Within a month of announcing his Ohio Senate race, J.D. Vance’s reputation has fallen off a cliff. The author of the Hillbilly Elegy, Vance’s candidacy hinged on his story as a son of the Rust Belt and the voice of forgotten America. Now, following a string of political gaffes, Vance has been tarred as a “flip-flopper” and “sellout” conning his way into becoming a populist celebrity. Fighting to prove himself to the Republican base, his candidacy has devolved into a performative loyalty test to Trumpism. His new platform is all feeling and no substance, reflecting and amplifying the grievances projected onto him – a Rorschach test of polarized America.
On paper, Vance, 36, is a self-described “hillbilly” who grew up in Middleton, Ohio, a decaying industrial town in Appalachia. His family was from the eastern hills of Kentucky and his home was plagued by economic insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence, and social isolation. Upon graduating high school, he joined the Marines, which allowed him to attend Ohio State University and later Yale Law School. After a brief stint at a corporate law firm, he became a principal at Mithril Capital, a venture capital firm owned by Facebook co-founder Peter Thiel. Then in 2016, he published his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which earned a place on The New York Times Best Seller List, launched him into the public limelight, and paved the way for his current Senate bid.
But perhaps a better question is what happened to him. As recently as 2016, Vance was the darling of mainstream media offering socio-economic commentary on white poverty. As a contributing writer for The New York Times, he discussed why the white working class no longer attends church in one article and his admiration for Barack Obama in another. While he was decidedly conservative, he did not shy away from criticizing GOP politics and Donald Trump, then the nominee for the party. On public forums, he has called Trump “reprehensible,” “noxious,” and “leading the white working class to a very dark place.” He publicly tweeted that he would not vote for the GOP nominee, instead opting for independent candidate Evan McMullin. In an article for The Atlantic titled “Opioid for the Masses,” Vance likened Trump to heroin saying that “[his] promises are the needle in America’s collective vein.”
Since entering the political fray, Vance has made a striking about-face. Within a month of announcing his candidacy, CNN‘s KFile discovered that Vance had scrubbed his past criticism of Trump. He was swiftly chastised as a flip-flopper by the left and a “Never Trumper” by his own base. The Ohio primary is full of prominent Republican hopefuls jostling for an endorsement from the former president – namely Josh Mandel, a former treasurer who markets himself as “Pro-God, Pro-Gun, Pro-Trump,” and Jane Timken, a former chair of the state Republican Party. To add insult to injury, a PAC supporting Mandel called The Club For Growth released a statement calling into question Vance’s support for Trump:
“…He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in the short time Mr. Vance has been active in politics he’s spent the bulk of it tearing down President Trump and mocking Trump voters…”
In an attempt to cauterize his PR disaster, Vance made a public apology on Fox News soon after saying that he regretted his past criticism of Trump and “being wrong about the guy,” and added, “I think he was a good president.”
So, why has J.D. Vance, anti-Trump author, turned into a pro-Trump candidate? Put simply from a purely political standpoint, it is the easiest – perhaps only – way for him to win the primary. Former President Trump has shown no signs of bowing out of the political arena, and plenty of polls have indicated that Trump is still the Republican favorite for the 2024 Presidential. Just last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) he won 70% of its presidential straw poll.
This thinking has extended to Capitol Hill as well. In late March, Rep. Jim Banks, who leads the largest bloc of House conservatives, circulated a memo titled “Cementing GOP as the Working Class Party,” which plainly stated that embracing the Trump agenda was the only way for GOP to make a comeback.
J.D. Vance himself has admitted this reality was the underlying reason for his pro-Trump appeasement strategy. In an illuminating interview with Molly Ball of TIME, Vance even went so far as to call himself a “flip-flop-flipper” when it came to Trump. He acknowledged that the former president was “the leader of this movement,” and said, “…if I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him.”
Since then, Vance’s Senate campaign has completely contradicted his persona just years ago. In a clear dog whistle to the Trump base, Vance, despite spending this past weekend at the Hamptons, sent a tweet asking where he should stay in New York, saying that he heard it was “disgusting and violent” there. He has railed against Big Tech and fantastically claimed that Google has been “hiding” his website, even though he has garnered millions of dollars of support from Silicon Valley executive Peter Thiel and the Mercer family. Tim Miller of The Bulwark noted more of Vance’s political stunts: like downplaying the inflammatory comments of a Neo-Nazi, sharing threads entertaining 2020 election fraud conspiracy theories, and mocking journalists who felt traumatized by the Jan. 6 insurrection.
When Vance announced his Senate race, he rested his entire candidacy on being an economic populist who promised who would stand up to America’s elite class. “Conservative Outsider” is his slogan. However, his latest rebranding reveals that Vance’s war against elitism is much more cultural than economic. He’s morphed into a “Barstool Republican” that casts aside conservatism’s traditional talking points and focuses on waging war against political correctness and “degenerate liberals.” J.D Vance’s own campaign website doesn’t even show where he stands on a single policy issue.
That, in a nutshell, is why J.D. Vance has become yet another Rorschach test of polarized America – for him, political ambiguity is the goal. Like Trump who was able to exist as both a real estate tycoon and populist hero, Vance wants to be seen as both an Appalachian hillbilly and an Ivy League graduate, an anti-elite crusader and a venture capitalist. A politician can be multi-dimensional, of course, but Vance is mercurial to the point that his multiple identities seemingly implode on one another. And why not? It worked for Trump, and without any firm identity, there is something for any potential Vance supporter to latch onto. And that might just win him the nomination.
The managing editor of Smerconish.com, James joined the team after a year of service working as a creative writing fellow at a high school in North Philadelphia. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May of 2019, receiving the Carolyn Marvin Award for “advancing our understanding of the importance of free speech and assembly in a democratic society.” A passionate journalist, James has done stints with The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, WHYY, and others. Today, he is in charge of managing the website, preparing the morning newsletter, and editing all of the written submissions from the Smerconish community!