J.D. Vance, the Apostle of Appalachia, Embraces His Inner Troll
It is a triumph of hope over reality to believe he'll rediscover his decency after a Senate victory
Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons
J.D. Vance came to national attention as a thoughtful memoirist who combined fierce criticism of former President Donald Trump with empathetic explanation of the dispossessed in Appalachia and those in declining post-industrial America. And that reputation stuck around when the Ohio Republican launched his Senate run last summer. “[Vance] is in every way the real deal,” wrote The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher in August, 2021, not like the “yappy ideologues who can draw a big crowd on social media, but who are more interested in performing to own the libs than in making substantive changes to make the lives of normal people better.”
But as the seven-candidate primary race got underway and Vance sought to distinguish himself in a competitive field, it quickly became evident how much he was willing to transform himself in pursuit of his upset win. Over the course of nine months, he went from acknowledging that “at a basic level we already know mostly what happened” in the 2020 election—i.e. that President Biden fairly won—to alleging we “have a fake country right now” due to a “stolen” election. And, looking forward to 2024, he advised Trump in a podcast appearance to pull an Andrew Jackson and simply reject the constitutional structure of the federal government and ignore any unfavorable rulings from the Supreme Court that try to stop him.
Now, in Dreher’s sketch of contrasting Republican candidates—the staid legislator who seeks concrete victories for ordinary voters vs. the trollish partisan rowdy—Dreher insists that Vance is still the former. Vance’s flirtation with red-meat politics to court MAGA voters is not mere political opportunism, Dreher insists; it is an effort to win elections to pursue a positive agenda on behalf of those Americans ignored by politics-as-usual. Vance’s politics aren’t mine—yet I hope Dreher’s theory is true.
But I fear that Vance has reached a point of no return: In politics, as in life, eventually how you act is how you are. Even if Dreher were right about Vance’s current intentions, the risk of Vance’s rowdy road to power is that it will come to be the only road he can take.
The Massie Parallel
It’s a road with a lot of foot traffic in the last seven years, as Trump’s takeover of the GOP and the party’s transformation suggests. Let’s just look at the evolution of one successful Republican, perhaps the most self-aware traveler of them all: Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Initially elected as a libertarian-leaning, Tea Party-backed Republican in 2012, his personal story is very similar to Vance’s.
Massie, like Vance, grew up in Appalachia, albeit in apparently more middle-class circumstances. Also like Vance, he came to Congress comparatively young (41 to Vance’s 37) and after achieving rare academic and business success; Massie has a master’s from MIT and a successful tech startup.
More important than those biographical similarities, however, is that Massie entered national politics as “the real deal” of a different philosophical strain. Early in his tenure, he stood out in the GOP caucus for breaking with his own party’s leadership and fastidiously voting against legislation he deemed unconstitutional or unaffordable. He won re-election in the next race and the next, seemingly lucky to have a district with an unusual love of liberty.
Then Trump arrived, and Massie had a moment of dismal clarity. He’d been on the campaign trail in Kentucky and Iowa in 2016, he told the Washington Examiner a year later, and found supposedly “libertarian” voters all going for the very unlibertarian Trump. “All this time, I thought [my supporters] were voting for libertarian Republicans,” Massie said. “But after some soul searching, I realized when they voted for [Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)] and [former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)] and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas—they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.”
At that crossroads, Massie, it appears, decided to keep courting these voters with a taste for the “craziest son of a bitch.” He started maintaining an increasingly inflammatory Twitter presence, allying with the likes of QAnon enthusiast Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican, and feeding the maw of the culture war even though it sometimes put him in conflict with his libertarian ideals.
Vance too is the child of Appalachia where he had a chaotic childhood as detailed in his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. He then went to the Marine Corps. And to Massie’s MIT he went to Yale law. From there he became a venture capitalist and gained fame as a NeverTrump conservative who actually called Trump “America’s Hitler.” Then, just as stunningly as with Massie, he dramatically reversed course—and did it so convincingly that he landed an endorsement from the famously unforgiving Trump.
