J.D. Vance, Trump’s Possible VP Pick, Is a Shapeshifter


US Sen, J. D. Vance, (R-OH) addresses the conservative Turning Point People’s Convention on June 16, 2024 at Huntington Place in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

When Hillbilly Elegy came out in 2016, author J.D. Vance cut a unique figure, attractive to liberals and conservatives alike. The best-selling book traced his ascent from a dysfunctional family in Kentucky and Ohio to Yale Law, and suddenly Vance was everywhere. He warned of a white working class in crisis and bemoaned the rise of Donald Trump, though his explanations were always limited in scope. “During this election season, it appears that many Americans have reached for a new pain reliever,” he wrote in a piece for The Atlantic. “It enters minds, not through lungs or veins, but through eyes and ears, and its name is Donald Trump.” To him, Trump was a symptom primarily of cultural crisis, not racial resentment.

Vance sounds quite different now, at least on the surface. Soon after Trump was elected, he began to grovel and was repaid with a Trump endorsement that helped make him a Republican senator from Ohio. Today he is widely reported to be a leading candidate for Trump’s running mate. What happened, exactly? “I don’t know why or how, but Vance became not a voice for the voiceless but an echo of the loudmouth,” wrote the conservative pundit Mona Charen in a 2021 piece for the Bulwark, adding that “the Republican base is so warped that ambitious men feel the need to sink into the sewer in search of political success.” Charen doesn’t get it: Vance has always been a sewer creature.

Unlike Charen, I read Hillbilly Elegy in 2016 and promptly loathed its author. I grew up in Appalachia, a region he attempts to diagnose, and his act repulsed me; it was fraudulent and reactionary all at once. Since then he has changed his mind about Trump, but I don’t think he has fundamentally changed his perspective on the world. If I’m right, then what we’ve seen from Vance is not some wholesale transformation but the work of a shapeshifter without peer. He changes form, but not substance. He adapts to fill whatever space he’s in because that’s what it takes to win power. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who read Hillbilly Elegy. 

In a scene that sticks with me even now, Vance attends a fancy dinner at Yale where he is entirely out of his element. He orders a white wine, and when a server asks him if he’d prefer sauvignon blanc or Chardonnay, he thinks she’s “screwing” with him. Later he asks for sparkling water, which he claims he has never consumed, and spits it out. Then there are eating utensils, a bewildering number of them. “Why, I wondered, did I need three spoons?” he writes. He excuses himself, calls his worldlier girlfriend, Usha, for advice, and she tells him to start with the outside utensils and work his way in. Thus educated, he performs well for the rest of the dinner and even lands a job offer at a law firm. He is, after all, at Yale. “The interviews were about passing a social test — a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients,” he concludes.

Vance was somewhat correct here, and again when he observes that he has been playing a rigged game. Successful people “don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview,” he wrote. “They network.”

When a person first confronts the realities of elite power, they have a decision to make. Play along or burn it down. Vance has always played along with whoever can offer him the most power. He was never a voice for the voiceless, as Charen once called him; with his book, he sold out the working poor for prestige. Hillbilly Elegy traded in old stereotypes about poverty and Appalachia and fed them to elites with resounding success. When Appalachians object to a 2009 ABC News segment on a supposed epidemic of “Mountain Dew mouth” in the region’s children, Vance criticizes them. Hillbillies, he argues, “tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves.” In his family’s Kentucky hometown, the people “are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work,” he complains. After a pharmacy clerk forbade his uncle from playing with a toy, Vance’s grandparents entered the store and threw merchandise around while his grandmother screamed, “Kick his fucking ass!” He may be telling the truth about his family, but the rest of his story is a lie. Appalachia wasn’t impoverished by cultural decline or personal choices but by capitalist extraction and government austerity. He says nothing useful about the region, whose residents defy caricature if you know or care for them at all.

Whatever concern Vance feels for the poor and working class is laced through with disdain. Take the retail job that turned him into an “amateur sociologist,” he writes. “I also learned how people gamed the welfare system,” he claims. They’d sell the groceries they bought with food stamps, he claimed. Some went through his checkout line while talking on their cell phones — the audacity! “I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about,” he writes.

In Hillbilly Elegy, he praises Charles Murray, infamous for his spurious theories about racial differences in IQ. Murray’s “seminal” book, Losing Ground, was simply “another book about Black folks that could have been written about hillbillies — which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state,” Vance writes, mingling Murray’s anti-Black junk science with his own skepticism of government aid. Elites gobbled it up because he flattered and affirmed them, told them everything they wanted to hear about the masses at their door. Lifted up by a few years in the Marines and by the Ivy League, to say nothing of his own ambition, Vance had become one of them.

It’s easy to write Vance off as a cynic who only believes in himself. According to this view, he transformed himself in pursuit of power. Vance is a striver, true. That is evident in Hillbilly Elegy. He’s also a person of real conviction. That is evident in Hillbilly Elegy, too. The book is deeply political. In it, he imagines a different and more orderly America, where the church can teach “lessons of Christian love, family and purpose.” He asks “hillbillies” if they are “tough enough” to admit their behavior harms their children. Vance believes he has the moral authority to offer such lessons. He writes that he escaped “the worst of my culture’s inheritance.” To what end?

Though Vance was never a liberal, he’s soured on liberalism — and liberal democracy — since his public ascent in 2016. (There’s an irony to that, given the book’s initial appeal to liberal audiences and its embrace by Hollywood.) These days he promotes election denial and called for a Washington Post editor to be investigated for comparing Trump to a dictator. “The professors are the enemy,” he said in a speech to the National Conservatism Conference in 2021. Months later he told Vanity Fair that Trump, if re-elected, should fire “every civil servant in the administrative state” and “replace them with our people.”

In a more recent interview with Ross Douthat, he said, “The thing that I kept thinking about liberalism in 2019 and 2020 is that these guys have all read Carl Schmitt — there’s no law, there’s just power. And the goal here is to get back in power.” As proof, he cited the sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, for whom his wife clerked, and the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd. Vance probably overstates the influence of Schmitt, an antisemitic political theorist who joined the Nazi Party, on liberal Americans. His defense of Kavanaugh and his implied criticisms of Black Lives Matter show a similar tendency at work. Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. The George Floyd protests are over, and nobody defunded the police. If this is how liberals bid for power, it’s not working. What’s to fear? Yet to Vance, the very act of outcry is intolerable. He is an authoritarian to his core.

When he “broke” with elites, he only broke with liberalism; his anti-democratic friends on the right are no less rarefied. He has only shocked the gullible. To them, he once seemed like a real working-class mouthpiece. But he’s been something else all along, something equally authentic: an aspiring despot.

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