Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Ramaswamy’s ‘identity crisis’ rant was a disturbing pean to right-wing authoritarianism

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Ramaswamy’s ‘identity crisis’ rant was a disturbing pean to right-wing authoritarianism

Clearly, the Republican Party stands (at least somewhat) divided. As candidates brawled over how to approach abortion policy, Ukrainian military aid and former President Donald Trump’s fitness for office, the GOP’s fissures were evident. One of the clearest distillations of the party’s inner turmoil emerged during a heated exchange between businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence. Ramaswamy made a case for the revolutionary pessimism of the MAGA worldview, attempting to swat down Pence’s optimism about American culture. Given that Ramaswamy was the fiercest Trump acolyte on stage, it was a reminder of the destructive impulses that lie beneath the surface of the most powerful ideological force in Republican politics today.

Ostensibly as part of an answer to a question about crime rates, Ramaswamy launched into a broader diatribe about our “national identity crisis.”

Ramaswamy’s rant proposed a frightening right-wing authoritarian vision of the world.

“The reason we have that mental health epidemic is that people are so hungry for purpose and meaning at a time when family, faith, patriotism, hard work have all disappeared,” he said. “What we really need is a tonal reset from the top, saying this is what it means to be an American. Yes, we will stand for the rule of law, yes, we will close the southern border where criminals are coming in every day, and yes, we will back law enforcement because we remember who we really are, and that is also how we address the mental health epidemic in the next generation that is directly leading to violent crime across this country.” Pence interjected, “We don’t have an identity crisis, Vivek. We’re not looking for a new national identity. The American people are the most faith-filled, freedom-loving, idealistic hardworking people that the world has ever known. We just need government as good as our people.”

No, Ramaswamy scoffed, America really is in crisis. Referencing  Ronald Reagan’s 1984 political campaign television commercial, he continued: “It is not morning in America. We live in a dark moment and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war and we have to recognize that.”

This back-and-forth between Ramswamy and Pence had no concrete policy prescription. But it’s a rich text to parse for the difference between the old guard and the new guard of the GOP.

Ramaswamy’s rant proposed a grim right-wing authoritarian vision of the world. He called for a “reset from the top,” clarifying anew what it “means to be an American” and channeling the strongman style and nativism of Trump. He suggested that the “mental health epidemic” can be resolved by cracking down on immigration, emphasizing law and order and making the police more powerful. 

That’s a curious prescription, but it makes more sense if Ramaswamy’s proposals are assumed to be for the mental health of the body politic rather than individuals. It also tracks with a authoritarian nativist view that the country is being polluted by immigrants and that dissidents on the left should be dealt with through brute force. Especially in light of Ramaswamy’s other comments about abolishing entire swathes of the federal government and its social services and pardoning Trump, his “reset” to resolve the nation’s identity crisis has the air of a right-wing revolutionary, seeking to reinvent the social order around a strongman. Ramswamy’s dark tone was reminiscent of Trump’s foreboding promise to end the “American carnage” during his inauguration speech.

I don’t want to overstate the differences between the establishment and MAGA wings of the GOP — there are many continuities between Reagan’s GOP and Trump’s GOP in terms of social exclusivity, commitment to plutocracy, fondness for overpolicing and foreign policy militarism. But the tonal difference between the old guard and the new guard isn’t purely aesthetic. Optimism about society as it exists lends itself to a greater degree of good faith cooperation with the opposition. It also can encourage working within the political establishment to enact change. In contrast, abject pessimism about the system leads to the argument that the best way to solve problems is to tear down the whole establishment. 

Zeeshan Aleem

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in, among other places, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Intercept. You can sign up for his free politics newsletter here.

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