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J.D. Vance Joins the Jackals

How the path-breaking writer became a Trumpist troll.
March 17, 2021
J.D. Vance Joins the Jackals
J.D. Vance, author of the book "Hillbilly Elegy," poses for a portrait (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The question of what will become of the Republican party in the post-Trump era seems to be on everyone’s lips. A New York Times survey found that Republicans themselves have five distinct views of Trump, including 35 percent who are either “Never Trump” or “Post Trump.” But 65 percent fall into the “Die-hard” camp (27 percent), the “Trump Booster” faction (28 percent), or the “InfoWars” segment (10 percent).

Whatever the future of the Republican party will be, the shape-shifting J.D. Vance sheds light on the dynamics of how we got here and where the Republican party is headed. This week, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel announced that he is donating $10 million to a super PAC supporting Vance’s potential run for the Senate seat from Ohio. Vance hasn’t yet declared his candidacy, but Thiel has been boosting him for a while and it’s a safe assumption that he isn’t prone to throwing away his money.

Vance today is a fixture of the Trumpist right, but that isn’t the way he debuted. Not at all.

Rarely does a nonfiction book make the kind of splash Hillbilly Elegy did in 2016. I was part of the cheering section. At a moment when a thousand voices on the right were proclaiming that a failure to address the problems of the white working class was the root of Trump’s rise, and conservative pundits were lining up to agree that the government had failed these people, Vance emerged as an authentic voice of the working class—a self-styled “hillbilly” no less—to declare that the problems of many working-class people were largely self-inflicted.

Or perhaps a better way to say it is that their problems are a matter of personal choices. Drug abuse, welfare dependency, domestic violence, irresponsible spending, and family disintegration were all omnipresent in Vance’s family and community. He wrote of children suffering from “Mountain Dew mouth,” because their parents plied them with sugary sodas, sometimes even in infants’ bottles, to quiet them. “This book,” he wrote, “is about . . . what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

The stories of his upbringing are harrowing. He described his home life as “extraordinarily chaotic.” His grandmother once attempted to murder his grandfather by dousing his bed with gasoline and lighting a match (he survived). As I wrote in 2016:

Vance’s mother was an addict who discarded husbands and boyfriends like Dixie cups, dragging her two children through endless screaming matches, bone-chilling threats, thrown plates and worse violence, and dizzying disorder. Every lapse was followed by abject apologies—and then the pattern repeated. His father gave him up for adoption (though that story is complicated), and social services would have removed him from his family entirely if he had not lied to a judge to avoid being parted from his grandmother, who provided the only stable presence in his life.

In a 2016 interview, Vance told Rod Dreher that his mother probably cycled through 15 husbands/boyfriends during his childhood. Family disintegration was the greatest handicap Vance and others like him were saddled with. “Of all the things that I hated about my childhood,” he wrote, “nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.”

In contrast to the popular impression, Vance noted that working-class white people were not that religious. “In the middle of the Bible belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.”

Vance himself gained self-command only after enlisting in the Marines. It was there that he learned to balance a checkbook, make his bed, eat healthy, keep his appointments, and avoid scams. He described it as a “four-year program of character development.”

His depiction of working-class life wasn’t a complete rejection of his origins. He stressed that he loved his family, and that a majority (even if just a bare one) of his community does work hard. For children trapped in dysfunctional homes, one can have nothing but sympathy. And he believed that elites did fail to evince much understanding for people who were struggling. On the other hand, he was keen to counter the pervasive sense of helplessness in the community he was raised in. “There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”

In a sense, Vance was the anti-Trump. He was a true son of Appalachia striving to lift his community, in contrast to the faux populist from Manhattan seeking to flatter and exploit them. Vance felt that they needed hope and a generous dose of honesty. Trump offered fantasies and cunningly curated hatred.

During his 2016 book tour, Vance was not shy about his disdain for Trump. When NPR’s Terry Gross asked how he planned to vote that November, he said, “I think that I’m going to vote third party because I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place.” In the course of a conversation with Vox’s Ezra Klein, he readily agreed that Trump’s rhetoric was racially incendiary. And appearing on the podcast I hosted at the time, Need to Know, Vance said that as the election year progressed, he became more and more convinced that Trump could win. He had texted his book agent, he told Jay Nordlinger and me, saying that, “If Trump wins it would be terrible for the country, but good for book sales.”

Vance is an extremely bright and insightful man who could have been a fresh voice for a fundamentally conservative view of the world.

But a funny thing happened after the introduction of J.D. Vance, anti-Trump voice of the working class. He began to drift into the Trump camp. I don’t know why or how, but Vance became not a voice for the voiceless but an echo of the loudmouth. Scroll through his Twitter feed and you will find retweets of Tucker Carlson, alarmist alerts about immigration, links to Vance’s appearances on the podcasts of Seb Gorka, Dinesh D’Souza, and the like, and even retweets of Mike Cernovich. On February 16, he tweeted “I still can’t believe the 45th president of the United States has no access to social media, and the left—alleged opponents of corporate power—is just totally fine with it.” There’s a lot along those lines. But the tweet that really made my heart sink was this one from February 12: “Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children.”

So now the brilliant author of Hillbilly Elegy, a man of judgment, nuance, and, one assumed, a moral center, is positioning himself as QAnon-adjacent. Please understand what that tweet conveys. By citing the cases of Jeffrey Epstein and John Weaver, one a convicted abuser of underage girls and the other an accused abuser of teenage boys, he is whitewashing the QAnon conspiracy.

Jeffrey Epstein was a despicable creep. John Weaver seems to have done bad things (though he has not been convicted of anything yet). But the QAnon conspiracy teaches that a cabal of leading Democrats and Hollywood celebrities sexually abuses not teenagers, but little children, and then eats them. No decent human being should in any way remotely suggest, far less with all caps, that those conspiracies might not be so crazy after all.

Vance also threw in the name of Leon Black, who is alleged to have had some eye-popping business dealings with Epstein but has not been cited for any sexual misconduct. Maybe Vance missed the day at Yale Law when they warned against hurling baseless accusations at people.

I’m not sure which is worse: that Vance, who just four years ago lamented the rise of conspiracy theories on the right, is now helping to foment one of the worst, or the fact that the Republican base is so warped that ambitious men feel the need to sink into the sewer in search of political success.

Vance’s slide from path-breaking writer to Trumpist troll tracks perfectly with the decline of the Republican party. Peter Thiel clearly believes that Vance’s new incarnation will win votes. And it may. But to quote Vance back at himself, if he does win, “it will be terrible for the country.”

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].