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Section Guy Runs For President
Harvard graduate Vivek Ramaswamy is a grimly recognizable figure to anyone else who went there, even if we never knew him personally
When Vivek Ramaswamy and I were undergraduates at Harvard,students would sometimes talk about the scourge of “section guy.”
“Section guy” wasn’t a specific person, but an archetype — that guyin your discussion section who adores the sound of his own voice, who thinks he’s the smartest person on the planet with the most interesting and valuable interpretations of the course material, and who will not ever, ever, ever shut up.
“Be nice to that overeager Gov 20 section guy, for like many on Congress’ current roster, he may someday take the well-traveled road from Harvard to the Hill,” The Harvard Crimson warned in 2010, just a few years after we both graduated.
Well, now section guy is running for president.
Vivek was two years behind me, and I didn’t know him, which is a little strange given that we were both college Republicans and we were both obnoxious little shits.As I have watched his presidential campaign proceed, I have worried a little that my animus towards him — the strong desire I feel to punch him in his stupid fucking face — had to do with my own baggage from late adolescence; that when I watched him, I saw bits of my obnoxious teenage self that I have worked very hard to bury, and that my visceral revulsion was really more about me than it was about him.
But last night’s debate — in which I watched several former governors react to Vivek on a debate stage in the same way that I do in my living room — disabused me of this notion. Me wanting to punch someone in the face might be a ‘me’ problem. But if Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley and I all want to punch the same person in the face? That surely has to be a him problem.
What makes Vivek so annoying? An investigation.
I’ve seen Vivek compared a lot in recent days to another Harvard contemporary of his and mine: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, class of 2004. Certainly, both Vivek and Pete have drawn a substantial amount of who-the-fuck-does-this-guy-think-he-is ire from their opponents. But while Pete was an impertinent upstart and therefore annoying, he was at least playing by the same rules as the other candidates in a way that Vivek is not.
Vivek flouts the norms of presidential campaigning in a way that allows him to be superbly confident while also completely full of crap — not coincidentally, a trait traditionally associated with section guy. I don’t mean that other political candidates always tell the truth — they don’t. I mean only that a politician ordinarily feels that his or her statements need to be linked, in some way, to an ideological agenda he or she wishes to pursue, and to a set of actions he or she would undertake if they actually win office.
For example, most political candidates would not find it possible to propose to hand portions of Ukraine to Russia in exchange for Vladimir Putin agreeing to “exit his military partnership with China.” After all, what would that even mean? Is Putin going to make a pinky-swear? This is a ridiculous and unworkable one-weird-trick strategy — even from the perspective of a normal isolationist who might still think Ukraine is not worth spending money on — that’s barely worthy of bong-fueled 3 a.m. dorm room commentary. Ron DeSantis would be too embarrassed to say he’d make that deal. But Vivek goes ahead and says shit like this anyway with absolute confidence, adding that this stuff really isn’t so complicated and the old farts around him don’t get it because they’re stupid and/or corrupt. And then the audience eats it up. He has no business being there, he lies brazenly, and he gets rewarded for it. Of course that’s incredibly annoying.
Still, I haven’t fully explained what it is that makes Vivek so annoying.
I still need to explain why he’s more annoying than Donald Trump, who also lies brazenly and without restriction, and who has been much more handsomely rewarded for doing so. Trump is a worse person than Vivek, and yet I don’t have the same visceral desire to punch him in the face, and that again seemed to be true of the candidates on stage. Even Mike Pence seemed like he would sooner spend time with the ex-president who literally incited a crowd of rioters who wanted to hang him than with this smug hedge-fund loser.
Maybe my different reaction is about a feeling of betrayal — Vivek went to Harvard and he is “supposed” to be better than Trump, who went to Penn. (That wouldn’t explain the reaction among the candidates, though.) Maybe it’s that Trump is more vague, and vague is best when you’re talking out of your ass — it’s less insulting to our collective intelligence to broadly declare that you’ll make “a beautiful deal” than to say you’ll make China hold off on invading Taiwan until at least 2028, when we won’t need Taiwanese semiconductors anymore. But I think the main difference is that Trump has charisma that Vivek lacks — Trump is a showman, he seems like he’s fun at parties, and when he lies to you it can even sometimes feel like you’re in on the joke. Vivek, meanwhile, has Ted Cruz’s overcaffeinated-ex-college-debater affect, and seems like someone you’d desperately find an excuse to sneak away from at a cocktail party.
And that is why I simply cannot buy Vivek as a successful mini-Trump. Yes, unlike other Republican candidates, he’s figured out what it even means to copy Trump — appealing to the Trump base is not about getting as far to the right as possible, as Ron DeSantis appears to believe. As Vivek knows, it’s about giving voice to all their grievances without any regard for how your resulting statements relate to truth, ideology, or the practicalities of American government. He is the first candidate to become full of shit in the same manner as the former president, and I give him credit for that. But I have always thought the other essential element of the Trump mystique was likability. Trump’s fans don’t just agree with him — they think he is cool and badass. And just as Ron DeSantis is too awkward to succeed him, Vivek is too annoying to do so.
Section guy can never win a presidential nomination. I’m pretty sure.
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Have you heard of it?
There have been many female section guys — it’s Harvard, after all — but on average, section guy is a man.
I grew out of it.
Incidentally, this makes me think of another deal Vivek could propose to cut with Putin: If Putin invited some of his political enemies to cocktail parties with Vivek on the upper floors of Moscow hotels, he wouldn’t even need to send his henchmen to throw people out the windows.