There are countless opportunities for petty embarrassment on the campaign trail. In a small event space in Troy, Ohio, Team J.D. Vance faces a familiar one: empty chairs. In a big venue, a half-full room is forgivable. But if the Hillbilly Elegy author turned Ohio Senate candidate cannot fill a dozen or so seats at this mid-afternoon stop of his “No BS tour”, what hope does he have come polling day?
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To the relief of his staffers, people eventually trickle in. When the headcount ticks past some unspecified face-saving threshold, Vance strides through the door. The 37-year-old is bearded and broad, dressed in jeans, shirt and jacket. He is, by the standards of a high-profile Senate candidate, notably unpolished when it comes to glad-handing on his way to the front. After some throat-clearing jokes about the cost of Easter chocolate (“Inflation is real, ladies and gentlemen”), Vance launches into the stump speech that he hopes will carry him to victory in one of the most closely watched and aggressively contested primaries this cycle, and then, come November, win a spot in the Senate.
Ever since he announced his candidacy last year, Vance has adopted a pugnacious, sometimes trivial, tone online. This has been jarring to see from the author of an affecting memoir about growing up the son of a heroin addict among poor Scots-Irish Appalachian transplants in southeastern Ohio, who then defied the odds to join the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. To take an especially witless example from his Twitter feed: “Let Trump back on. We need Alec Baldwin tweets,” he joked shortly after the actor accidentally shot and killed a woman on set in January.
Vance has received plenty of attention — and opprobrium — since he announced his Senate bid last summer. Not because of his change in tone, but because he has, in the years since Hillbilly Elegy was published, moved from being a conservative critic of Donald Trump to an avowedly pro-Trump stance. This conversion risked leaving him stranded: loathed by the establishment into which he was welcomed six years ago; mistrusted by GOP primary voters bombarded by his rivals with reminders of his past criticisms of the former president.
He has made this leap with a sobering, dark message: a substantive but bleak account of power in America that is light on partisan, issue-of-the-moment cheap shots. The man making his pitch to Ohio voters in Troy is a far cry from the very online culture warrior of his social media threads. “I want us to be a country again where a normal person can support a family of five on a single middle-class wage,” he says without much zeal, before telling a story of industrial decline, off-shored jobs and energy policy failure that, he says, means “we now depend on people who don’t like us very much to make stuff that we need.”
Then he gets to the part of the message with bite: “Our idiot leaders decided to do that to us. And I hate to use that term but sometimes it’s important to be direct about what’s going on… Our leaders have played a very dangerous and, I think, very ugly game with the American people. They’ve decided that they’re going to divide us against each other and distract us with constant appeals to race, to sex, to gender, to everything other than what I really think matters in this country.”
Vance’s political conversion is usually presented in personal terms — from anti to pro-Trump. Aware of the liability that his past Trump comments undoubtedly are in this race, Vance tends to respond to suspicion from Trump supporters by emphasising his approval of the man and his administration. “The only thing they have against me is, you know, ‘J.D. is Never Trump’,” he had told voters at a campaign stop earlier in the day in Miamisburg before expressing his regret at “stupid things” he had said in the past.
But the Trump focus disguises a deeper transformation. Woven through Hillbilly Elegy, which was published in 2016, is an orthodox conservatism that places the blame for the endemic social problems from which its author escaped at his community’s own doorstep: its habit of worklessness and shirking of responsibility, among other cultural defects. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese,” writes Vance. “These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance — the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”
Vance the candidate isn’t so shy about pointing the finger. Announcing his Senate run last year, he told supporters that the success of his book meant that he had met some of the “very wealthy” and “very powerful people” who “call the shots in business and in government”. Exposure to these elites, Vance said, had taught him that “you have leaders in this country in government and in business who don’t think they owe anything to the country that made them who they are”.
When I spoke to Vance after he had finished talking to voters in Troy, he identified “three big issues: trade, immigration and foreign policy”, where the GOP needed to learn from the populist revolution that Trump led. “I think most Republican insiders, consultants, and leaders world love to go back to a 2004-style Bush Republican Party. I don’t think our voters have any interest in that at all,” he said. “The question really to me, and in some ways the question in this race — and it’s a ten-year conversation — is whether the instincts of our voters, which are much more closely aligned with Trump, find their way into actual Republican politicians.”
It isn’t just Vance’s high-profile conversion that has made the Ohio senate primary so closely watched. The race has become a proxy battle for the future of the American Right. Not Trump versus anti-Trump, or the establishment versus the populists, but competing visions of post-Trump Republican politics. His two main opponents are perfectly absurd modern Republican archetypes.
Josh Mandel, 42, still looks like the schoolboy who wanted to be a politician when he grows up that he very obviously was. His internet antics make Vance’s social media use look reserved: Mandel fell foul of Twitter’s policy on “hateful conduct” for asking in a poll which “illegals” would commit more crime, “Muslim terrorists” or “Mexican gangbangers”. His Senate campaign has married outlandishly hardline cultural conservatism and Trumpist razzmatazz with the substantive foreign and economic policy of the Republican old guard. He is the candidate for Trumpism as an aesthetic choice, not a policy platform.
