Notes toward a theory of the millennial ambition psycho
Vivek Ramaswamy, Mayor Pete, and the rise of millennial candidate
It’s only late August 2023 and it seems likely that Donald Trump has already secured the Republican presidential nomination, even, or perhaps especially, if he is in jail this time next year. Nevertheless political reporters have CMS fields to fill and search queries to meet, and so, as the De Santis campaign collapses under the weight of its candidate’s anti-charisma, shifts in rankings of also-rans earn a great deal of attention. The latest beneficiary of this situation is the biotech founder turned politician Vivek Ramaswamy, whose youthful energy and habit of rapping Eminem at rallies has earned the tepid semi-endorsement of no less a party luminary than Elon Musk, who has tweeted about Ramaswamy, “He is a very promising candidate” and “He states his beliefs clearly.” (Ramaswamy in turn has said he would make Musk his vice president.)
The Ramaswamy campaign’s “ten truths,” whose clarity of articulation so impressed Elon Musk, are a pretty familiar grab-bag of Republican slogans, which is to say they sound alternately like taglines for Christian movies and agriculture-conglomerate ads: “God is real,” “Human flourishing requires fossil fuels,” “Parents determine the education of their children,” “capitalism lifts people up from poverty.” (Though at least one--“The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind”--sounds suspiciously like the product of someone who has taken a gender-studies class.) But somehow Ramaswamy has managed to cultivate a reputation as a refreshing and unpredictable maverick--something like a more palatable and dynamic Trump--despite this generally anodyne platform.
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In fairness Ramaswamy is sometimes unpredictable. In a recent conversation with Atlantic reporter John Hendrickson he vaguely suggested that there might have been federal agents on the planes that hit the Twin Towers on 9/11, which is not a possibility that most other Republican candidates would float. This kind of “unpredictability” has earned him some comparisons to RFK, Jr., both from supporters and from opponents.
I’m not so sure. Whatever else you might say about Kennedy, he seems like an authentic nut--someone whose isolating wealth, woo-woo social circles, and tragic family history have transformed him into a true believer. When it comes to Ramaswamy I agree with my friend Jay Kang: He’s saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear.
Having closely followed his campaign since it launched, I have a hard time believing that Ramaswamy actually cares about the red-meat maga positions that he tries to co-opt. He claimed, during the debate, that “the climate change agenda” was a “hoax,” and members of the press rightfully pointed out that he had said “human activity” had contributed to climate change just five months ago. Looking at those two conflicting statements, it’s probable that the actual Vivek Ramaswamy believes that climate change is real. Similarly, his strained answers to questions about trans rights—earlier this month, at the Iowa State Fair, he said, “trans is fundamentally in tension with gay”—belie an ambivalence about the issue. He has effectively punted on immigration, and he has no real foreign-policy ideas, as Haley pointed out during the debate.
Just as an example, read the quote he gives Hendrickson:
Ramaswamy: I think it is legitimate to say, How many police, how many federal agents were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers? Like, I think we want—maybe the answer is zero, 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.
To my mind at least he’s not really arguing that there might have been FBI agents on the planes--a theory that would be sort of admirably, authentically insane of him to espouse in the context of a presidential run. Rather, he’s bullshitting his way through an interview, glibly casting about and settling on a bizarre, hyperbolic analogical argument to make a minor point, and then trying to re-calibrate and back away when he realizes he’s saying something stupid. He does something similar, or at least similarly insane, in this video, which I will recreate in a series of genuinely not-at-all unfair screenshots:
The mode here isn’t “paranoia,” it’s “debate team” or “Model U.N.,” or “job interview”--speaking before you think, identifying your argument on the fly, and committing to it despite its obvious stupidity. This is why the candidate that Ramaswamy reminds me of most is not the ideologically adjacent RFK, Jr. but the ideologically opposite Pete Buttigieg.
