Politics

J.D. Vance Has Turned a 30 Rock Joke Into a Viable Political Strategy

J.D. Vance sits in a white easy chair onstage at a tech event.
J.D. Vance in San Francisco in 2018 during his venture capital days. Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

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For the past few months, Simon van Zuylen-Wood has been trying to get inside the head of one guy: Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance. “Vance has interested me ever since his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was published in 2016,” van Zuylen-Wood said. “Everybody was talking about Hillbilly Elegy, whether they loved it or hate it. He had this Virgil-like identity.”

The reason van Zuylen-Wood has been trying to understand Vance’s motivations now is that this genial translator for the white working class sounds really different these days. Back when his book first came out, Vance was happy to pen essays saying Donald Trump offered the white working class “an easy escape from the pain.” He actually called Trump an “opioid.” In his harsher moments, Vance simply called Trump an “idiot.”

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Now that he’s running for Senate, though? Vance’s approach has changed. Consider his comments over the summer about Trump. “It’s really stark to see the transformation,” van Zuylen-Wood  said.

On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with van Zuylen-Wood about J.D. Vance’s transformation. His shift may look opportunistic, but van Zuylen-Wood says that it can actually help explain the way the Republican Party is turning itself inside out—trying to conform to the Trump playbook and escape it, at the same time. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: The internet started laughing at the idea of J.D. Vance as a Senate candidate from the moment he declared. There’s this little clip of video that went viral from his announcement speech. Vance is standing at a podium, with a campaign sign stuck to it. It says, “JD Vance, conservative outsider.” And just as he gets to telling everyone what he’s about to do, that sign falls off the podium. A few days later, Vance started showing up on Fox News, swearing loyalty to Donald Trump, the president he’d once compared to a drug dealer.

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Simon van Zuylen-Wood: If the pressure on him in Washington, in New York, and in San Francisco was not to be pro-Trump, the pressure in a Republican primary is to be pro-Trump. So he deleted all the stuff where he was criticizing Trump, and all of a sudden he reverses himself, publicly, and says, “I take it back. Actually, I was wrong. I am pro-Trump now.”

And then he adopted this aggressive, almost bellicose, online persona—this pugilistic persona where he’s doing war with liberals online all the time.

But J.D. Vance’s Senate run has been fueled by an emerging intellectual movement on the right, and by watching Vance over the past few years, you can see this evolution happening. 

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Before he declared for Senate, if you followed essays he would write or TV appearances or his Twitter feed, you could see that actually he had been moving further and further away from the center-right establishment politics that everybody assumed he had when the memoir came out. He was allying himself with a populist strain of the right that intersects with certain populist strains of the left.

What did that sound like?

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It sounded like he opposed Trump’s tax cut. He would rail against Thatcherite, Reaganite conservatism. He would talk about the need for tariffs. He would talk about the need for generous family subsidies.

There was a kind of Bernie Sanders–meets–Edmund Burke populist conservatism that he started articulating publicly.

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This worldview has become known as “NatCon,” or national conservatism.  Can you define this emerging ideology?

I can try. I’ll start by describing it as an intellectual version of Trumpism. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s a Trump-era attempt to reorient the Republican Party away from free markets and interventionist foreign policy. That’s the baseline.

It’s basically a populist intellectual persuasion on the right that is nationalist about trade and borders, skeptical of big business. It tacks left on economics compared with the mainstream Republican Party, but probably a little right on cultural and social issues than the kind of pro-business Republican right.

It is not represented heavily in Congress at all. I’d say the two figures most associated with it are Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley. It does have a champion, though, in Tucker Carlson on Fox News, who is the most prominent figure associated with national conservatism.

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It’s funny. Right after Rush Limbaugh died, I did an interview with someone who basically said, “This is how Rush Limbaugh was going.”

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That’s fascinating. I don’t follow Limbaugh closely. I didn’t know that at all. That’s potentially extremely telling, that somebody like Limbaugh, who has repeated the mainstream “cut taxes, support business” conservatism, was trending in that direction. And it might say a lot about the intellectual currents on the right right now.

The funny thing about this emerging camp is it reminded a colleague of mine of Liz Lemon’s terrible boyfriend on 30 Rock, which was a laugh line when this was on national television, because this was a category that did not exist then.

