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Knives Out for Vivek! Olivia Reingold

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Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy in the media spin room after the first debate of the GOP primary season. (All photos by Mustafa Hussain for The Free Press)

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Heading into Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate, 55 percent of Republican voters were backing Donald Trump, who didn’t even bother to show up. So why did millions of viewers tune in? 

Simple. To find out if any of the other eight Republicans who made it onto the debate stage has a chance of unseating him.

One way to judge the answer was to spend five minutes in the spin room with the press gaggle after the two-hour debate. Former and current governors were ignored. A staffer for one of those campaigns tried to offer an interview to a CNN reporter, who politely declined: “Sorry, they really want Vivek.” 

And immediately, when the man himself walked out, he was mobbed. Only a few months ago, most of this crowd didn’t know his name, but now they were screaming it at full volume. 

“Vivek, what’s your takeaway?!”

“How do you think you did tonight?!”

“What comes next for the campaign—how do you build upon this momentum?”

Another way to gauge it is to watch who took the most heat over the two-hour brawl. That lightning rod would be Vivek Ramaswamy—the 38-year-old political neophyte who dominated the night in Milwaukee. (And who was the most googled person last night in America other than Yevgeny Prigozhin). 

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie compared Ramaswamy to Barack Obama, calling him an “amateur.” At another point, he jabbed: “I’ve had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” 

Former vice president Mike Pence called Ramaswamy a “rookie.” He rubbed it in: “Let me explain it to you, Vivek, if I can. I’ll go slower this time. Now is not the time for on-the-job training.”

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley slammed him: “He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel,” she said. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.” (She drew blood and loud cheers from the audience.)

It went on like this all night. But none of it seemed to bother Vivek, who—unlike Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who seemed to keep reminding himself to look happy—could not wipe the shit-eating grin off his face.

He seemed to be having a spectacular time.

And why shouldn’t he?

Ramaswamy, the founder of the biotechnology firm Roivant Sciences, was polling around one percent a few months ago. Now he’s at just under ten percent, which puts him in third behind Trump, polling at 52.1 percent, and DeSantis, at 15.2 percent.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis (with wife Casey) reportedly planned to “hammer” Ramaswamy at the debate, but for long stretches he barely made a peep.

Back in November, DeSantis was being hailed as the future of the Republican Party—a more palatable inheritor of Trumpism. But despite being the early favorite and raising $20 million in his campaign’s first six weeks, he is now polling at 15.2 percent. That number seems to get worse the more voters see of him.

Ahead of the debate, The New York Times reported that a trove of documents revealing the DeSantis debate strategy was posted on a website affiliated with his super PAC, Never Back Down. One key note urged him ​​“to take a sledgehammer” to Vivek. Others cued him to “Call him ‘Fake Vivek’ or ‘Vivek the Fake.’ ”

But DeSantis barely made a mark last night. He had a single compelling opening line: “Our country is in decline,” he said. “The decline is a choice.” But the rest of the debate, he slipped into the shadows. There were stretches of time when he didn’t make a peep—until he popped back up, either to make a dig at Fauci or Hunter Biden. Once, he didn’t seem to understand it was his turn to answer—he just stood there wide-eyed, blinking, until the moderator prompted him again. 

In contrast, by the end of the first hour, Ramaswamy was trending on Twitter. For what? It could’ve been any of the following: Saying Ukrainian president Zelensky was the “pope” of professional politicians. Saying “more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.” Saying he wanted to dismantle the Department of Education and the FBI. 

Mike Pence slammed Ramaswamy as a “rookie,” adding that “now is not the time for on-the-job training.”

“The real choice we face in this primary is this. Do you want a super PAC puppet, or do you want a patriot who speaks the truth? Do you want incremental reform, which is what you’re hearing about, or do you want revolution?” 

The only candidate who came out looking stronger from the evening was Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, looked and sounded presidential, and ripped into Ramaswamy, saying he lacked “moral clarity” and was “choosing a murderer”—Russian president Vladimir Putin—over the forces of democracy.

