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Courting the Kook Vote in Iowa, Vivek Draws the Ire of Trump
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Courting the Kook Vote in Iowa, Vivek Draws the Ire of Trump

Ramaswamy is fourth in the polls, but top-of-mind for the former president.

Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to attendees during a campaign stop on January 14, 2024, in Ankeny, Iowa. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

ANKENY, Iowa—Vivek Ramaswamy was just going through his implausible plan for firing 75 percent of the federal workforce—“the first four agencies we’re going to shut down outright are the FBI, the ATF, the CDC, and the U.S. Department of Education”—when he was interrupted by a man in the crowd.

“What about the CIA, sir?” asked an Iowan named Nathen Trausch. “That’s where all the pedophiles are.”

“Well, CIA is a major problem, but they shouldn’t even exist outside of the military,” Ramaswamy replied. He tried to turn the conversation back to his plan to slash the federal government before Trausch interrupted him again.

“Department of Defense has 5,000 pedophiles in it that in 2019 got arrested by Trump,” Trausch said.

“Well, you know, they deserve to actually be held accountable,” Ramaswamy replied. He later promised Trausch that he would arrest even more child sex-traffickers than Trump did.

It was par for the course for Ramaswamy, who in recent weeks has made an aggressive play for the kook vote. At the December 6 GOP presidential primary debate—the last he qualified for—Ramaswamy emphasized that he was the only candidate on stage who would say that “January 6 now does look like it was an inside job.” He spent the last week campaigning with Candace Owens, a media personality who has made headlines in recent months for her anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric, and former Iowa congressman Steve King, who was stripped of his committee assignments and defeated in a GOP primary following his comments questioning whether white supremacy should be considered “offensive.” 

What does Ramaswamy have to show for it? The final Des Moines Register poll conducted by the highly respected J. Ann Selzer found Ramaswamy ticking up a few points since December, from 5 percent to 8 percent, while Donald Trump ticked down a few points, from 51 percent to 48 percent.

It says a lot about how just how anticlimactic the Iowa GOP caucuses are, but the most interesting contretemps between the GOP candidates in the closing hours of the Iowa campaign was indeed a fight between the frontrunner hovering around 50 percent and the fourth-place candidate who is polling in the single digits.

“Vivek started his campaign as a great supporter,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, a couple hours before the DMR poll was publicly released. “Unfortunately, now all he does is disguise his support in the form of deceitful campaign tricks. Very sly, but a vote for Vivek is a vote for the ‘other side’ … Vivek is not MAGA.”

What Trump seemed to be taking issue with was Ramaswamy’s conspiracy-laden closing message: “Save Trump, Vote Vivek.” What is it Trump needs to be saved from?  As Ramasawamy explained in response to Trump’s social media attack, a “system” that won’t allow him to become president again and “will stop at *nothing* to keep him away from power.” 

“They want to narrow this to a two-horse race between Trump & Haley, eliminate Trump (one way or other), & trot their puppet into the White House,” he added. 

That “one way or other” is a dark and not-subtle suggestion that Ramaswamy thinks that “they”—who “they” are is not entirely clear—are willing to “eliminate” Trump by extra-legal means.

That brings us back to Ramaswamy’s encounter with Nathen Trausch at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria. While the exchange remained cordial so long as Trausch’s question was premised on slandering employees of the Department of Defense and CIA, things grew more heated when Ramaswamy dodged Trausch’s question about why Ramaswamy won’t say he’d be willing to be Trump’s vice president.

“They want to narrow this down to a two-horse race between Donald Trump and a puppet who they can control,” Ramaswamy said.  

“You always say that,” Trausch interrupted. 

“That’s because it’s the truth of what’s happening,” Ramaswamy replied. 

“So the government might kill Trump, but they won’t kill you?” Trausch asked. “Because you’re the most anti establishment guy, but—”

Ramaswamy then cut Trausch off, suggesting that he was paid to be there. After the event ended, Trausch said Ramaswamy’s accusation was “not true at all,” telling The Dispatch: “He got frustrated with me, called me a paid actor, so that’s why my vote’s probably going to Trump.” 

The dust-up between Trump and Ramaswamy over the weekend is a clear sign the Trump campaign is upset that Ramaswamy is shaving at least a few points off of Trump’s margin. While Ramaswamy’s presence in the caucuses won’t come anywhere close to peeling off enough Trump votes to cause Trump to lose, there’s a plausible case that Ramaswamy could play spoiler in New Hampshire in a close race between Trump and Nikki Haley.

At the end of his question-and-answer session in Ankeny, The Dispatch asked Ramaswamy if he could guarantee that he would stay in the race at least through Super Tuesday. Axios reported last week a number of GOP officials have “received job inquiries from multiple Ramaswamy campaign staffers since early November. One offered to start work on [February] 1—after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, but before Super Tuesday on March 5, when 16 states will hold Republican contests.”

“I’m gonna guarantee to stay in this race through November of this year when we win the election, through January of next year when I’m inaugurated as your next president, through January of 2033 when we leave that White House after two full terms,” Ramaswamy replied. On one hand, it sounded like a “yes,” but it’s also the kind of “in-it-to-win-it” boilerplate that can be wriggled out of.

During a press gaggle after the event, The Dispatch again tried to get a clear answer from Ramaswamy, asking if he could guarantee nothing could happen after Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina to get him to drop out and endorse Trump. Ramaswamy replied that he would “one-hundred percent guarantee that I will do the right thing for this country, and the right thing for this country is me staying in this race.”

It was, again, a less-than-absolute commitment, with more than enough wiggle room for the conspiracy theory to morph in such a way that requires, rather than forbids, Ramaswamy’s endorsement of Trump.

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.