It’s swiftly emerging as the most gripping storyline of the GOP presidential primary, even if it doesn’t directly affect the outcome: the acidic hatred between former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
The impossible-to-overlook, mutual disdain spilled into open view on Wednesday night in Miami, turning an otherwise substantive debate into political blood sport. There was no artifice to it, no phony attempts to feign collegiality. Just pure, unadulterated loathing.
The rivalry is both deeply personal and political, which is why it makes for such compelling viewing. There are unmistakable generational and gender components, but the contempt also features an ideological and a tactical dimension. It reveals as much about Republican Party fault lines as it does about the two candidates themselves.
In one corner, there is Vivek, the youthful rising star who represents the paleoconservative bleeding edge of presidential politics. The Ohio native’s utterances would slay on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” program or in Tucker Carlson’s X studio. (Indeed, Ramaswamy has become a plain favorite of the latter.)
At 38, an age Ramaswamy highlights proudly, the first-time politician is betting the country and his party will become even more skeptical of economic elites, of the so-called liberal international order, and of the American cultural status quo in the years to come. He’s a wealthy Harvard and Yale graduate making a pitch for president that’s part Breitbart and part Pat Buchanan.
Ramaswamy, by virtue of his age, theoretically has a longer political half-life than the rest of the GOP field. But his campaign has stalled — and he’s in danger of fading out of the top tier.
Opposite Vivek is Nikki, the former ambassador and governor, a last-in-first-out addition to the Trump administration.
Haley is gambling that Trump’s legal woes could take a turn for the worse and the party establishment could consolidate around a clear Trump alternative — someone like her, with a heavyweight resume that has the traditional boxes checked off. Her bet is that conventional wisdom — that the party has moved on from the Bush and Reagan years and bears no semblance that version — is wrong.
She wouldn’t be caught dead on the programs Ramaswamy frequents — especially Ramaswamy’s podcast, “TRUTH,” where he has hosted lightning-rod conservatives from Jordan Peterson to Papa John to Alex Jones. Her media diet tends toward safer conservative harbors, like National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, from which one could get the impression that Haley is the president-in-waiting.
America’s former woman in Turtle Bay is in some ways running the campaign most in keeping with the legacy of the 43rd president, George W. Bush, not the 45th — Donald Trump. She runs in the crowd that will apologize for the Iraq War, but perhaps with the sincerity of a passenger who bumps you on the subway.
Yet it is the more human element of the Haley and Ramaswamy clash that makes it must-watch TV. The fact that both are children of Indian immigrants takes a back seat to the fact that both are avatars of very different American pathways and experiences.
At 51, Haley is the dutiful Gen X candidate. And Ramaswamy is the best-in-class, wise-guy millennial.
Haley is a product of the “New South,” a former governor of a South Carolina on the rise. Ramaswamy was born and raised in Ohio, the Midwestern kid made good. Where Ramaswamy is the flashy entrepreneur from Harvard Yard, Haley, a Clemson grad, would be the state school “accountant in the White House.”
The social media-savvy Ramaswamy is a candidate built for the digital era, a TikToker who dominates online polls — he won over 80 percent of prominent YouTube influencer Patrick Bet-David’s informal survey after Wednesday’s debate. The more staid Haley’s proposition is more modest, but just as politically consequential — she provides hope Republicans can win back suburban women and offers the promise of stability and competence.
The annals of presidential primaries are, of course, filled with bitter, “stop-lying-about-my-record” rivalries. What’s different about Haley and Ramaswamy — and what surpasses the bad blood between 2020 Democratic rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — is the sheer ferocity of the attacks and the willingness to plunge the blade in deep.
If there were any doubts, they were dispelled Wednesday evening when Ramaswamy took no time before sinking his teeth into Haley. In response to the second question he was asked — a query about what Ramaswamy would say to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — he referred to Haley as virtually “bankrupt” and “in debt,” suggesting she was an establishment hack wholly owned by America’s defense industry.
Later, Ramaswamy broke the unwritten rule about dragging an opponent’s child into the arena — a flagrant and gasp-inducing violation of political norms.
“[Haley] made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time,” Ramaswamy said. “So you might want to take care of your family first before preaching to anyone else.”
In response, an apoplectic Haley let it rip, making clear her utter contempt for the Silicon Valley maven. “Leave my daughter out of your voice. … You’re just scum.”
It was a smash mouth exchange that will live on long beyond the 2024 presidential campaign, a moment of viciousness suggesting nothing, not even children, is off-limits anymore and no insult is unacceptable.
Ramaswamy’s willingness to publicly critique Haley’s parenting underscored the role gender plays in exacerbating the conflict. He attempts to project his masculinity, embracing a kind of alpha male nerd persona. His declarative answer to the energy crisis — “DRILL! FRACK! BURN COAL!” — has become a debate night staple line. He proudly answers questions on abortion “as a man,” and urges his comrades in maleness to cut back on promiscuity and beef up the responsibility.
Ramaswamy’s “Ten Truths” mantra is the political update to Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life.” Both men have found a market in the age of the “man crisis.” Ramaswamy doesn’t shy away from expressions of his greatest strength and weakness: his aggression and raw ambition.
His style has rubbed Haley raw from the start, leading to her memorable diss from the second debate. “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she told Ramaswamy.
It’s as if Ramaswamy embodies every slight dealt to Haley by a male colleague during her ascent — particularly those younger and less experienced than her. Never was it clearer than when Ramaswamy purposely evoked her gender by referring to Haley as Dick Cheney in drag.
“Do you want a leader from a different generation, who’s going to put this country first,” queried Ramaswamy. ”Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?”
One lesson of the 2016 GOP primary is that ambition heals all wounds. That nothing that is said between candidates — such as speculating that a candidate’s father consorted with JFK’s assassin or that their spouse is ugly — can’t be overcome. The case of Ramaswamy and Haley, however, might be an exception.
“I don’t even give [Ramaswamy] the time of day,” Haley said in the post-debate scrum. “He has proven that he is just not worthy of being president of the United States. Everybody knows it. Everybody sees it.”
Haley also tweeted: “Vivek, I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement— they’re for ammunition.”
Ramaswamy, lover of the game, simply retweeted her.