It was a day like many others. An interested crowd settled into a well-lit conference room for a presentation in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. Disproportionately older men in blazers, they settled into metal chairs after removing the brightly colored one-page program for the event that was left on the seat. Then a smooth-talking, energetic young man took up position next to two easels, props deployed in the service of convincing those in attendance that all of their wildest dreams could actually come true. But it wasn’t a pitch for time shares. Instead, presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy was peddling his vision for a presidency that was powerful enough to fire a million federal workers at once but too weak to regulate almost anything else.
The speech was hosted by the American First Policy Institute, the Trumpist think tank set up by Trump’s acolytes after he left office. Held in a conference room where bright fluorescent lights pinged off dark windows overhead and bright white paint on the walls, it felt like something out of the Death Star from Star Wars—one almost expected the next occupants to be stormtroopers being exhorted to do a better job at meeting their Ewok liquidation quotas on Endor.
In remarks that lasted around 40 minutes, Ramaswamy’s two easels initially bore placards labeled “Myth,”referring to the commonly held notion among legal scholars that there are limitations on the president’s power to unilaterally fire federal employees en masse and shut down whole agencies willy-nilly. Throughout his speech, Ramaswamy strode over to his easels to theatrically peel the offending myths off the placards, eventually revealing similar placards labeled “Truth” that reassured the crowd that the presidency actually did contain this power. He crumpled up the “Myths” and tossed them aside as he returned to his lectern.
Ramaswamy repeatedly described his argument as “radical” and praised himself for having the courage to discuss such complicated ideas and rejecting the supposed conventional wisdom of unnamed consultants—the better to keep such discussions simple. For the presidential hopeful, the complex ideas boiled down to one basic fact: Everyone who came before him was wrong about how the federal government worked, and, if elected president, he would fire federal workers wholesale and dispatch them to “go home and find honest work in the private sector.”
At the same time, Ramaswamy insisted that as president he had the unilateral authority to mothball federal agencies and Cabinet departments at his own say so. Here, he picked out familiar conservative bugaboos, such as the Education Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which he promised to shut down instantaneously and outsource any needed functions to other parts of the federal government, which he described as “agencies that have not been corrupted.”
Ramaswamy offered a novel interpretation of the recent Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v EPA that struck down an Obama-era program to limit carbon dioxide emissions from a power plant: To his mind, this meant that “most federal regulations, I don’t meant that colloquially, I mean that literally, are unconstitutional under current law in the United States.” He added, to applause, that “on day one, it is the job and duty of the next president to rescind” these. He cited regulations governing everything from car emissions to e-cigarettes and investment standards as administrative actions that were preemptively unconstitutional.
He went on to turn aside any suggestion that a credible legal challenge to his ideas could be mounted, in a brief question-and-answer session that followed his speech. Brooke Rollins, a former Trump appointee who headed the MAGA think tank, served as his interlocutor. Ramaswamy confidently asserted to his audience that “the current Supreme Court, I think we win 6–3 on every legally contested question” and insisted, “We have a winning hand with the Supreme Court we have now.”
The audience had its own particular edge on display. While most in attendance were a familiar MAGA crowd—former Trump administration officials could be seen hovering around the edge of the event, and there were reserved seats left for Representative Matt Gaetz and his wife—one attendee kept on trying to start a conversation with someone else about whether they had been “mugged or attacked” on the streets of Washington D.C. before the event began. Another attendee sardonically texted a friend that “a firing squad” would be a far more effective way to remove the professional managerial class from the federal government than the comparatively minor reforms suggested by Ramaswamy.
After all, as “based” as Ramaswamy is, his policy proposals still represented a familiar mishmash of ideas that have already been circulating within the GOP as it transitions from its current form of a small-government, libertarian-leaning party to a political movement that is more populist and far more comfortable using government intervention to bring about favored objectives.
There is a real tension between Ramaswamy’s stated desire to purge the federal government of the type of “deep state” employees who, in right-wing mythos, impeded Donald Trump’s America First agenda and his belief that most federal regulations are unconstitutional. At the same time as Ramaswamy was holding court, the Trump campaign sent out an education policy proposal that called for massive federal involvement in local school curriculums around the country. While Trump echoed Ramaswamy’s call to close the Department of Education, the proposal also called for detailed federal involvement in classrooms to remove “critical race theory” and promote the direct election of school principals.
But those tensions will linger unresolved for now. In the meantime, Ramaswamy managed to combine the MAGA-style purge of the federal workforce with the doughty libertarian ideal of subjecting the power of the federal government to a thorough evisceration. Everyone heard what they wanted to hear. And that’s how you sell a time share.