Rise of the Republican edgelord: If Trump is the GOP's present, Vivek Ramaswamy is its future

Smiling, spouting nonsense and owning the libs: This guy, not Ron DeSantis, is where the GOP is going next

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 28, 2023 9:48AM (EDT)

Vivek Ramaswamy talks to members of the media in the spin room following the first debate of the GOP primary season on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Vivek Ramaswamy talks to members of the media in the spin room following the first debate of the GOP primary season on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There's a lot of talk these days about what will become of the Republican Party once Donald Trump is gone. That seems a bit premature: Trump is still very much with us, and whether he wins or loses next year, he's not going anywhere until he's six feet under. Still, the man is 77 years old, so it's natural to consider what's going to be left of the hulking wreck of the GOP once he leaves this mortal coil.

The fact that Trump remains the runaway favorite to win the 2024 Republican nomination despite the 91 felony charges he faces in four different cases really says it all about where the party is today. Polling over the past couple of weeks confirms that most Republicans still claim to believe the Big Lie and say that that Trump's legal troubles are trumped-up charges made by a Democratic "deep state" conspiracy. How many Republican voters actually believe that this is unknowable, but it's clear that for now they're sticking with their man regardless. Criminal or not, they like what he's selling. No, actually they love it. And what he's selling, essentially, is transgression. 

They love Trump's crude defiance of all social norms, and the way he acts as if those norms don't even exist. They love that he doesn't follow the rules, or even the law, if that's what it takes to get what he wants. They love it that their enemies can't make Trump capitulate even when he's caught red-handed. They believe that he is being persecuted — just as they believe they themselves are persecuted — for saying or thinking things that aren't "woke" or politically correct, and they love that he won't stop doing it no matter what. They love that he will do literally anything to "own the libs," even when that seems self-destructive or senseless, because that is what it will take to make America "great again," or at least to feel like it's theirs again.

Are the underlying attitudes that fuel this love for Trump the new ideology (if you want to call it that) of the Republican Party? I hope not, but I really don't know. The sinking of the good ship DeSantis shows that it takes more than "anti-woke" policies to capture these voters' attention. Trump has proved that policy in general is pretty much an afterthought in today's GOP. After all, the party didn't even bother to publish a platform in 2020, just opting for a statement that essentially said, "We'll have whatever Trump is having." He has no ideology and holds no fixed political positions, and neither do his MAGA followers. It's all about defiance, disobedience and breaking the rules. He makes it OK for his followers to let their freak flags fly (or at least the giant Trump flags on their F-150s), just as he does.

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There's a term for people who do this: "edgelords," defined as those who "intentionally expresses opinions that are likely to shock or offend people, especially on the internet, as a way of making others notice or admire them." I'm reminded of one young fellow who joined the white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching at Charlottesville in 2017 who explained what that was all about for him:

It's kind of a fun idea. Just being able to say, like, "Hey man, white power!" You know? To be quite honest, I love to be offensive. It's fun.

Don't underestimate the fun factor in the Trump phenomenon. A recent New York Times/Siena poll of likely Republican voters actually asked whether Trump or DeSantis rated as more "fun" — and it wasn't close. When it comes to traditional personal qualities one might seek in a president, such as being "likable" and "moral," the two were rated about even. But when asked who was more "fun," Trump led by 53% to 16%, closely matching his overall position in the race. That's what makes him stand out: He makes owning the libs feel like a good time.

So where does all this go from here? We caught a glimpse this past week of how that might play out in a Trump-free world. At last week's Republican debate the nation was introduced to a charismatic gadfly named Vivek Ramaswamy, a previously unknown biotech entrepreneur who has made a surprising surge in the polls after impressing audiences in Iowa.

Even in that one appearance, you could see that Ramaswamy has a flair for the dramatic and cared nothing for the usual rules and norms of these political events. Like Trump in the 2016 debates, he insulted the other candidates, calling them all "bought and paid for" and launching obnoxious unprovoked attacks, all while pledging undying fealty to Donald Trump. He backed the idea of invading Mexico, denied the significance climate change (even agitating for more use of fossil fuels) and promised to pardon Trump if he wins the election. And all of that was delivered with a big, playful smile that gave the audience permission to enjoy the edgelord fun.

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Most of the stuff Ramaswamy says is frankly bizarre, seemingly designed for the express purpose of going viral. He talks a lot and he talks fast and most of the time it makes no sense. Here's one example that will make your head spin:

This is a guy who graduated from Harvard and then Yale Law School, and who says he wants all students to pass a civics test. Not that any of that matters: The Republican base doesn't care that what he says is nonsense, they just like the sound of it.

Ramaswamy was called to task on the Sunday shows for a couple of particularly odious comments he made on the issue of race. As CNN reported, he once declared:

I'm sure the boogeyman white supremacists exist somewhere in America. I have just never met him. Never seen one. Never met one in my life, right? Maybe I will meet a — maybe I will meet a unicorn sooner. And maybe those exist too.

Ramaswamy has also described Rep. Ayana Pressley, D-Mass., a Black progressive, as a "modern grand wizard of the KKK" and then complained that he was offended when journalist Kara Swisher referred to him as "Rama-smarmy," citing that racist. That's a quintessential edgelord trick: Make a heinous comment and then cry victim over something much less egregious, laughing all the way. CNN's Dana Bash and NBC's Chuck Todd pushed him hard but he just kept on talking, spouting gibberish and right-wing buzzwords until there was nothing left to say.

There isn't much good news in all this, I'm afraid. Ramaswamy certainly isn't going to become the 2024 nominee — not while they still have Trump, anyway — but he's the only other candidate who gets what the new crop of Republican voters respond to. He's a smart, highly educated, savvy, modern hustler with sharp political instincts. I'm afraid that the era of the GOP edgelord is already here, and there's a lot more right around the corner. That's not likely to be much fun for the rest of us. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Elections Republicans Ron Desantis Vivek Ramaswamy