In June, as the sun set on Dublin, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Columbus, several dozen people dressed in golf shirts and floral shifts filed into a small auditorium to listen to a talk by a new neighbor. Vivek Ramaswamy, a thirty-seven-year-old entrepreneur, had settled in the area with his wife and toddler son after making a large fortune as the founder of a biotech company. Now, thanks to dozens of appearances on Fox News to criticize “cultural totalitarianism” enforced by liberal élites, he was closing in on fame as a conservative pundit. In the past year, he had cast aspersions on Black Lives Matter and “the death of merit”; mask mandates and U.S.-border protection; public-school curricula and the actor Jussie Smollett. All the flame-throwing had established him, in the words of one anchor, as the network’s “woke and cancel-culture guru.”

Ramaswamy intended to sell his audience on the idea of “anti-woke investing”. To explain what that means requires a detour. Ramaswamy’s bete noire is Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, with ~$10 trillion in holdings. The CEO of Blackrock, Larry Fink, is a proponent of “environmental, social, and governance investing”, or E.S.G. for short. It dictates that investors have a responsibility not just to maximize profits (which was Milton Friedman’s famous idea), but also to promote other goals, including environmental and social ones. Ramaswamy views this idea as anathema, and believes that it represents a plot concocted by political elites (Democrats) working with financial elites (Fink). “[Ramaswamy] calls socially conscious investing…the gravest danger that American democracy faces today. E.S.G., he told his audience, lets the private sector “do through the back door what our government couldn’t directly get done through the front door.””

It’s unclear if Ramaswamy really believes this shit or is simply trying to make a buck.

Although he’d begun his talk by saying “there’s no agenda,” it eventually turned into a sales pitch for an investment company he’d just started. The company, Strive Asset Management, had the financial backing of the billionaire Peter Thiel, Vance’s V.C. firm, and other investors, and intended to compete with BlackRock and its peers. Although Ramaswamy was still hiring and searching for office space, he told the audience that Strive would soon offer investment funds, at fees competitive with BlackRock’s, that wouldn’t ask the companies it invested in to “push political agendas.” It would ask them only to deliver quality products and services and to make money for shareholders.

The cynical view is that the Fox News appearances, ersatz campaign stops, books, and press coverage all represent free advertising for Ramaswamy’s new investing firm.

As an aside: I perused Strive’s webpage and was amused to find that its principal product is a set of index funds equivalent to those offered by any large asset manager, like Blackrock or Vanguard. For example, there is the Strive 500 ETF (STRV), which mimics the performance of the S&P 500 in the same way that Vanguard’s S&P 500 ETF (VOO) does. However, STRV’s expense ratio — the fee assessed by the fund manager as a percentage of assets being held — is almost double that of VOO’s: 0.0545% vs 0.03%. Some of the disparities are even worse. Strive’s Dividend Growth ETF (STXD) has an expense ratio of 0.35%, more than 4 times that of Blackrock or Vanguard’s comparable offerings. The irony is perhaps obvious, but worth pointing out anyway: if the problem with E.S.G. investing is that it prioritizes goals other than pure profit maximization, the problem with its alternatives is that they commit the same sin. The price of being anti-woke, in other words, is letting a billionaire take an extra cut. (Except Ramaswamy is the good kind of billionaire, unlike that Democratic do-gooder (((Larry Fink))).)

Ramaswamy represents a new class of elites, one that claims to be above politics and ideology but spends most of its time repeating warmed-over Republican talking points. This largely falls under the umbrella of “anti-woke” politics, although the term “woke” is used so loosely now as to be almost meaningless. Elon Musk, as an example, rails against the “woke mind virus”, but takes pains to reassure his followers that he is no ordinary right-wing Republican: “To be clear, my historical party affiliation has been Independent, with an actual voting history of entirely Democrat until this year” and “I am obviously “moderate wing”, except as viewed by the far left.” and “While it’s true that I’ve been under unfair & misleading attack for some time by leading Democrats, my motivation here is for centrist governance, which matches the interests of most Americans”. Matt Taibbi, one of the journalists hand-picked by Musk to report on the “Twitter Files”, also liberally applies the woke epithet, from the “woke media machine” to, confusingly, the “woke war machine” (who knew generals and defense contractors were becoming woke too?). But he, too, feigns horror when tagged with the label “conservative”: “Mainstream outlets try to grind every news story into grade D partisan hamburger and Twitter Files coverage is no exception. The Washington Post even called me a “conservative journalist” for a few minutes….This isn’t a left or right project.” Even Ramaswamy, who pals around with (now) Republican Senator J.D. Vance, gives speeches at Washington D.C. “galas” hosted by right-wing organizations, and makes regular appearances on Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal, seems slightly ashamed to admit he’s actually a conservative Republican. ““I feel like I recoil when I see someone describe me as a conservative,” Ramaswamy said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a conservative. It’s just not how I would describe myself.””

