J.D. Vance’s Long Game

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S1: Hey, Mary Harris here, there is a tiny bit of salty language in today’s episode. For the last few months, Simon Vance Island Wood has been trying to get inside the head of one guy, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance.

S2: Judy Vance is interested me. Ever since his bestselling memoir, A Hillbilly Elegy, was published in 2016. I mean, everybody was talking about Hillbilly Elegy, whether they loved it or hated it. It feels like at the time, right,

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S1: because it came out right around the 2016 election. Yeah, and it seemed to explain something about what was happening.

S3: J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy has been all the buzz this summer. His timing could not have been better.

S1: He had the ear of a prophet.

S3: Vance, the Appalachian Yale Law School grad does an extraordinary job of unwittingly explaining something that has been puzzling most of us. What is behind the fervor for Donald Trump in so many parts of America?

S1: All of a sudden he was on CNN. He was on Charlie Rose, and he was trying to tell the story of what was going on in this moment.

S3: You know, these people, why do they support him?

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S4: They feel left behind in the modern American economy and not just the economy, but the modern American way of life.

S2: He had this kind of Virgil like identity. I mean, one of the things that the book is about is his mother’s addiction to prescription narcotics and then later heroin. But he had ascended to Elite America for lack of a better term, and so he was able to sort of speak both languages, and he could empathize with and explain this segment of America without endorsing the candidate. A lot of them are getting behind.

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S1: The reason Simon’s been trying to understand J.D. Vance’s motivations now is because 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 their pain. He actually called Trump an opioid. In his harsher moments, Vance simply called Trump an idiot. Now that he’s running for Senate, though, Vance’s approach has changed. Consider his comments over the summer about Trump.

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S4: I think he delivered on his promises to make the country a better place. I didn’t really believe he was serious, and then I saw the guy in action and I thought he was a successful president. So I think that I changed because he did a good job.

S2: It’s really start to see the transformation. I mean, he’s essentially been expelled or expelled himself, depending on your perspective from from what you might call polite society.

S1: Do you think J.D. Vance could show up on CNN or PBS to have a friendly chat about his childhood?

S2: I mean, I don’t even think he would get booked, or I also don’t think he’d say yes because he’s running for Senate right now in a Republican primary. And so it’s to his advantage to sort of be loathed by the establishment.

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S1: Today on the show, JD Vance, his transformation may look opportunistic, but Simon 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. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. The internet started laughing at the idea of JD Vance as a Senate candidate. From the moment he declared, there is 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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S2: After all this, he basically deleted all his tweets because if the pressure on him in Washington, in New York and 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, says, You know how to take it back? Actually, I was wrong. I am pro-Trump now.

S4: I’ve been very open about the fact that I did say those critical things and I regret them and I regret being wrong about the guy.

S2: And then he kind of adopted this aggressive, you know, almost sort of bellicose online persona, this pugilistic persona where he served during war with liberals online all the time. And I think that’s been the Vance that many of us have seen publicly for the last year

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S4: that we’re effectively run in this country via the Democrats, be via our corporate oligarchs by a bunch of childless cat ladies who are miserable at their own lives and the choices that they’ve made. And so they want to make the rest of the country miserable, too. And it’s just a basic fact, you look.

S1: But Simon Van Island Inwood says J.D. Vance is Senate run is worth paying attention to because it’s being fueled by an emerging intellectual movement on the right, and that by watching Vance over the last few years, you can see a kind of evolution happening.

S2: I mean, one interesting thing is before he declared for Senate is if you just followed their 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 kind of center right establishment politics that everybody assumes he had. When the memoir came out, he was allying himself with a kind of populist strain of the right that intersects with certain populist strains of the left.

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S1: What did that sound like?

S2: 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, I don’t know, Bernie Sanders meets Edmund Burke kind of populist conservatism that he started articulating publicly.

S4: I do think that we’ve undergone this weird transformation in the last 30 years and I grew up in, you know this this this world reading conservative publications being influenced by them where we made some leap from the private sector is generally the right engine. To do things to the public sector is always the wrong engine to do things, and that’s a pretty terrible way to think about the world

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S1: when you’re in over the last few years. This worldview has gotten a name. It goes by, not Kahn or national conservatism. Can you define this emerging ideology?

S2: Yeah, I can try. I mean, I’ll start by describing it as an intellectual version of Trumpism. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s basically a Trump era attempt to reorient the Republican Party away from free markets and interventionist foreign policy. So that’s the sort of baseline that’s basically a populist intellectual persuasion on the right kind of splinter movement on the right that is nationalist about trade and borders, skeptical of big business attacks left on economics compared to the mainstream Republican Party, but probably a little right even 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 Senators Marco Rubio and Senator Josh Hawley. It is does have a champion, though, in Tucker Carlson on Fox News, who is the biggest figure or most prominent figure associated with national conservatism.

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S1: It’s funny. Right after Rush Limbaugh died, I did an interview with someone who basically said, this is how Rush Limbaugh was going before he passed, where he was sort of encouraging economic populism with social conservatism.

S2: That’s fascinating. I don’t follow Limbaugh closely. I didn’t know that at all. That’s I mean, that’s that’s potentially extremely telling that somebody like Limbaugh who sort of repeated the basically mainstream cut taxes, support business support, free enterprise conservatism was trending in that direction, and it might say a lot about the intellectual currents on the right right now.

S1: The funny thing about this emerging camp is it reminded a colleague of mine of Liz Lemon’s terrible boyfriend on 30 Rock.

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S2: What are your politics?

S4: Social Conservative, fiscal liberal,

S1: which was a lifeline when this was on national television because this is a category that did not exist

S2: then. Right? Totally.

