Opinion |The real meaning of Trump hinting Ramaswamy could be his VP

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Former President Donald Trump is considering former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy as his pick for vice president.

At least that’s how the media is interpreting Trump’s recent comments to right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck about the upstart MAGA candidate. But if you consider Trump’s comments another way, his praise for Ramaswamy’s “talent” functions as a way to disarm his opposition and incentivize an obedient pack of 2024 challengers.

Trump’s approval also doubles as a signal to the other candidates in the race that flattery could be the best way to angle for a plum job in his administration.

Beck asked Trump on Tuesday what he thought of the idea of “Vice President Ramaswamy.”

“Well, I think he’s great. Look, anybody that says I’m the best president in a generation … I have to like a guy like that, I can’t get upset with him,” Trump said in response. “But he’s a smart guy. He’s a young guy. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s a very, very intelligent person. He’s got good energy. He could be some form of something, I tell ya. I think he’d be very good. I think he’s very good, I think he’s really distinguished himself.”

“He’s starting to get out there a little bit, he’s getting a little bit controversial, I got to tell him: ‘Be a little bit careful. Some things you have to hold in just a little bit, right?’” Trump added.

Three elements stand out from Trump’s statement.

First: It’s vague and noncommittal — the closest he gets to the idea of taking on Ramaswamy is that he “could be some form of something.” That language is broad enough that it could mean that Trump’s open to putting Ramaswamy somewhere in his administration, but that could be anywhere from a Cabinet position, an advisory role, to an obscure bureaucratic gig.

Second: When discussing his approval of Ramaswamy, Trump conditions it on Ramaswamy’s fawning behavior and his mimicry of his ideas. Ramaswamy caters to Trump’s thirst for approbation and flattery, so it’s possible that that behavior makes Trump take him seriously as a potential recruit. But Trump’s approval also doubles as a signal to the other candidates in the race that flattery could be the best way to angle for a plum job in his administration. 

Not so incidentally, if all the other candidates try to stay on his good side, that will help Trump retain his dominant position in the primaries. Trump can neutralize his challengers by dangling the possibility of hiring them if they remain meek — but without ever committing to anything. 

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, at least, is unlikely to hold out for that possibility. In the 2016 primaries, he made a hugely surprising early endorsement of Trump in an apparent attempt to win consideration as a running mate or for some other high-level position in a future Trump administration. Trump considered the idea of Christie for Veep, but ultimately decided against it. Christie came away with nothing, even as others like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry were rewarded.

Third: The fact that even Trump (of all people) thinks Ramaswamy has too much of an appetite for controversy tells you how extreme Ramaswamy is — and suggests Trump knows better than to pick him as a running mate.

Trump revels in generating controversy himself, because he knows that it excites his base. But Trump has never liked being upstaged, and he also knows that controversy carries costs with mass appeal. While he personally might not be willing to change his behavior much, he may see a running mate who alienates even more people as a strategic liability. Consider Trump’s choice of Mike Pence for his first run — advisers and family convinced him that his best bet was a candidate who could unite the GOP. The decision was widely read as a rare moment when Trump catered to the political establishment, based on a calculation that Pence could help him appeal to the Christian right and navigate Washington more deftly.

It’s possible that Trump’s criteria for his running mate have changed. But that he’s openly saying that Ramaswamy goes too far suggests that Trump sees limitations to taking him on for Veep. That would be a judicious assessment. Ramaswamy is a smooth orator, but he has zero political experience, no sway in a battleground state that Trump needs, and his bombastic, cartoonish MAGA style is likely to further repel moderate suburban Republicans who are either suspicious of or dislike Trump. (Of course, it’s unclear at this point in his career how Trump can convince that set that he’s reformable or capable of compromise.)

Is Trump considering Ramaswamy as a vice president? It’s possible. But if you really listen to what he’s saying, the only thing we can be sure of is that he’s ensuring that his competition follows his commands.

Zeeshan Aleem

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in, among other places, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Intercept. You can sign up for his free politics newsletter here.

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