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Sharma: Ramaswamy’s luck will run out in Trump’s GOP

Sharma: Ramaswamy’s luck will run out in Trump’s GOP

There were two Indian Americans on the GOP debate stage in Milwaukee last week. This is not as unusual as it sounds. Three European prime ministers — of Portugal, Ireland, and the U.K. — are of Indian descent. Indians in the West set off few alarm bells among most white voters: They are not associated with religious extremism, or geopolitical rivalry, or identity politics.

Indian Americans lead multiple large U.S. companies as well; notably, there are far fewer Chinese-American CEOs. We pride ourselves on being the model for all other model minorities.

There’s success, though, and then there is emulating success. Should we be surprised when one of our tribe excels at the latter, too?

And that brings us to the 38-year-old entrepreneur and GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, which is what you get when you let being a model minority define who you are.

Ramaswamy’s anti-woke opinions are, I suspect, genuine and deeply held. I can see how they could emerge organically from his background as an upper-caste, Harvard-educated, libertarian debate bro.

Atop this foundation, however, Ramaswamy is trying to build the same sort of populist façade that Donald Trump painstakingly constructed in the decade prior to 2016.

On that stage in Milwaukee, it looked for a while like Ramaswamy was the right man in the right party. He followed the political model Trump had created — convince “the poorly educated” that you are a business genius who, despite being Ivy League through and through, shares their resentment of “elites” — almost better than Trump himself, and certainly better than the stiffer establishment figures to both sides of him.

Trump is not a business genius, and I doubt Ramaswamy is either. And Ramaswamy’s arguments and positions make about as much sense as Trump’s. But Ramaswamy has clearly identified a path to success, dissected its component parts, and, with brazen and probably unwarranted confidence, pursued it more diligently and more skilfully than his white peers. I hope his parents, at least, are proud.

And Ramaswamy is in the right party because, well, just look at today’s Republicans. The façade of success appears to be all you need to succeed. It certainly beats the substance of reasoned positions.

The other Indian American on stage, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, stood out because she seemed to want to talk about real issues — the national debt, U.S. alliances, finding a post-Roe consensus on abortion. She sounded sensible and prepared — a model minority for a different era — and no doubt failed to convert a single primary voter.

The Republicans are almost unique in Western politics. The U.K. Conservatives have their problems but are far more connected to reality than their American cousins. So are the Democrats. The Democratic candidate in recent years closest to Ramaswamy in vibe — Ivy League credentials, weird ideas, a business background — was Andrew Yang. Democrats did not warm to Yang in the 2020 primary, and even his campaign for New York mayor went nowhere.

Most Indian diaspora politicians are still more like Haley. U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is, like Ramaswamy, a slight and anxious man of Indian descent with a background in finance, but his appeal was always that he was a serious chap who was going to balance the books. In recent months, Sunak has half-heartedly tried to throw red meat to the Brexit-loving, migrant-hating Tory base; his attempts to pass for a Boris Johnson-esque populist have been widely mocked. Ramaswamy is betting he will have more luck with a Trumpian, substance-challenged GOP.

To their credit, both the Tories and the Republicans seem to have embraced diaspora Indians. It makes political sense. Many of us can be reflexively suspicious of government intervention, convinced it is designed to help other people, not us. When we look at our successes in the West, we tell ourselves that — as 2012 Mitt Romney would say — “we built it” with minimal help from anyone else.

But Ramaswamy hasn’t thought his strategy through. An enraged and resentful Trump comes across as authentic, even charismatic to many voters. His bitterness sounds believable to his base and entertaining to independents.

Ramaswamy — who may actually believe this stuff more than Trump does — is more likely to come across to the same group as slick and superficial. The white voters he’s wooing will have a hard time believing that Asian Americans deserve to be that angry about a changing America. If the system is working so well for model minorities, what’s your problem?

Centrist pundits wonder vaguely how it is that Ramaswamy seems “more annoying” to them than Trump. Most Asian Americans already know why. Vivek Ramaswamy, an unquestionably impressive student, will soon learn.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. ©2023 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.