I’ve softened on Buttigieg lately, maybe just because he is not being praised in my feeds all the time for speaking Norwegian or whatever, and I certainly don’t want to imply that he is evil in the same way that Ramaswamy is. But he played a similar role in the 2020 Democratic primary, as a candidate whose main shtick was “youth” and “impressive intelligence,” pitched at a particular frequency that I found unbelievably unappealing, and I am not the first or only person to have noticed an affinity of vibes between him and Ramaswamy:
This sense that Pete and Vivek shared some terrible kinship was confirmed this week when someone discovered that both men had appeared to ask canned questions of Democratic presidential candidates at MSNBC town hall events in 2003, when Buttigieg was 21 and Ramaswamy was 18. Both, I’ll note, are wearing dress shirts:
I appreciate this tweet, but I don’t think “dorks” is quite right. I mean, they are dorks, but “annoying,” “smug,” “calculated,” “striver”: These words better help us get at the particular type that such ideologically different candidates can both fulfill. The term friends and I have used for years now to describe this type of person is “millennial ambition psycho.”1
If you come from a particular socio-economic background or work in a white-collar industry you likely already know many millennial ambition psychos, though if you are not a millennial you may not recognize them. They are the ceaselessly striving, impossibly ambitious, strangely formless high achievers2 that many of us went to school with--and competed for jobs and internships and college admissions slots against. Ramaswamy’s glibness, his gamesmanship, the nihilism that seems to lurk behind the unsubtle pandering: these are all characteristic of the MAP, as is the fact that non-millennials often seem unable to see his obvious wack- or kook-ness, and in some cases are even charmed by him.
That is not to say that all MAPs are created equal on a moral or political level. Buttigieg is vastly preferable to Ramaswamy. But on an affective level I find both of them unbelievably irritating--grown-up versions of people I knew in high school and college, still seeming somehow like kids playing at their idea of what serious adults are like. What is worse is that now, as millennials enter and exit their 30s, they’re everywhere, often in positions of relative influence and power--I know many in media and entertainment, and the tech industry is littered with them.
Interestingly, although all millennial presidential candidates have been MAPs, most prominent millennial politicians are not: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite being the most famous and popular millennial politician in the country, does not have the kind of resume that reflects a single-minded but omnidirectional ambition in the manner of a Buttigieg or a Ramaswamy.3 On the other side of the aisle, Matt Gaetz is more of a freak than a psycho, and certainly not very ambitious, beyond general ambitions to get laid.
More likely, I think, you find politics MAPs as aides and staffers in congressional offices, or as clerks in the judiciary, because one key skill of the MAP is the ability to gather power (or, at least, more lines on a resume) by pandering to older people, adopting their opinions, and acting, in many cases, as the boomer’s idealized millennial. MAPs often act as generational pick-mes (or, worse, traitors4), and while this can endear them to, say, boomer primary voters, or Gen X politics reporters, it rarely earns them any affection among their own generational cohort.
What is there to be done? A just and rational society would simply institutionalize all graduates of “Ivy Plus” schools, perhaps giving them each a kind of individualized Truman Show experience in which they can run for president or endlessly network at bad parties. Unfortunately this utopia seems practically unlikely at the present conjuncture. The best we can hope for, as a cathartic experience and as a warning against other MAPs, is the public humiliation of Vivek Ramaswamy.
You can tell I am not a MAP because I am neither ambitious nor energetic enough to coin a less clunky word or phrase than “millennial ambition psycho.”
“Annoying,” “ceaselessly striving,” “strangely formless,”--one response might go--how is that different from any other college-educated millennial? Well, I will have you know that many of us are actually pretty normal/regular, and managed to pass the gauntlet of education and career life with an intact sense of humor, proportion, and self-loathing. But the point is well-taken: Part of the horror of the MAP to other, slightly less ambitious resume-padders and AP class-takers is the mirror they hold up to our own souls. What if the way Pete Buttigieg appears to us is how we appear to everyone else?
AOC fits another millennial stereotype, which is “person who has a pretty good job that she finds completely alienating and fantasizes about quitting all the time.” This quote is pure millennial, but not MAP:
I genuinely don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to be in politics. You know, for real, in the first six months of my term, I didn’t even know if I was going to run for re-election this year. […] It’s the incoming. It’s the stress.
Buttigieg joining with Klobuchar and O’Rourke to endorse Biden over Bernie Sanders, overwhelmingly the preferred candidate among millennials, is a paradigmatic example of this.