When I interviewed J.D. Vance about his book Hillbilly Elegy five years ago, he conceded that his politics and his background made him a natural Trump supporter. But “the reason, ultimately, that I am not,” he said, “is because I think that [Trump] is the most-raw expression of a massive finger pointed at other people.” It’s unclear if the massive finger was the middle one, but Trump, Vance said, gives the white working class “an excuse to not look inward [and] to not ask tough questions about themselves and their communities.”
Fast-forward to Thursday, when Vance announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate from Ohio, and now he was the one pointing fingers at “the elites in the ruling class in this country are robbing us blind…” Vance always had a populist streak. (After criticizing Trump, he went on to tell me that he resented how some liberal elites look down their noses at working-class whites.) But what he has flip-flopped on is more than just Trump, it’s also the politics of anger and grievance and victimhood.
Vance’s transformation says a lot about our politics and the modern-day Republican Party. Vance is highly intelligent and well funded (Peter Thiel donated $10 million to a PAC supporting Vance). Ohio is a state that has elected establishment moderate governors like John Kasich and Mike DeWine (not to mention Sen. Rob Portman, whom Vance hopes to replace). And yet every member of the crowded primary field is rushing to out-MAGA their competitors. If market demand dictates campaign positioning, then it’s a race to the bottom. In today’s GOP, bad money drives out good, and the worst get on top. Vance has either been radicalized or he has simply calculated that to win as a Republican, he needs to avoid angering Trump and embrace both his populist/nationalist politics of victimhood and his style. I’m not sure which option is worse.
It’s also the latest sad example of how Trump has co-opted or corrupted an entire generation of potential young conservative stars. What would Marco Rubio or Nikki Haley have accomplished had Trump never emerged on the scene? How about Josh Hawley? Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, it seems to me, is the only rock star we have left—largely because she’s immune to the vicissitudes of the electorate.
We can debate whether Trump has revealed character flaws or created them. The conservative movement could have benefited from a sane, serious, and successful young conservative like the guy I interviewed in 2016. As the Bulwark’s Mona Charen wrote, “Vance is an extremely bright and insightful man who could have been a fresh voice for a fundamentally conservative view of the world.”
If it weren’t for Trump, I could imagine a world where I would 100 percent support Vance’s Senate bid. He is, after all, a kid from the holler who joined the Marines, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, went to Yale Law School, became a business success in Silicon Valley, and authored a best-selling memoir. My upbringing was much less dysfunctional, but I can identify with him more than most. I live in West Virginia (albeit, far from coal country), and I grew up as the son of a prison guard in Western, Maryland. When they asked my elementary school class what we wanted to be when we grew up, the top answers were “farmer” and “truck driver.”
Vance’s journey (from chaos and poverty to riches and fame) spanned a broader spectrum than mine, but I can appreciate his journey. His achievements are admirable, which is why it was both surprising and demoralizing to watch him transmogrify into a Trump supporter. “He began to drift into the Trump camp,” Charen lamented. “I don’t know why or how, but Vance became not a voice for the voiceless but an echo of the loudmouth.” As evidence, consider his tweet from February that said, “Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children.”
Aside from mimicking Trump’s penchant for CAPITALIZING RANDOM WORDS for affect, Vance was clearly attempting to normalize the QAnon conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking. On other occasions, he has mocked mask-wearing and proposed using governmental force to raise taxes on corporations as punishment for engaging in politics he disagrees with. “We really need to be really ruthless when it comes to the exercise of power,” Vance said last month.
It hardly matters whether Vance is a Trump supporter, or just playing one on TV. I suppose it’s possible that Vance could win office and magically revert back to his old self. But it’s more likely he will trudge along the well-worn path of Senators like Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton—other elites who have embraced MAGA populism. Even if Vance did reinvent himself (yet again), who would trust him?