But for the most part it was as if there were really two kinds of candidates on stage—Ramaswamy and everyone else. The candidate who got that the game had been changed metabolically by the 2016 presidential election, and pretty much everyone else (starting with Pence, Christie, and DeSantis), who seemed to think GOP voters still care about their résumés.

“You hand it over to a new generation to actually fix the problem. That’s why I’m in this race, and we’re just getting warmed up,” Ramaswamy said, taking a swipe at everyone else on stage and—more importantly—making the case to the millions of Trump voters out there that, sure, the former president may be a force for good, but he’s pushing eighty. Maybe his best years are behind him. Plus, he has those four indictments and an inability to fight without name-calling. What Vivek promises is an “America First 2.0” agenda, as he’s branded it, but in the package of a Harvard man with a private plane, prepared to quote both the Founding Fathers and the Bible. (Like Trump, he also has his own hat. Instead of MAGA, it’s labeled TRUTH.)

Ramaswamy is swarmed by the media after his performance.

And, like the former president, he easily goes viral.

He started the week by posting a video of himself, shirtless on a tennis court, grunting and leaping to hit balls like his candidacy depended on it. “Three hours of solid debate prep this morning,” he captioned the clip, now seen over seven million times. 

“That was my tennis court,” his neighbor from back home in Columbus, Ohio, proudly tells me at a rally Tuesday night in downtown Milwaukee (she asked to withhold her name out of fear that it could reveal Ramaswamy’s home address).

“He can use it whenever he wants—he’s a great tennis player. But he uses it rarely now; he’s been busy.” 

When did she realize she might be living next door to the next president of the United States of America? Oh, the first time she met him, she says—about two years ago, when he came to their local country club to talk about his new book, Woke, Inc., his takedown of corporate America’s social policies that earned him airtime on Fox News. 

“I knew he was special,” she says about their initial meeting. “You could hear a pin drop.”

Her friend, a blonde woman who also lives in the neighborhood, jumps in. “That’s when he inspired all of us,” she says. “His message was so inspiring that we felt like, ‘This is somebody who can unite us, not further divide us.’ There’s so much acrimony in our country, and it’s not just about a party. It’s about a message.”

Donald Trump skipped the debate (opting instead for a social media interview with Tucker Carlson), but his supporters were out in force in Milwaukee.

That’s the vision Ramaswamy is trying to sell to more than just his neighbors: that his America First 2.0 agenda stems from a positive playbook that doesn’t just harp on everything wrong with the country but encourages Americans to envision what could go right, too. At campaign events like his pre-debate event, Ramaswamy passes out pamphlets meant to look like an aged document like the Constitution, that list “Ten Truths.”

“We’re not just running from something,” the booklet, which Ramaswamy says he wrote while overcome with an epiphany on his private plane, proclaims. “We’re running to something.”

This is what he says will achieve national unity: “God is real, there are two genders, human flourishing requires fossil fuels,” and so on, and so forth. By the time he gets to the tenth “truth,” he’s touched every hot-button topic: affirmative action, capitalism, the FBI, and American exceptionalism. 

But perhaps he’s looking for “truth” in the wrong places. A few days ago, the candidate got into hot water when The Atlantic published a profile of him, in which he questioned “how many police were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers.” 

“Maybe the answer is zero,” he said about the 9/11 attacks. “It probably is zero for all I know, right? I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero.”

When questioned by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins this week, he claimed the quote was “taken out of context,” even though the Atlantic reporter had published audio of the exchange online. One Wisconsin voter I met told me this whole ordeal is why Ramaswamy “is not a serious candidate.” 

“I think it’s embarrassing,” says Logan Sajdowitz, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (he prefers DeSantis). “It’s weird.” 

But Sajdowitz also is no fan of Trump. For those who are, Ramaswamy is seeming more and more like an appealing alternative to an ex-president weighed down with way too much baggage. 

