There’s an arresting scene in J.D. Vance’s moving 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, in which Vance, a second-year student at Yale Law School, attends a dinner hosted by the white-shoe law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in what he describes as the most expensive restaurant in which he’s ever eaten.
Vance is stricken with social anxiety when asked whether he’d prefer the Sauvignon Blanc or the Chardonnay, the sparkling water or the tap. After sitting down to a place setting with nine bewildering utensils, he makes a beeline for the men’s room to phone his girlfriend (and future wife), Usha, for advice. “Go from outside to inside,” she explains, “and don’t use the same utensil for separate dishes.”
Vance evoked powerfully the sense that his hardscrabble upbringing in Ohio’s Rust Belt and Kentucky’s Appalachian hollows had left him without the social capital necessary to move up in the world. But move up he did, with the help of powerful mentors (Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua, David Frum) and an adaptability that may have surprised even him.
Now Vance is proving a quick study yet again as he prepares to enter next year’s primary to replace retiring Ohio Senator Rob Portman. He’s found some new mentors—Tucker Carlson (who Vance insists is “the only powerful figure who consistently challenges elite dogma”) and Sens. Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton—and, with characteristic discipline, he’s remaking himself into a Donald Trump Mini-Me. That’s a pretty neat trick for a guy who, in 2016, sounded very convincing when he said, “I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place.”
Hillbilly Elegy, which cited liberals like Raj Chetty and William Julius Wilson respectfully, was about promoting understanding between a deeply alienated white working class and the book-buying cultural elite. But that was the old Vance. The new Vance is about politics as total war. “We really need to be really ruthless when it comes to the exercise of power,” Vance said last week on The Federalist Radio Hour.
Conservatives, Vance said, “have lost every major powerful institution in the country except for maybe churches and religious institutions, which of course are weaker now than they have ever been. We have lost big business, we have lost finance. We have lost the culture, we have lost the academy.”
An admiring reader of Hillbilly Elegy might interpret this as a prelude to a lengthy consideration of where conservatives went astray. That admiring reader would be wrong. “If we’re going to actually really effect real change in the country,” Vance said, “it will require us completely replacing the existing ruling class with another ruling class.… Unless we overthrow them in some way, we’re gonna keep losing.” It wasn’t even clear Vance was talking only about Democrats and liberals.
This is, of course, the Trump culture-war playbook. Vance carps on Twitter about the phrases “woman of color,” “cisgender,” and “intersectional,” and about critical race theory. None of this has any salience to the 2022 Senate election in Ohio. Vance decries college athletes who wear masks (“totally insane”) and then, after an Ohio reporter tweets about it, calls it “fake news.” Vance is even mimicking Trump’s weird use of capital letters (the New York attorney general’s prosecution of the former president, for instance, is “a threat to Our Democracy”).
At his most hypocritical, Vance, a millionaire banker who’s been affiliated with at least three venture capital firms, is aligning himself with the GOP’s war on woke capitalism. “Establishment Republican apologies for our oligarchy,” Vance tweeted in April, “should always come with the following disclaimer: “Big Tech pays my salary.” Never mind that Vance has worked for tech moguls Steve Case and Peter Thiel, and that one month earlier, Thiel put $10 million into a SuperPac supporting Vance’s yet-unannounced Senate candidacy. (The Mercers have also reportedly contributed.)
A principal target for GOP opponents of woke capital, Vance suggests, should be capital held by nonprofits like Harvard and the Ford Foundation “that are destroying our country.” In a speech earlier this month before the conservative Claremont Institute, Vance said, “All across the country we have nonprofits, big foundations, that are effectively social justice hedge funds.” They should be forced to pay tax and to pay down more of their endowments, he said. Vance probably meant Yale, too, but mentioning Old Eli would risk reminding people that in 2013 Yale handed him a Juris Doctor.
Will working-class Ohio voters fall for this? They fell for Trump, twice, and the 2022 primary is already shaping up into a competition for who can show the greatest devotion to the Trump cult. If he wins the primary, Vance may find some crossover appeal among people who remember the book fondly, or the 2020 film adaptation (which, while no masterpiece, was better than its terrible reviews). As late as April 9, Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, an alumnus of the same Ohio high school as Vance, wrote that he wished Vance well. Five years ago, I might have said the same. But Vance’s latest transformation is more than I can stomach. He’s become an Appalachian Sammy Glick.