You may have noticed that Vivek Ramaswamy is the political flavor of the moment, thanks to his supercaffeinated performance at the Aug. 23 GOP political debate.
By constantly interrupting his fellow would-be presidential aspirants with a firehose of cocksure imbecilities, Ramaswamy captured the attention of the political chattering classes.
Since the debate, he has landed interviews on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN and Fox News, where he generally has doubled down on his spectacularly ignorant views about 9/11, Jan. 6, global warming and Israel policy.
The climate change agenda is a hoax….The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.
— Vivek Ramaswamy offering a fatuous non-fact
But there’s a more fascinating aspect to Ramaswamy’s sudden apotheosis in the political firmament. In his quest to nail down the position of leading ignoramus in the still nascent presidential race, he has completely pushed aside the previous holder of that chair, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
You remember RFK Jr., don’t you? He’s the scion of a leading liberal Democratic family who took on the coloration of an anti-science Republican to challenge, putatively, President Biden for the Democratic nomination for 2024.
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Kennedy and Ramaswamy share some rhetorical techniques. One is to roll over an interviewer with an outpouring of claims and assertions so overwhelming that their interlocutor has little opportunity to get a word in edgewise, much less counter their falsities by painstakingly mustering facts.
This technique is often labeled the “Gish gallop,” named for a notorious creationist who would conduct debates with experts in evolution by “spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.”
The Gish gallop has been constantly on display recently. Donald Trump used it to trample CNN anchor Kaitlin Collins during their recent town hall. Ramaswamy used it to leave MSNBC interviewer Andrea Mitchell silent and nonplussed during their recent broadcast encounter.
When that fails Ramaswamy and Kennedy have responded to questions about their statements and writings by flatly denying they said what they did. Kennedy did so during questioning by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) at a hearing convened by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to allow Kennedy to air his false views.
Schultz referred to Kennedy’s statement, at a fundraising dinner in New York, that “COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” He shot back, “You are slandering me incorrectly…. My views are constantly misrepresented.” But his quote was recorded, on video.
Ramaswamy employs the same dodge. Fox News host Sean Hannity questioned him about a quote in which he indicated he believed American aid to Israel should end in 2028.
“That’s false,” Ramaswamy said. Hannity shot back, “I have an exact quote. Want me to read it?” What followed was an extended view of Ramaswamy backpedaling furiously.
Ramaswamy and Kennedy aren’t the first would-be candidates unprepared for the campaign spotlight whom rent-seeking political advisors and other shills have paraded past the fans.
For some indecipherable reason, in recent times most, though not all, such aspirants for the presidency or vice presidency seem to be Republicans. But regardless of their partisan affiliation, what they have in common is the tendency to commit some farcical malapropism early in their campaign that exposed, in a soundbite, their unfitness for office.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for instance (lampooned by Molly Ivins during his gubernatorial tenure as “Governor Goodhair”). During a GOP debate among White House aspirants in November 2011, Perry declared there were “three agencies of the government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the, uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see…” Pressed by a moderator to name the third, he consulted his notes and said, finally, “I can’t, sorry. Oops.”
Former Vice President Dan Quayle reigns as sort of the elder statesman in this category. Quayle never lived down the skewering he received in the 1988 vice presidential debate from Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the VP candidate on the Dukakis ticket, after he boasted of having had more experience in Congress than John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency, a comparison he had made before.
It was untrue — Kennedy had served six years in the House and seven in the Senate when he ran for president in 1960, and Quayle had served four years in the House and eight in the Senate when he was tapped for the vice presidential slot on George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
No one bothered to do the math, however, because Bentsen destroyed Quayle’s point with a rapier thrust. “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” he said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
“That was really uncalled for, Senator,” a stricken Quayle replied, which only gave Bentsen the opening for another thrust.
Quayle became known for a string of gaffes. He paraphrased the United Negro College Fund’s tagline, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” as “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.” He lectured a schoolchild’s correct spelling of “potato” at a spelling bee, getting it wrong as “potatoe.”