Back at Ramaswamy’s pre-debate rally, I spotted one of those voters. As soon as the young candidate thanked the crowd, a man in a MAGA hat and muddy Crocs pulled him in for a photo. 

“We’ve gotta swap that out for a Truth hat,” Ramaswamy joked, patting the guy on the back.

That’s when the man replied: “Oh, I have one already.” 

Olivia Reingold is a writer for The Free Press. Listen for more of her thoughts on the debate at our media roundtable moderated by Bari, which drops on Honestly later today.

And to support our mission of independent journalism, become a Free Press subscriber today:

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Also: We’re hosting our first live debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles! Has the sexual revolution failed? Come argue about it and have a drink. We can’t wait to meet you in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates. 

 

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WATCH: ‘This Is My First Rodeo’ | Ben Meets America Ben Kawaller

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In the latest stop on his cross-country quest to understand America, Ben Kawaller watches men hurl cows to the ground.

Last month I attended The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, a city of around 400,000 souls situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first rodeo, and it did not take me long after entering its host venue, the gargantuan Globe Life Field, to realize that I did not know what a rodeo was. If you’d asked me six weeks ago to define the term, I would have said something like, “It’s when you watch someone career around an enclosed pen on an animal.” 

Which is actually not too far off. But what I hadn’t realized is that a rodeo is actually a sporting event. 

You see, some people are especially good at bending these animals to their will, and if you are one of those people, you can win competitions for things like making the animals run very fast, or tying the animals up very quickly, or not dying while trying to sit on one of the animals.

Of course, I wasn’t really there for the games; I was there to talk to the crowd about what makes our society so divided. If you’re tuning in for the first time to my new series—“Ben Meets America”—I was born and raised in progressive Brooklyn, I now live in West Hollywood, and I will admit to being soft in some fundamental way. Suffice it to say I get a more transcendent high from watching a torch song than I do from watching a man hurl a small cow to the ground.

But, in fact, theater and rodeo have their similarities. If you’ve been to a play in recent years, you will have suffered the degradation of a “land acknowledgement.” This is when the audience is told before the show—either in an announcement or in the program notes—that they’ve gathered on land stolen from whatever Native American tribe existed there years ago. My sense is that some of this is rooted in the idea that America itself is fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever’s behind it, the inclusion of a land acknowledgement has become de rigueur.

I did not think conservatives did land acknowledgements, so I was surprised when the Native American actor Mo Brings Plenty appeared before the start of one of the competitions and performed a minute or two of indigenous wailing. I believe the intent of this was to, well, acknowledge the fact that Native American bloodshed was central to the expansion of the American West. What I did not expect was the incongruence of what came after. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I’m still puzzling over its significance.

In the end, however, I decided I prefer the conservative version of a land acknowledgement. Unlike the inane liberal sacrament, it appears to be capable of expressing two truths at once: that oceans of indigenous blood were spilled in the creation of this country, and that we live in one of the greatest nations on earth.

Even if one of our favorite spectator sports is man versus cow.

Only paid subscribers can see Ben’s video on The American Rodeo. Become one today and scroll down to watch.

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April 14, 2024 Garamond

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Senate spotlight: A Trump Republican’s China problem Judd Legum

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November’s election will not only determine which party controls the White House but also the United States Senate. Currently, the Democratic caucus holds a narrow 51-49 advantage. Control of the chamber will come down to a handful of competitive races. This is the first installment in a series that takes a deep dive into the issues shaping these campaigns. 

In Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno (R) is attempting to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown (D). Ohio, once a swing state, has been trending Republican. Moreno’s campaign strategy is to attach himself at the hip to Donald Trump. He refers to himself as the “Trump endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate from Ohio.” This helped him easily win the Republican primary against a field of more politically experienced opponents.  

