URBANDALE, Iowa—Before talking to a crowd of Iowa retirees about dismantling the “deep state” for what was, by his estimate, his 390th stump speech in the state, Vivek Ramaswamy allowed himself a moment of reflection on what had changed since he launched his bid for president.
Beaming at the crowd inside the farm-themed restaurant where he held his first Iowa event, Ramaswamy proudly remarked that it was “a little more packed this time.”
If that was all that had changed, the 38-year old biotech millionaire might have been the biggest winner of the 2024 GOP primary not named Donald Trump. Although he’s not expected to land much more than 10 percent of the caucus vote on Monday, Ramaswamy began the primary as a political nobody and was poised to end it as a potential Cabinet pick for Trump.
Or, at least, he was.
In the final 72 hours of the Iowa caucus campaign, one in which he gleefully pushed all manner of boundaries, Ramaswamy finally—and perhaps fatally—appears to have incurred Trump’s wrath.
After all the obsequious praise, after all the bloviating conspiracies, Trump and his team finally recognized the grandest conspiracy of all: If you were trying to steal votes directly from Trump, you’d run a campaign like Ramaswamy.
Poetically, Ramaswamy was done in with an audacious argument that distilled the tortured logic of his campaign—that, in order to save Trump, America First patriots needed to vote for him.
As with most things involving this candidate, the trouble started online. In a post on X on Saturday, he outlined the “plot” that’s “hiding in plain sight” to “narrow this to a 2-horse race between Trump & Haley… eliminate Trump… [and] trot their puppet into the White House.”
Insisting he respects the “hell out of Trump,” and taking pains to note his conspicuous support of Trump amid his legal challenges, Ramaswamy urged Republicans to “OPEN YOUR EYES to the hard TRUTH: this system will stop at nothing to keep this man away from the White House.”
For the first time, Ramaswamy was making an explicit appeal to voters why they should support him over Trump. And for the first time, Trump’s team unloaded on an unexpected ally who, having outlived his usefulness, was on the brink of becoming just another one of the haters and losers.
“Vivek Ramswamy is a fraud … and a classic conman … a classic “pump and dump” scheme on the MAGA movement,” tweeted Trump’s campaign manager, Chris LaCivita, in response.
Swiftly came the dagger from the former president: “Vivek started his campaign as a great supporter, ‘the best President in generations,’ etc.,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform. “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’—don’t get duped by this.”
In perhaps the most surprising move of a surprising campaign, Ramaswamy did not back away. “Donald Trump was the greatest President of the 21st century, and I’m not going to criticize him in response to this late attack,” he wrote on X. Instead, he re-stated his conspiratorial theory that “they” won’t let Trump win a second term.
“I’m worried for Trump. I’m worried for our country,” he said. “I want to save Trump & to save this country. Let’s do it together. You won’t hear any friendly fire from me.”
As Ramaswamy criss-crossed Iowa in the frigid final 48 hours of the campaign, he continued raising the point, despite incurring vicious blowback from Trumpworld and MAGA loyalists. Ramaswamy fans began showing up to his events with campaign shirts saying “SAVE TRUMP, VOTE VIVEK,” with Trump’s Georgia mugshot superimposed on an outline of Iowa.
“They’re not going to let this man get anywhere near the White House again, and it’s disgusting, but these people now will stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, to keep this man away from the levers of power,” Ramaswamy said on Monday morning in Urbandale.
“But our America First movement cannot end with Trump, because it didn’t start with Trump,” he continued. “It didn’t start in 2016. It started in 1776.”
Before Ramaswamy’s experiment began fraying this weekend, it seemed that the America First movement could at least continue with him—not just in 2024, but in 2028 and beyond. Having made a name and legions of fans for himself in this campaign, he was about to become perhaps the first Republican to run against Trump and emerge with a career, not without one.
That’s because Ramaswamy didn’t really challenge Trump; he fawned over him. He competed for voters with the former president in the way that a tribute band competes for listeners with the original band—a fresh voice playing the same hits with a little extra verve.
There were even signs that Ramaswamy was assembling elements of a future right-wing populist movement in the way Trump had before his 2016 run.
With a conspiratorial bent making Trump’s fixation on grand cabals look tame by comparison, Ramaswamy staked his campaign as a fight against shadowy elements using everything from the news media to COVID vaccines to the deep state to control and subdue the American public. He associated with figures eschewed even by the Trump establishment, like InfoWars host and Sandy Hook conspiracist Alex Jones, and attracted enthusiastic support from figures like Pizzagate peddler Mike Cernovich.
On the trail in Iowa, Ramaswamy’s frequent hype man was former Iowa Rep. Steve King, the original far-right voice in Congress, who was stripped of his committee assignments by GOP leaders in 2019 after publicly wondering why “white supremacy” had negative connotations. King lost re-election in a 2020 primary after being abandoned by virtually all Republicans, including Trump.
In his stump speech, Ramaswamy sounds remarkably like Trump did in 2016, focusing repeatedly on his wealth and how it made him the only candidate in the race with unimpeachable integrity.
“I want you to ask yourself, why am I the only candidate who’s able to tell you these things?” Ramaswamy said, after talking to the crowd about why RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel needed to go, why “peaceful” Jan. 6 defendants should get pardoned, and why climate change is a “hoax.”
“It’s because our politics has become corrupt,” he said, to an applauding crowd. “Every politician is just dancing to the tune of their biggest donor—and in my case, that biggest donor is me. I don’t report to them, I report to you. I would rather speak the truth and lose this election than to win by playing some fake game of political snakes and ladders.”
Indeed, Ramaswamy’s campaign is centered on the idea of truth and telling it. The word is his slogan, slapped on hats, pamphlets, bumper stickers, and his website. His platform consists of 10 “truths,” like “there are two genders” and “fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity.”
With hours until the caucus that Ramaswamy has spent millions of his own dollars and thousands of hours campaigning to win, his supporters had some hard truths for him.
Dave Aust, a retiree from West Des Moines who voted for Trump twice, sat after Ramaswamy’s speech at the Machine Shed restaurant, clutching a “Truth” pamphlet and preparing to caucus for him on Monday night. He said he understood Ramaswamy’s argument that MAGA voters needed to support him in order to protect Trump, saying there’s “no way Trump is going to get a fair trial.”
But Aust said the candidate he was supporting was not going to be president—not this year, anyway.
“To be honest, I want Ron DeSantis to win,” Aust said.
Ramaswamy, he added, could make for a good DeSantis vice president.