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Right? Totally.

But it does now.

That’s a great point. The classic formulation is the inverse of that, right? The Mike Bloomberg–style “I’m a fiscal conservative, social liberal.” The irony is that that viewpoint is totally overrepresented in establishment or elite spaces. So the fiscally liberal social conservative or social moderate is kind of the mainstream default American position. And it’s fascinating if you think about American politics—this is sort of how Trump won and caught people by surprise, which is that he married these things that were not seen as going together at all. But if you listen to the NatCons, they basically argue that it’s way more intuitive to marry social conservatism and economic liberalism than it is to try to fuse it the other way around.

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For now, is this ideology mostly rhetorical? Are there policies or proposals I would recognize as in keeping with what the NatCons are advocating for?

It’s mostly rhetorical in the sense that most of its proponents are extremely online right-wing intellectuals. So if you spend a lot of time on NatCon Twitter, which is definitely a thing, you start to see all these splinter movements within the splinter movement. You see all this infighting, like any Twitter community. There’s a dense quarterly journal that informs their policies. There’s a new think tank that is affiliated with national conservatism. But again, its presence in Congress is minuscule.

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Now, if you get into what’s actually happening in Congress, it’s kind of mixed. So I would say that if you want to take the argument that actually these people are all talk, you could look at the fact that Marco Rubio, who talks a big game on this stuff, ended up voting for Trump’s corporate tax cut. If you want to take the more charitable view that actually there is something behind it, you could take the view that Marco Rubio spearheaded the [Paycheck Protection Program] in Congress after the pandemic. You could look at the fact that Josh Hawley sponsored and wrote a big anti–tech monopoly, anti-Amazon bill. Mitt Romney, who’s a kind of NatCon junior member—which is ironic because he’s exactly the type of conservative these people always hated—authored a pretty widely praised family subsidy plan that would have paid families up to $15,000 a year to help support child-rearing costs. And so there actually are these interesting feints at economic liberalism that are happening among the NatCons. But the question is: How serious are they, or how much power do they really have to tilt the direction of the Republican Party this way? Because the headwinds are still completely in the opposite direction.

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Part of the reason that national conservatism may seem like an odd fit for someone like J.D. Vance is that Vance spent the early part of his career chasing a pretty traditional group of mentors. He started an investment fund that collected money from Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Eric Schmidt of Google, and the Walton family, the founders of Walmart. These are not necessarily people who are looking to shake up the status quo. But if you look closely, you can see the ways Vance has been interested in changing the way elite institutions work.

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One very unexpected and interesting origin point actually dates back a decade ago to when he was at Yale Law School, of all places. So he went to see a speech by the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who is seen as a backer of a lot of the NatCon infrastructure and is backing not just Vance but another NatCon-affiliated Senate candidate in Arizona. Thiel, before he was more affiliated with politics, was largely known as a critic of technological stagnation.

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And he argued to these Yale kids, “Hey, this rat race you’re in, looking for clerkships and corporate law jobs, it’s actually related to the fact that technological stagnation in this country isn’t producing growth. You’re all competing for the same jobs on the same coasts in the same communities.” Vance ends up connecting this critique with his own feelings about his community being left behind—this Rust Belt manufacturing base of Southwest Ohio being depleted by globalization and by automation. And he decides that it’s not a coincidence that there’s this credentialized rat race going on in his universe and that all the jobs are concentrated on the coasts and in the big cities. And so he starts thinking about this through the vein of tech.

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He joins a venture capitalist fund that’s premised on trying to seed startups based in “flyover country,” basically. And then he starts his own VC firm premised on the same. And so he actually tries to marry this tech zillionaire vision with his populism. And that’s one of the seeming contradictions that leads into his current Senate race.

I was struck by this one scene in your reporting where J.D. Vance has just spoken at a conservative conference, and he gave a speech that was titled “Universities Are the Enemy.” And all I could think when I read that was this is a guy who went to Yale Law School, who has benefited from all of the education and connections that a fancy university degree gives you. Did that strike you too?