In practice, of course, there is almost no difference between Musk’s politics and those of his friend Marc Andreessen (they even giggle about the same dumb memes), except that Andreessen has the decency to admit that while he was once a Democrat, age and money turned him into a conservative Republican (”I was a big Clinton and Gore supporter in the 90s … I turned 40 last year and so I figured it was time to make the switch.”).

One thing I don’t quite understand is the anti-woke crowd’s hesitancy to admit its affiliations. If “there’s [nothing] wrong with being a conservative”, why not say you’re one? The most obvious explanation is that there’s some value in being perceived as independent and centrist — the “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” pose. I imagine that Taibbi’s work is seen as more objective and authoritative if he is not simply another right-wing hack journalist, and I also imagine Musk derives some psychic benefit from being viewed as representing the unwashed masses, the centrist “vox populi”. But Ramaswamy’s incentives are rather different — he’s catering solely to Republican rubes — and even he believes himself to be above such labels. Why? It is only speculation on my part, but I surmise that anti-woke thinkers (and their “intellectual dark web” brethren) truly believe that they have invented a new ideology that transcends the old, stale ways of thinking. Even if you and I know that this is simply conservatism, rebranded, there is probably some value in appearing to represent the avant-garde of political thought. In one telling passage, the New Yorker journalist talks to Ramaswamy about the nefarious ways that the political system is distorted by corporations. She writes, “When I asked Ramaswamy why he ignores how money in politics compromises the regulatory and legislative process, the issue seemed to bore him. People had been fretting about getting money out of politics for years, he said. His Larry-Fink-as-left-wing-bogeyman theory, by contrast, felt fresh.”

One criticism levied against tech bros, like Musk and Andreessen, is that so much of their vaunted “innovation” is fake — just the same ideas and products wrapped in a more appealing package (my favorite example being the “Lyft Shuttle”, which is basically just a bus). The same is true, I think, of Ramaswamy, except this time in the realm of politics. Ideology, if it is meant to be sold like an app, must have the perception of novelty and freshness, even if in essence it is the same. Hence the constant need to rebrand, from (anti-) “political correctness to “cancel culture” to “critical race theory” to “woke”.

One other amusing thing about anti-woke politics is how it seems to arise, in large part, from personal slights.

Musk started engaging in transphobia relatively recently, in 2020. (One sad thing about most social media is that one such topic is often a gateway to others: it is not a priori obvious, for example, that anti-trans and anti-vax politics should be linked, but if Twitter detects that you’re into one, it will often recommend the other.) It is unclear, but plausible, that this right-wing turn arose from Musk’s own personal life. He has a trans daughter who recently declared that she was changing her last name from Musk to Wilson, and that she wanted nothing to do with her father. Musk blamed this rift on “communism” in elite colleges and universities (the implication being that his daughter was brainwashed), and said, woundedly, “It [the relationship] may change, but I have very good relationships with all the others [children]. Can’t win them all.”

Ramaswamy has a curious throughline of anti-Black resentment running through his politics, one which started, apparently, when “in eighth grade, at a large and economically diverse public school, Vivek was “roughed up” and pushed down the stairs by a Black student. An injured hip required surgery, and his parents decided to enroll him in a private preparatory school.” Later, Ramaswamy attended Harvard, where he learned that the new forms of oppression were drastically inverted from their predecessors. “He mentioned a white, heavyset conservative male classmate at Harvard who was considered uncool, and argued that the social pecking order was stacked against him “more than some athletic Black kid who came and got a place on the basketball team.””

And Donald Trump, of course, was reportedly so stung by Seth Meyers’s and President Obama’s jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner that he vowed to become president. (”That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world”, wrote The New York Times.)

I don’t mean to imply that the world would be a much better place if Ramaswamy’s white friend were more svelte and better at basketball, if Musk’s kids were all cisgendered, or if Trump had a sense of humor. But, well, maybe? For all of its grandiose claims about the scale of the threat (“the woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters”) and its pretensions to novelty (”His Larry-Fink-as-left-wing-bogeyman theory, by contrast, felt fresh”), the anti-woke collective concerns itself with matters microscopic in scale and as old as Greek myths. They exacted revenge because their feelings got hurt.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s