In a potential second term, Trump is vowing to declare economic war on China, promising to “tax China to build America up.” Trump’s plan is to revoke China’s most favored nation trading status and impose a tariff on Chinese goods of up to 60%. (The policy would cost the typical American household thousands of dollars annually and increase inflation.) Imports of “essential goods” from China, including electronics, steel, and pharmaceuticals, would be completely banned

Moreno has taken a similar approach, saying he is running for Senate to “Beat Communist China.” To bolster his anti-China credentials, Moreno claims to have a history of combating Chinese power. These stories, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Moreno made his fortune through buying and selling car dealerships. As his wealth increased, so did his interest in Republican politics. In 2011, former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appointed him to the board of trustees at Cleveland State, one of Ohio’s public universities. Moreno served as chairman of the Cleveland State board from 2016 to 2018.

Confucius Institutes, which offer “Chinese language and culture programs,” were established at numerous U.S. universities beginning in 2005. They were partially funded by the Chinese government. Over time, there were bipartisan concerns that Confucius Institutes were being used to promote Chinese government propaganda or even to facilitate espionage. On the campaign trail, Moreno has repeatedly claimed that, in his role as chair of Cleveland State’s Board of Trustees, he eliminated the university’s Confucius Institute.

Here is how Moreno described his role in a March 2023 campaign event:

I chaired the board of trustees at Cleveland State University, and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was there, we got rid of our Confucius Institute. We made certain that we focused everybody on student achievement, and we respected free speech on campus.

He made a nearly identical claim in October 2023. But it is a lie.

Moreno’s service on the board ended in May 2018. Cleveland State did not shut down its Confucius Institute until 2021. The truth is, while Moreno was on the board, he repeatedly approved funding for Cleveland State’s Confucius Institute. In 2016, when Moreno was still vice chairman, he voted to approve $38,000 in funding for the school’s Confucius Institute. The following year, as chairman, Moreno voted to re-up the funding. Minutes from these meetings show that Moreno did not express any concerns about the Confucius Institute

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Moreno told the Columbus Dispatch that he deserves credit for the elimination of the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State because of “his role in the hiring of Harlan Sands, who was Cleveland State’s president when the institute closed.” There are a couple of issues with this response. First, this is not what Moreno said previously. He clearly said that the board “got rid” of the Confucius Institute while he was chair. Second, Cleveland State did not eliminate the Confucius Institute because of the initiative of President Sands. Cleveland State, along with nearly all other universities, closed its Confucius Institute after Congress passed legislation in 2018 and 2020 limiting federal funding for universities that maintained the Confucius Institutes. From 2019 to 2023, the number of Confucius Institutes operating in the United States went from about 100 to fewer than 5.

The truth about Moreno and Chinese-made SUVs

“When I was a General Motors dealer, I sold Buicks. The Buick Envision was made in China. I told General Motors I wouldn’t sell one of them, don’t even ship it to me,” Moreno said during a February 10, 2024 radio interview. “They threatened me and sent me all kinds of nasty notes… we have to actually take this stand…”

That story, which Moreno also told during his brief run for Senate in 2021, is a lie. 

In reality, Moreno sold the Buick Envision at his dealership for at least five years — from 2014 to 2019 — and promoted the vehicle repeatedly on its social media channels, an investigation by NY1 revealed

A December 13, 2016 video published on the “Bernie Moreno Companies” YouTube page begins with this testimonial: “My name is Kayla McCullough. I purchased a 2017 Buick Envision from Buick GMC of Beachwood… I highly recommend you visit the team at Buick GMC of Beachwood, a Bernie Moreno company.”

Moreno’s campaign “acknowledged to Spectrum News that his dealership did sell the Chinese-made SUVs.” It claimed that “in response to the closure of the Lordstown Plant here in Ohio [in March 2019],  Bernie made a decision to stop any new inventory of Envision’s from being sold at his dealership. After he sold off the inventory he already had on the lot, he refused to take orders for more Envisions.” This explanation, however, makes little sense as the Envision was also produced in China and never at Ohio’s Lordstown Plant. Moreno’s dealerships also continued to advertise for the Envision months after the closure of the plant. 

 

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