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One interesting way of looking at Vance is that he’s a veteran code switcher. I think he’s always felt alienated in both worlds he belonged to. And you saw this as early as the memoir. The memoir was, in some ways, a critique of the place he came from and an appreciation for the world he ascended to. One of the reasons a lot of people on the left criticized it is that they thought he was being too harsh on his own people. And one of the interesting developments that’s happening is that he’s gone from focusing on the perceived pathologies and failings of his own community, by focusing on what he thought was a self-destructive culture in the white working class and in the Appalachian white working class, to focusing on the perceived pathologies and failings of elite America.

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Well, that’s his community too.

And that’s his community too.

I think you’re totally right that there is a broader conversation in politics right now about how to embrace populism and who’s embracing it and how to make that Republican. And you can obviously see that with Trump and how he tried to do that, but then ended up cutting taxes for the rich. But the thing is: I go to J.D. Vance’s Twitter feed. And it’s an ugly place. He just tweeted out a video that was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. Essentially, it was a defense of Jan. 6. It says Capitol rioters are being detained unfairly. He says Congress needs to investigate the BLM movement. I feel like that’s meaningful.

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It is. And his online persona can be really quite toxic, and even some people who instinctually support him are kind of depressed at the Don Jr. act he’s doing online.

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He has a friend called Rod Dreher, who is a conservative religious blogger, and Dreher said something to me like, “Shitposting has become the dominant style for young radicals on the right, and I think this is a hazard for Christians in particular.”

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So there is a very coarse attitude that Vance has online. I’m glad you brought up Don Jr. because his whole vibe is very Don Jr.–ish in public. He’s got this beard now, which he didn’t used to have. The online persona is real, and he absolutely needs to be seen in the vein of the things that he says publicly on the record and that represent what he believes. But I also think that there is an ideological underpinning that the trollishness doesn’t capture.

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This brings us back to the Senate GOP primary in Ohio. J.D. Vance may be the most nationally prominent of the candidates, but polling shows he’s trailing behind the leading Republican: the former state treasurer, Josh Mandel.

Josh Mandel and Vance from the outside look fairly similar in the sense that they both seem to be trying to outflank each other from the right and triggering the libs, but the ideological fissures between both of them, in fact, run pretty deep.

Ohio is basically just a solid red state at this point. But Mandel and Vance have lurched far enough, rhetorically at least, to the right that Congressman Tim Ryan, who’s the presumptive Democratic nominee, might be popular enough to pull up an upset against them.

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Ryan also embraces populism, just from the left.

Correct. Tim Ryan, like Sen. Sherrod Brown, is a natural fit for the Rust Belt and actually talks about some of the same economic issues. But Ryan does it without the right-wing populism, or the right-wing trollishness, or the right-wing social issues.

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Vance went off on LeBron James of all people for something he said about Kyle Rittenhouse two months ago. And I remember thinking, like, you’re really going to criticize LeBron?

In Ohio. 

Yeah, I just don’t know how far-thinking that was. But it almost gets to the fact that he’s not all strategic.

Setting aside whether he’s contradictory or not, does this philosophy that you say J.D. Vance is articulating seem to be resonating with voters?

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It doesn’t really seem to be resonating with the Republican primary voters who show up to events seven months before a primary, for what that’s worth.

Among that crowd, the heavy Fox News–watching crowd, I didn’t see it resonating. They wanted to talk about national stuff. They wanted to talk about: Why were you anti-Trump five years ago? They wanted to talk about Jan. 6 or Kyle Rittenhouse, stuff that honestly has nothing to do with what’s going on in Ohio.

There was an event I went to, and the night the event was going on, a groundbreaking opioid trial was going on. There was a county just 10 miles to the north of where we were that brought a big federal civil case against chain pharmacies for exacerbating the opioid crisis. And the chain pharmacies were eventually found responsible in that trial. It was the first federal trial in which chain pharmacies have been found responsible for exacerbating the crisis. And this is exactly the kind of thing that J.D. Vance should be talking about and should care about. The opioid crisis has personally hit him. His hometown of Middletown, Ohio, was totally wracked and devastated by the opioid crisis. And yet nobody was talking about anything that wasn’t just on TV. This is part of the broader nationalization of politics, which has been super depressing, and Vance ended up just having to play to that crowd. And I did not see his big lines about American manufacturing get a lot of applause. People wanted to talk about the same old culture war stuff.

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