Not all verbal missteps came from Republicans. There was Adm. James Stockdale, the vice presidential candidate on Ross Perot’s Reform Party ticket in 1992, who opened his appearance at the vice presidential debate that year with the lines, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Stockdale may have meant those words to be a prelude to introducing himself to an electorate who knew nothing about him, but they resembled the reaction by a hospital patient to awaking from a coma.
Not all these candidates were incompetents or boobs in their nonpolitical lives. Some were guilty of overreaching, or believing that their other accomplishments made them presidential timber.
Herman Cain had assembled a creditable record as a business executive when he briefly ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011. He failed to take the effort seriously, emitting a string of ethnic jokes on the campaign trail and advancing an income tax plan that would have devastated government revenues while raising taxes on middle- and working-class Americans.
That brings us back to Ramaswamy and Kennedy. Though they both rely on certain rhetorical techniques, more generally they use different methods to pump lies into the public discourse.
Kennedy often has cited scientific studies to back up his anti-vaccine positions, such as that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism, that polio vaccines have killed “many, many, many, many, many, many more people than polio ever did” (which is absurd) and that COVID-19 was engineered to target certain ethnic groups and leave others immune.
Some studies he cites have long since been refuted by further research. The study that associated the MMR vaccine with autism was retracted years ago for fraud and its lead author stripped of his medical license in Britain; no scientifically validated study has found any such association.
The study Kennedy cited as the source of his claim that COVID-19 had been ethnically targeted said no such thing. Nor did it address the issue of ethnic targeting at all.
But by referring to it, Kennedy was able to dress up his utterly false claim with a veneer of scientific validity.
“RFK Jr. counts on the fact that few people will read the studies he claims support his outlandish views,” the eminent American vaccine scientist Paul Offit observed in a comprehensive demolition of Kennedy’s claim. That’s true.
Offit has further noted that given the sheer volume of scientific research around the world, it’s not difficult to find some study, somewhere, to support even the most preposterous assertion. The average layperson — even most scientists — don’t have the time or expertise to judge the validity of all the cited papers.
Ramaswamy doesn’t try to bathe his claims with validated science. He’s more about making attention-grabbing assertions that aren’t supported by anything but his own conjectures, then backtracking when he’s challenged. During the GOP debate, he stated baldly, “The climate change agenda is a hoax…. The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”
An advocate of subjecting prospective voters to civics tests, he also asserted that the U.S. Constitution “is what won us the American Revolution.” Actually, the Revolutionary War ended with the American colonists’ victory in 1783; the Constitution was not drafted until 1787 or ratified until 1788. But no fact-checking was possible until after the GOP candidates left the stage, at which point few viewers were paying attention.
In an interview with the Atlantic, Ramaswamy said, regarding 9/11: “I think it is legitimate to say how many police, how many federal agents, were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers. Maybe the answer is zero. It probably is zero for all I know, right? I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero. But if we’re doing a comprehensive assessment of what happened on 9/11, we have a 9/11 commission, absolutely that should be an answer the public knows the answer to.”
He tied that to Jan. 6 by asking, “Here are the people who were unarmed. What percentage of the people who were armed were federal law-enforcement officers? I think it was probably high, actually…. Most of the people who were armed, I assume the federal officers who were out there were armed. And so, I don’t know the answers. We deserve to know the answers, right?”
When asked by CNN anchor Collins about these statements, Ramaswamy claimed that he had been misquoted. The Atlantic subsequently released a recording of its interview, which proved that he had been quoted absolutely verbatim.
The presidential campaign now unfolding will test the ability of our political press to separate the wheat from the chaff among candidates as never before. At this early stage, its failure is already manifest.
There is no reason to give charlatans like Ramaswamy and Kennedy uncritical airtime on cable or column inches in print or online except that they’re shiny objects that cable shows and political pundits think will draw viewers and readers. They offer no legitimate policy proposals, back up their claims with no facts. The result is a series of encounters in which (to quote Joan Didion) “measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”
It’s possible that as fringe candidates Ramaswamy and Kennedy will cancel each other out. But that may only leave a vacuum to be filled by the next glittery charlatan to catch the media’s attention.
After the debate, I described Ramaswamy as an “attention whore.” The label applies equally to RFK Jr. But what does that say about the news organizations that put them on the air?
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