Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir about growing up in rural Ohio, was often touted as a work of sociology that illuminated the white underclass that was thought to comprise Donald Trump’s base. For readers discomforted by Trump’s rise, particularly liberals, Hillbilly Elegy provided what The New York Times called a “compassionate, discerning” examination into the root causes of Trump’s appeal. But there was a limit to Vance’s compassion for his former neighbors. Hillbillies had been left behind, sure, but his book implied that the bigger problem was a lack of discipline: Having come to rely on welfare checks, they spent too much and worked too little. Vance’s Appalachia was long on handouts and short on bootstraps.
But Hillbilly Elegy was also a political memoir. One can see it as a white, rural, Republican take on Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father—a compelling introduction to a rising star. It advanced themes that would become the foundation of a hypothetical political campaign: distrust of the elites in both parties but, above all, an insistence on thrift and personal responsibility. Published weeks before Trump accepted the GOP’s nomination in Cleveland, the book was a subtler version of a bet many Republicans were making: that Trump’s idiosyncratic take on populism would badly fail. When it did, Vance would be poised to benefit.
Oops. Five years later, and just days since launching a Senate campaign in Ohio, Vance is backtracking faster than Willie Mays. In an attempt to salvage his budding political career, the man who in 2016 said, “Trump is unfit for our nation’s highest office,” has gone on an apology tour to renounce his past opinions. “Like a lot of people, I criticized Trump back in 2016,” Vance said Monday on—where else?—Fox News. “And I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I’ve been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy.”
Vance’s groveling is as necessary as it is humiliating. Trump, of course, did not fail in 2016, and the Republican Party has become even more Trumpist in the wake of his 2020 defeat, thus obliterating the ostensible foundation of Vance’s political career. So Vance is determined to show Republicans in general, and Trump specifically, that he’s engorging himself on humble pie. “I’m not just a flip-flopper, I’m a flip-flop-flipper on Trump,” he told Time magazine’s Molly Ball for a profile published on Wednesday.
Vance is also trying to graft his Hillbilly Elegy message onto Trump’s, suggesting that he was right all along—not about Trump, perhaps, but about the people who supported Trump. He pointed Ball to his memoir and commentary in 2016, saying, “I sort of got Trump’s issues from the beginning. I just thought that this guy was not serious and was not going to be able to really make progress on the issues I cared about.”
In reality, Vance is behind the times. His apologies this week resemble those from Republicans in the early days of the Trump era, once they realized he would win the nomination. But unthinking fealty to Trump alone may not cut it anymore, at least not in the race to fill the seat of retiring Ohio Senator Rob Portman. The large, chaotic Republican field is full of rabid Trumpers and led by Josh Mandel, a mask-burning former state treasurer who has suggested that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be in prison. The latest, most important loyalty test is whether the 2020 election was stolen. Mandel says it was; Vance won’t go that far, though he will say that it was “unfair.”
“There were some bad apples on January 6, very clearly, but most of the people there were actually super peaceful,” Vance told Time. This is what passes for nuance in the Republican Party these days. It’s also, politically speaking, a recipe for disaster; only devotion to the dominant narrative—that the violent insurrection at the Capitol was actually completely peaceful and righteous—will do.
Vance was right in 2016 when he said Trump was “unfit” for office and that his attacks on immigrants and Muslims were “reprehensible.” Four years of the Trump presidency only cemented those truths. But Vance was also wrong about the future of the GOP and, more importantly, the Trump voters whom he claimed to understand so well. Vance thought the Republican Party would return to its folksy denouncements of the greedy, lazy poor. Instead, it has continued to grow more authoritarian and openly racist.
Now, in the hopes of courting those very voters, Vance is disavowing the most sensible political opinions he’s ever uttered. But unless he’s willing to go all-in on Trump—to join the race to the bottom of Republican degeneracy—he had better have a backup plan in case a Senate seat isn’t in the cards. Maybe he could write a sequel to Hillbilly Elegy. Working title: The Audacity of Desperation.