Vance’s other big threat is Mike Gibbons, a septuagenarian investment banker who has splashed his own cash on the race, and preaches a libertarian, trust-me-I’m-a-successful-businessman brand of Republican politics. Vance may have national fame, but Mandel and Gibbons have proven to be tougher primary opponents than they might seem. Gibbons has deep pockets and Mandel has high name recognition among primary voters in the state. “Bestselling author isn’t what it used to be,” quips one strategist involved in the race.
Compared to the alternatives, Vance stands for a return to the substantive populism with which Trump launched his assault on the Republican Party. Yet in many ways, the story of the Trump presidency was of a truce between the populists and the establishment on a range of issues: whether it be taxes, regulation, the judiciary or foreign policy, Trump gave the establishment concrete wins, often to the dismay of those in the vanguard of the insurgency.
Vance would be happy to tear the GOP peace treaty up. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred strategy of running on nothing more than the dangers of the radical Left in this year’s midterms is anathema to a candidate offering a wide-ranging diagnosis of America’s problems. Only one sitting US Senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, has endorsed him. “Most of the people serving in the senate have been in the same system for 30 or 40 years,” Vance tells me. “And I just think there’s this massive discrepancy between where voters are and where most senators are, but it’s going to close and it’s going to close pretty quickly.”
Vance is the most high-profile of a group of Republican candidates who have the backing of tech billionaire Peter Thiel. In their esoteric mix of nationalism and libertarianism, the PayPal co-founder’s own politics can be hard to pin down. A prominent Trump supporter in 2016, he was less enthusiastic about his re-election bid. But, as with Vance, at the heart of Thiel’s worldview is a profound critique of an elite he sees as decadent, unpatriotic and incompetent. He soon became Vance’s biggest backer, aiding his bid to the tune of $10 million in donations to the super PAC Protect Ohio Values.
Luke Thompson, the executive director of Protect Ohio Values, says that it’s possible to overstate how far Vance has travelled politically. “He used to think the people in charge were stupid or misinformed, now he thinks that a lot of them are actively evil,” he tells me. Explaining his change of mind on the former president in Miamisburg, Vance told voters that “Trump revealed a corruption in this country that I think I was naive to”.
Those who turned to Vance as their go-to Trump-voter whisperer have not taken his political conversion well. One-time fellow anti-Trumpers have dismissed him as a “pathetic loser poser jerk” and lamented his “silly yet detestable moral collapse”. If anything, by missing the sincerity of Vance’s conversion, these attacks underestimate the threat he poses.
But how surprising is his political journey really? Hillbilly Elegy’s success was part of a brief moment either side of the 2016 election when at least a small section of bien pensant America was chastened by Trump’s rise and the dangerously wide gap between different parts of American society that it revealed. But the moment for mutual understanding, which Vance in many ways personified, would soon pass. Everyone picked a side and dug in. Including Vance.
“I’ve learned that the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult. I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle,” Vance writes in his memoir. He has certainly done the latter since entering politics. And, contrary to accusations of grift, Vance’s Senate bid was a risky move. “Do you realise how good he had it?” says one friend. “If he loses, it’s over. His reputation is gone. And he knew that when he launched.”
For months, it seemed like it might not pay off. Vance had failed to rise to the top of a crowded field. Not that he was anything other than bullish when I asked him about his chances. “If our numbers are correct, I’m gonna win and the only reason I would lose is the perception that I may attack Trump.” When we spoke, three weeks before polling day, the big question was whether the former president would endorse any one in race or stay neutral. “Trump and I get along well,” he told me. “We’re getting to the point where if he is going to get involved, it probably has to be soon. But I’m not going to guess on it.”
He wouldn’t need to. Four days later, Trump announced his endorsement of Vance. “Like some others, J.D. may have said some not so great things about me in the past,” said Trump. “But he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades. He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race.” With the endorsement came cash — Thiel poured millions more into the election bid — and the sense that the gamble had paid off.
In a TV ad amplifying Trump’s endorsement, the narrator introduces Vance as “marine, author of Hillbilly Elegy, president Trump’s endorsed America first conservative.” The journey was complete. The candidate looks into the camera and says: “Trump fought back and so have I.”
In backing Vance, Trump has taken a risk of his own: choosing a side in a contentious, close and high-profile primary. A week after his endorsement, a group of Ohio conservatives wrote to the former president asking him to reconsider. “Unlike the other candidates in this race, J.D. Vance has not developed relationships with Republican voters and grassroots leaders that are crucial to win,” read the apparatchiks’ letter. “This endorsement of J.D. Vance is a betrayal to not only your Ohio supporters but Trump supporters across our great nation!”
On Saturday, Trump and Vance appeared at a rally near Columbus. It was Trump’s rise that turned Vance into a star in 2016. Six years on, their fortunes are intertwined once again, with Vance hoping that the Trump endorsement gets him over the line, and Trump betting that a Vance victory demonstrates his enduring power among the Republican electorate. “I want to pick somebody who is going to win,” Trump said introducing Vance on stage. “And this man is going to win.”