West Palm Beach, Florida
They wore Trump hats and Trump T-shirts and cheered wildly when former President Donald Trump took the stage to fireworks. But at the Turning Point Action conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, some of the conservative attendees said they had a little space in their hearts for Vivek Ramaswamy – the GOP newcomer running a longshot presidential primary bid against Trump, whom he has promised to pardon if it comes to that.
What they told CNN they liked most was the way Ramaswamy comes across on TV. The 37-year-old extremely wealthy pharmaceutical entrepreneur has never held public office, but he’s quick and assertive, and has become a frequent guest on cable news and conservative YouTube channels. He’s best known for denouncing “wokeness,” which he says has infected American corporations and investment banks that influence them.
Karen Colby – standing next to the sequin-packed “Trump Girl Shop” booth featuring “Theresa’s Concealed Carry Handbags.” – said she’d recently seen Ramaswamy on TV. “I forget what he was actually saying, but I said, ‘Dang, I really like him. I like him a lot,’” said Colby, a Republican from Broward County, Florida. “I like his values. I like what he says. I like his no-nonsense attitude. … If he does not earn the position of president, I would love to see him as vice president. President Trump: if you’re listening, choose Vivek.”
In Republican primary polls, Ramaswamy is competitive with seasoned politicians, though still in single figures and far behind Trump. CNN did not encounter a Turning Point attendee who had something nice to say about former Vice President Mike Pence, who many saw as having betrayed Trump by certifying the 2020 election results. The pro-Trump crowd did not like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been critical of the former president. And though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was popular at the conference last year, he’s now fallen out of favor with this crowd amid his challenge to Trump, according to Turning Point spokesperson Andrew Kolvet.
But that didn’t kill their appetite for one of DeSantis’s signature issues: “wokeness.” And on that subject, they found a lot to like in Ramaswamy, who wrote a book called “Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.” His argument is that corporations make statements about liberal social values and climate change at the expense of their profits, and that that is bad for investors and consumers.
Dolan Bair, a student at Wheaton College in Illinois, found Ramaswamy’s argument convincing. He thought a lot of big companies “push more liberal agendas,” and “maybe the government should not allow them to hold their liberal values over their consumers and their employees.”
Sure, Apple and Google were private companies, he said, but they’re so large he couldn’t avoid them. He could buy a different beer than Bud Light but there wasn’t a good option for a non-woke search engine.
Bair believed gay people had been treated unfairly, even imprisoned, in the past. “But at what point does Pride Month go away?” he asked. “When does when does Pride Month become two months? When does it become Pride Year?” CNN asked how a Pride Year – with more rainbow merchandise at Target, for instance – would affect him personally. “They could be using their money to go into R&D for better products, or lowering their product prices,” he said, echoing an argument made by Ramaswamy.
Sam Mathew was the most ardent Ramaswamy supporter CNN found, decked out in merch bearing the campaign’s slogan, “Truth.” “I like the way Vivek delivers the message on how to bring the country together by following the truth,” Mathew said. What did he mean by truth? “Truth, basically, to me, is exposing the lies,” he said.
Ramaswamy campaigns on “10 truths,” starting with “God is real,” and “There are only two genders.” CNN asked Mathew why the gender issue was so important, given the scale of national and global problems. “If you don’t have a base, where there’s a man and a woman – and if you’re confusing the young generation with a third gender, or a fourth gender, or a fifth gender – then the whole concept of humanity is lost,” Mathew said.
Mathew, an Indian American like Ramaswamy, immigrated to the US in the late 80s and went to college in Michigan. Back then, he saw hardly any other Indians in his neighborhood. Mathew knew racism existed. But since the Obama administration, he said, there was too much focus on race from elites. He felt liberal social values were being “pushed” through “constant bombarding” from news media, teachers’ unions, and universities. “I don’t know much about what is being taught, but from what I hear, it’s mostly telling Black kids that White people are bad, in simple terms,” Mathew said.
In the conference’s presidential straw poll, Trump won 86% of votes. When attendees were asked for their second choice, Ramaswamy got 51%.
As Trump was about to take the stage at the conference, CNN got a text from Kolvet, the Turning Point spokesperson, asking if If there was interest in an interview with Ramaswamy, a man who has raised his profile with his openness to all media – from network TV to niche podcasts. Shortly before the interview began, Ramaswamy got an email from Jordan Peterson asking him to come for another podcast chat. Peterson is a Canadian psychology professor best known for his opposition to what he calls “cultural Marxism” and his advice to young men that they stand up straight and clean their rooms.
In his interview with CNN – as he has in many, many other venues – Ramaswamy went to his central point and said wokeness was a “symptom of a cultural cancer” that was filling a hole in the hearts of people who had lost their national identity.
“I think the way we win is by taking a long, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves who we really are as individuals – it is not just our race, it is not just our sexual identity or our gender, it is not just our political affiliation,” Ramaswamy said. “Ask ourselves, ‘Who am I as an individual?’ I’m not riding some tectonic plate of group identity. I am me. You are you,” he said.
“I think the right way to deal with what I view as the last final burning embers of racism is to let that quietly burn out rather than trying to put that fire out by accidentally throwing kerosene on it,” Ramaswamy said.
Turning Point had set up a wall with three-foot cardboard cutouts of all the candidates’ faces, and invited conference-goers to write what they thought of each on sticky notes. On Ramaswamy’s face, most views had been positive – “the future,” “unite us plz,” “Vivek have my children,” “Trump’s VP.”
But there was a dark side: two messages had white nationalist references. On one, a Star of David crossed out with the word “soon.” On the other, “1488,” which combines code for a slogan about protecting White children with code for “Heil Hitler.”
Ramaswamy said he had not seen the notes or ever heard of the 1488 meme. He knew racism still existed and had experienced it. But people faced a choice, he said, whether to “wallow” in it.
When CNN pointed out the notes to Kolvet, the Turning Point spokesperson, he took them down.