CINCINNATI — Ron DeSantis rails against the “woke mob.” Nikki Haley calls wokeness a “virus.”
But for all their use of the W-word, these and other GOP politicians cannot claim to have written the book on attacking it: That distinction goes to a little-known Republican presidential candidate — Vivek Ramaswamy — who is campaigning on a plank of ridding corporate boardrooms of social causes, including the battle against climate change.
A biotech entrepreneur and regular commentator on Fox News, Ramaswamy is ambitious, articulate and a bundle of contradictions. He’s a Donald Trump supporter running against Trump; a product of Ivy League schools who now skewers the liberal elite and a Wall Street rebel with a network that includes venture capitalist Peter Thiel as a friend and investor in his companies.
He’s also the author of “Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” which lays out his vociferous opposition to corporate policies aimed at protecting the environment and correcting societal inequities.
While analysts call him a presidential long-shot, this first-generation Indian American businessman has already influenced the rhetoric of the GOP contest, and may continue to do so, as he eschews social activism in favor of valuing personal talent and achievement.
“To put America first we have to discover what America is,” Ramaswamy, 37, said at a recent pancake breakfast in Cincinnati sponsored by the Hamilton County Republican Party. After an interlude that featured bagpipes, the national anthem and something resembling pancakes, Ramaswamy laid out his priorities to an appreciative home-state crowd of more than 500 people.
In interviews and on the stump, he’s said he would end affirmative action, which he calls a “cancer” on American life. He would close down the Education Department, limit the power of the Federal Reserve, send U.S. armed forces to the Mexican border and stop big “woke” corporations from using environmental, social and governance, or ESG considerations to measure their performance.
In recent weeks, he’s been ahead of his competitors on lambasting the Silicon Valley Bank bailout and the legal proceedings against Trump. When news broke Friday the former president had been indicted in New York, Ramaswamy was quick to go on Twitter, calling it “a dark moment in American history.”
Like other GOP hopefuls, Ramaswamy is trying to both separate himself from Trump while also appealing to the former president’s base, saying “we’re going to go much further than Trump.”
His views on climate change reflect how he straddles the line between sounding thoughtful and outlandish.
In an interview, Ramaswamy said he’s “not a climate denier,” but sees the world’s warming as “not entirely bad.” He says the goal of limiting carbon emissions is “flawed” and that “people should be proud to live a high-carbon lifestyle.” He said “we have a far better chance” of growing out of the problem “than trying to engineer the climate itself.”
He also sees climate activism as one of three “secular religions” that “has America in a chokehold.” He said “the climate religion has about as much to do with the climate as the Spanish Inquisition had to do with Christ, which is to say nothing at all. It is about power, dominion, control, punishment.”
More than other GOP presidential contenders, Ramaswamy targets his criticism on Wall Street sustainability policies. He’s written letters to corporations such a Chevron, criticizing the company’s support for a carbon tax and its calculation of “Scope 3” emissions — those generated when consumers use a product, such as buying gasoline to drive a car.
But can an ESG-focused politician attract many votes when inflation, crime and culture wars are dominating the political discourse?
Not likely, said Shivaram Rajgopal, professor of accounting and auditing at Columbia Business School, who said the issue is enormously complicated.
“It’s intellectual quicksand,” he said.
Meritocracy is a central theme of Ramaswamy’s life story and campaign, replete with Vivek buttons and stickers that read, “A New American Dream.”
About 40 years ago, Ramaswamy’s parents moved from India to Ohio. As he recounts it, his father came to the United States on a student visa and became an engineer at General Electric and his mother came on a green card and became a geriatric psychiatrist.
Ramaswamy likes to stress that the family entered the United States legally, a dig at undocumented immigrants. But while the candidate’s immigrant story is part of his pitch, and his family’s hometown of Vadakkencherry was lacking in “first-world comforts,” he hardly came from humble roots. His family were Brahmins, members of the highest Hindu caste. Ramaswamy says he also learned about status and inequality between Brahmins like his family and the rest of Indian society.
“Kings were below us,” he wrote in his book, “Woke Inc.”
In the United States, Ramaswamy attended Saint Xavier, a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati, where he was class valedictorian and the only Hindu. He then attended Harvard College and Yale Law School, where he met and married a medical student. They live in the Columbus area and have two children.
After short stints in investment banking, Ramaswamy in 2014 started his own company, Roivant Sciences. It was here that the young entrepreneur developed his distaste for political correctness, while also building the personal wealth that now fuels his campaign.
Roivant had a novel business model, attempting to breath new life into unwanted drugs it bought from big pharmaceutical companies. One of them, a drug for Alzheimer’s disease, failed “spectacularly,” Ramaswamy said. Others look promising, including one for psoriasis, which has received regulatory approval.
After the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in 2020, Ramaswamy and other top executives at Roivant clashed over how the company should respond. Ramaswamy, who bridles at corporations branding themselves as socially conscious, stepped down as chief executive.
Ramaswamy still owns 7.17 percent of Roivant, worth more than $400 million, and his fortune is worth well over half a billion dollars. To jump-start his presidential bid on Feb. 22, he sold some of his stock — worth $31.8 million, according to Bloomberg.
