March 23, 2021 - 4:00pm

Imagine a figure in American politics who warned against offshoring, an incoherent immigration policy, national humiliation abroad and, finally, disrepair at home.

He inveighed against a neglectful elite.

But unlike Donald Trump, he served his country in an unpopular war, rather than avoiding one. He writes his own books. He “came from nothing”. That is, the details of his biography were material for emulation, rather than a monied embarrassment. Like so many young people growing up in the United States today, he had no strong father figure.

And if, to his critics, his remarks about the state of the union carried a Trump-like whiff of bigotry, he need only point to his young biracial family in America’s heartland.

For Republicans, J.D. Vance, the likely Ohio senate candidate, represents both change and continuity. He could become the embodiment of Trumpism without the downsides of the man himself. Now his candidacy is attracting media hype and high-altitude backers like Peter Thiel. 

The Hillbilly Elegy author is not without his critics. Kevin Williamson, a former colleague of Vance’s at National Review is not convinced that Trumpism without Trump is a viable electoral strategy:

Vance is a celebrity of a different kind. If my understanding of the actual political situation is correct, then Vance is going to have trouble tapping into that Trump energy, because it will turn out that after all there was no Trumpism, only Trump. I hope I am wrong. (I’m not).
- Kevin Williamson, National Review

Others on the nationalist Right will recall that Vance voted for Evan McMullin, the neoconservative protest candidate, in the 2016 election — not Trump. But if Vance’s candidacy really takes off such sniping won’t affect him. It would just be the far-Right mirror image of the far-Left scorn that Vance has attracted for years.

Whoever he cast his ballot for in 2016, Vance understands the realignment that’s underway in American politics. To read his February 2016 column, “Trump speaks for those Bush betrayed” is to read a figure at ease with the demise of the old guard.

And it’s true, Vance speaks in a way that spooks Reaganites. Here’s what he had to say at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference:

Right off highway 101… you’ll find the Facebook headquarters. And at Facebook, there are neuroscientists currently being paid a lot of money quite literally to addict our children to their applications. And not far from the Facebook headquarters, there are neuroscientists working on how to cure dementia…. The people who are working at Facebook…. make much more money than the people who are attempting to cure our society of its worst disease. 
- J.D. Vance, National Conservatism Conference

Can Trumpism survive Trump? That is the key question in Republican circles right now. After considering a run for years, Vance is finally poised to launch his political career and provide some answers.

Curt Mills is a senior reporter at the American Conservative.