed up an hour late – wearing a slim-fit suit and a pair of Gucci boots … “All right, guys,” he said somberly, as though he were going to discipline the team. A moment of tension hung in the air. And then he broke the ice: “Let’s take some pictures and get out of here!” The entire group burst into laughter. Within minutes we had vacated the premises. No trees had been planted. Soon the entire group was seated comfortably at a nearby bar – pitchers of beer ready on the tables and all.  

This offense is being repeated on a geopolitical scale. For instance, it’s immoral to virtue signal on climate while ignoring human rights violations that happen when we depend on authoritarian regimes for critical minerals. Yet, the best way to counter “climatism” is by promoting economic freedom and persuading people with sound arguments, such as the fact that free economies are twice as clean as less free economies.  

>>>READ: An Informed Climate and Energy Policy is Not “Anti-Science”

To his credit, Ramaswamy has shown a willingness to be an equal opportunity critic when it comes to the politics of victimization. He writes in his latest book, Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence:

“What does threaten democracy … is for political parties and their candidates to deny the legitimacy of elections. It was a dark day for democracy. The loser of the last election refused to concede the race, claimed the election was stolen, raised hundreds of millions of dollars from loyal supporters … I’m referring, of course, to Donald Trump.” 

Ramaswamy is right to campaign around our “national identity crisis.” Yet, our national leadership crisis is an equally grave one.

On Friday, Ramaswamy is scheduled to speak at CPAC (the annual Conservative Political Action Conference). He should use his speech to tell the political class and activists hard truths about the consequences of replacing conservatism with victimization. America has plenty of politicians, commentators, social critics and authors. Ramaswamy can be another one and do quite well. Or he can take risks and be a leader who defies expectations.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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