If Ramaswamy were to rise up the ladder of GOP presidential prospects, he would have to seriously compete in the 2024 Iowa caucuses and the big primaries to follow. Any path upward would almost certainly involve clashing with Trump, whom Ramaswamy calls “my good friend” and “a man who I took inspiration from.”
If the former president were to give Ramaswamy the Trump treatment — diminutive names and innuendos — Ramaswamy said he would brush it aside as “trash talk.”
“If you cannot handle name-calling and have some fun, you probably should not be the person sitting across the table representing this country against [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping],” he said.
In Cincinnati, he was on friendly turf. Some Saint Xavier alumni came to listen, posing for photos with their arms forming an X for Xavier across their chests.
“I voted for Trump out of default,” said Dan Zepf, who was Ramaswamy’s high school American history teacher. “This is someone who really inspires. In the 25 years I have taught at Saint Xavier’s High School, he was unparalleled, and I have taught a lot of brilliant kids.”
Zepf said that he liked Ramaswamy for urging “woke” firms to stick to their business and not veer into politics.
“I think corporations should be supplying the market and not requiring a message of its workers or its customers,” Zepf said. He added that Ramaswamy was promoting a “message of meritocracy and freedom of speech that the founding fathers wanted.”
GOP voters have recently shown they prefer outsiders over career politicians, and Ramaswamy follows a long line of business leaders who have sought — usually unsuccessfully — to convert their fortunes into political power. These include Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer.
Could Ramaswamy be the exception?
“Over the years I have talked to lots of presidential candidates who I say can’t win. But it changes the debate and changes the country,” said Arthur C. Brooks, who served as president of the American Enterprise Institute. “I say more variety please in that marketplace.”
At the pancake breakfast, Ramaswamy tried to make the case that — despite his controversial takes on climate and affirmative action — he can unite the party and the country. “Do we want a national divorce or a national revival?” he said at one point, drawing cheers from the crowd.
“We do lack a national identity, and restoring that identity should be part of the mission of the Republican Party,” said Alex Triantafilou, chair of the Ohio Republican Party. “He is extraordinary, a gifted orator, a brilliant mind and one of the new voices in the Republican Party.”
“Woke Inc.” was Ramaswamy’s 2021 breakout moment, filled with pithy lines about wokeness, which the entrepreneur said “means obsessing about race, gender, and sexual orientation. Maybe climate change too.”
Fast Company magazine said the book offered an insider’s perspective in explaining “why corporations that pick up social justice causes like TikTok dances are not merely tacky, but actively harmful for society.”
In Ramaswamy’s view, corporations have no obligation to benefit stakeholders, only shareholders. The concentration of capital in the hands of just three asset management firms — BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard — makes their prioritization of social issues even more dangerous, he argues.
Yet critics say that, in attacking the “woke-industrial Leviathan,” Ramaswamy creates a straw-man argument, by painting a picture of an ominous threat that doesn’t exist. Climate change, for example, is not just a concern for liberals but mainstream scientists and economists, who argue it poses risks to the bottom line of corporations and governments. It also offers opportunities.
Wokeness is “an all-purpose boogeyman,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute, who argues that anti-climate activists are missing the big economic picture. “There’s a massive gulf between the reality of having to take advantage of the global clean energy race with other countries and these fanciful themes from their presidential hopefuls.”
Ramaswamy’s hits on companies such as BlackRock — In “Woke Inc.,” he differs with the company’s chief executive, Larry Fink, at least 17 times — are not just philosophical. They are fiduciary. After leaving Roivant, Ramaswamy launched Strive Asset Management, with backing from Thiel and the hedge-fund wizard Bill Ackman, as a way to appeal to investors leery of ESG.
It didn’t take long for Strive to hit its stride. After a few months, the company was managing a half-billion dollars in assets — far short of BlackRock, which manages about $8.5 trillion in assets, but still a substantial sum.
“We want all politics out of the boardroom,” Ramaswamy said. “If you want to advance an environmental, cult social agenda, you’re free to do that, but Strive would not be the right place.”
But Strive’s funds come with their own cost to investors. Last fall, it launched an oil and gas fund whose symbol is DRLL. Its fees are four times greater than those at a very similar State Street fund labeled XLE, notes Rajgopal, the Columbia professor.
In a statement, Strive responded that its funds “are priced competitively” and that DRLL’s fees are cheaper than the average of all funds. The company also predicts oil and gas prices could double or triple, arguing that they’re depressed “due to ESG-driven investment consensus about the transition from fossil fuels.”
However, Rajgopal said, “the evidence does not appear to support that assumption,” noting that the jump in oil prices after the start of the war in Ukraine was not a new normal.
While oil prices have yo-yoed, Ramaswamy’s outlook has not wavered. He has a new book coming out on April 25 — titled “Capitalist Punishment; How Wall Street is Using Your Money to Create a Country You Didn’t Vote For” — and is busy on the campaign trail, having already made stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, Texas, Ohio and Florida and fundraising visits to New York and Washington, D.C.
“He’s a thinker,” said Rocky Boiman, a Saint Xavier alum, former NFL linebacker and Cincinnati radio host who shook hands with Ramaswamy at the pancake event. But Boiman says he’s still mulling the choice between Ramaswamy, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “I’m trying to do my due diligence,” he said.