Vance might have arrived at the crossroads at a different point in his political career than Massie, but he made the same choice. After warning “[f]ellow Christians” that “everyone is watching us when we apologize for” the “reprehensible” “cultural heroin” that is Trump, Vance learned to “suck it up and support him”—or, at least, to act as if he does in public. Vance explained his transformation at the Dallas CPAC earlier this month by telling the attendees that, as he mentioned on Fox News, his shift was inspired by the ex-president’s record in office. “[I]t's actually refreshing for a person who's running for political office to not try to hide or pretend they didn't say something,” Vance said. The only problem is that Vance’s 2016 opposition to Trump was always about matters of character, not policy, and Trump’s character did not change.
From Championing Appalachia to Channeling Trump
Dismayingly, Vance has dialed up the provocative tweets. He’s endorsed Trump’s stolen election lie and is encouraging Trump to govern by sheer force. He too, like Massie, has palled around with Greene, saying she did “nothing wrong” in speaking at a conference run by white nationalist Nick Fuentes (known for his totally-just-joking-bro brand of Holocaust denialism).
And if Vance had previously made his name explaining his community to outsiders, now he’s making his political fortune by hating those outsiders. “I think our people hate the right people,” he mused last year. The “voters are not in a cautious mood,” as he put it another time—and Vance is evidently willing to be the man for that incautious moment.
Dreher and other believers in Vance claim that his antics are tactical. Unpleasant though they might be, they are necessary in a race he couldn’t win if he clung too tightly to principles and niceties. The “real deal” is still there, even if presently a bit obscured by all those tweets. Once in Washington, he can drop the act, pursue a substantive agenda of pro-family policies, trade protectionism, tech regulation, and so on. They dismiss those who accuse Vance of being a “gigantic fraud” willing to blow with the political winds. My former colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty predicts that Vance, once in office, will get busy and concentrate on “putting his head down and learning the job of senator rather than imitating the guys that are just lightning rods in office.”
But Vance has been imitating those guys, performing to own the libs long enough that he’ll find it hard to stop. The risk is not that he’ll change with every new political dispensation but that, with enough time in trollish partisan rowdy mode, he’ll find himself unable to change. He’ll find the natural move of the “craziest SOB” is escalation, and that it is very difficult to force an electorate to eat its veggies when other Trumpist politicians will happily primary you and offer candy instead, and that “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
To be sure, the Senate’s longer election cycles will give Vance a bit more breathing room than Massie, who by virtue of his two-year campaign routine is in perennial candidate mode and never has the luxury to tune out “incautious voters.” But in the long run—in a political milieu as consuming as ours and with likely presidential aspirations giving Vance a big new pool of voters to cultivate—that difference in pace may not make much difference. That will particularly be the case if Trump wins in 2024 and Sen. J.D. Vance decides to vie for the role of the president’s closest congressional enabler.
The rowdy act may cease to be merely strategic. It may cease to be an act at all.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
I learned of this piece from a Bill Kristol retweet and I’m glad I did. This is another great perspective on Vance in what is, unfortunately, becoming an increasingly more popular concern among conservatives. I have voted Democratic more than Republican, especially the past five presidential election cycles, but was once a proud conservative, voting for both Bushes. I’m genuinely scared that guys like Vance, with their authoritarian ideals, hoping to use the power of the government to smite liberal corporate enemies (weren’t conservatives against fascist states?), and crude insults of their political enemies and an entire half of the country, are not just getting a pass, but in some cases major support from conservative pundits like Dreher and others. All those nightmare scenarios republicans warned us about coming from the left - socialist dictators, crushing dissent, etc. - are now proudly shouted from the rooftops by legitimate GOP candidates across the country.
I’m as concerned about some of the cultural ideologies coming from the left regarding discussions of race, sex/gender, and general freedom to speak one’s mind, as the next person, but those concerns pale in comparison to my fear of a Trump/Vance/Hawley/Cruz/MTG/Gaetz GOP having unchecked power to control elections and use the power of the state to crush dissent from the left.
The horror of right-wing collectivism