S1: But it does now.

S2: Yeah, that’s a great point. You know, the classic formulation is the inverse of that, right? You me like the kind of Mike Bloomberg style, like 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, it’s kind of like the mainstream default American position. And so it’s actually kind of fascinating if you think about American politics. I mean, 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 neocons, they basically argue that it’s way more intuitive to Mary social conservatism and economic liberalism than it is to try to fuse fuse it the other way around.

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S1: For now, is this ideology mostly rhetorical? Like, are there policies or proposals I would recognize as in keeping with what the neocons are advocating for?

S2: Yes or no? Yeah. It’s mostly rhetorical in the sense that most of its proponents are kind of extremely online right wing intellectuals. So if you if you spend a lot of time and like knock on Twitter, which is definitely a thing, you start to see all these, you know, kind of splinter movements within the splinter movement. You see all this kind of infighting is litigating of schisms like any Twitter community. And 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. 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, you know, 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 PPP program in Congress after the pandemic. You could look at the fact that Josh Hawley sponsored a big and wrote a big anti tech monopoly anti Amazon bill. Mitt Romney, who’s a kind of not con junior member, which is kind of ironic because he’s sort of exactly the type of conservative these people who always hated, you know, authored a pretty widely praised family subsidy plan that would have paid families up to $15000 a year to help support child rearing costs. And so there actually are these interesting feints at economic liberalism that are happening among the Not Collin faction. The question is how serious are they or how much power do they really have to sort of really tilt the direction of the Republican Party this way? Because the headwinds are still completely in the opposite direction?

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S1: I think we’ll be right back after a quick break. Part of the reason that national conservatism seems like an odd fit for someone like J.D. Vance, is it 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 upend the status quo. But Simon Vance, Island Wood says if you look closely, you can see the ways Vance has been interested in changing the way elite institutions work.

S2: 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 there to see a speech by the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who is seen as kind of a backer of a lot of the the Matt Klein infrastructure and is backing not just Vance, but another kind of unaffiliated Senate candidate in Arizona. Till before he was sort of more affiliated with politics was largely known as a critic of technological stagnation. A lot of your listeners have probably heard his famous line. You know, we wanted flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters. And he kind of argued to these Yale kids, Hey, you know this, 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 in the same coasts and the same communities. Vance ends up connecting this critique with his own feelings about his community being left behind right this rust belt manufacturing base of the of southwest Ohio, being depleted by globalization and by automation. And he decides that basically, it’s not a coincidence that there’s this credential as rat race going on in his universe, and that all the jobs are concentrated on the coasts and in the big cities and the winners of America. And so he starts thinking about this through the vein of tech, actually. And then 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 Mary this like tech zillionaire vision with his populism. And that’s one of the kind of seeming contradictions that that leads into his current Senate race.

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S1: I was struck by this one scene in your reporting where J.T. Vance has just spoken at a conservative conference and he gave a speech that was entitled 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?

S2: Yeah, I think, you know, one interesting way of looking at Vance is that he’s kind of 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. You know, the memoir was, in some ways, a critique of the place he came from and and a kind of appreciation for the world he ascended to. I mean, his whole book in some ways, one of the reasons a lot of people on the left criticizes. They thought he was being too harsh on his own people. And one of the interesting developments that’s happened is that he’s gone from focusing on the pathologies or 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.

S1: Well, that’s his community, too,

S2: and that’s his community to.

S1: 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. Yeah, yeah. But the thing is, I go to J.D. Vance’s Twitter feed. And it’s an ugly place. Like, we’re we’re talking on January 6th. He just tweeted out a video that was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr.. Essentially, it was a defense of that day. It says Capitol rioters are being detained unfairly. He says Congress needs to investigate the BLM movement if they’re investigating January 6th. I feel like that’s meaningful.

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S2: It is. It is meaningful. His online persona can be of really quite toxic, and I think even some people who instinctually support him are kind of depressed at the Don Jr. Act he’s doing online. He has a friend called Rod Dreher, who’s a conservative religious blogger, and Dreyer said something to me. Like Shipp, posting has become the dominant style for young radicals on the right. And I think this is a hazard for for Christians in particular. 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 junior ish in public. He’s got this beard now, which he didn’t used to have. He’s not going to be like this baby face looking, kind of boyish looking guy. And now he’s got this kind of severe Don Jr. look kind of hunter ish kind of masculine is on the online persona is is real. And he absolutely needs to be seen in the vein of of the things that he says publicly on the record and that that represent what he believes. But I also think that there is an ideological underpinning that the trombonist doesn’t capture.

S1: This brings us back to that Senate GOP primary in Ohio. JD Vance maybe the most nationally prominent of the candidates, but polling shows he’s trailing behind the leading Republican, the former state treasurer, a guy named Josh Mandel,

S2: 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. I mean, 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 a congressman, Tim Ryan, who’s the presumptive Democratic nominee and who’s popular enough in Ohio, might be able to pull off an upset against them, who

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S1: also embraces populism just from the left.

S2: Correct? Yes. Tim Ryan, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, are these sort of natural fits for for the Rust Belt and who actually talk about some of the same economic issues. But Ryan does it without the right wing populism of the right wing foolishness without the the the right wing social issues. You know, 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 I think it almost gets to the fact that, like, he’s not all strategic.

S1: Yeah, I mean, setting aside whether he’s contradictory or not. Does this philosophy that you say J.D. Vance is articulating? Does it seem to be resonating with voters like you went out on the trail with him? How did they respond?

S2: It doesn’t really seem to be resonating with the Republican primary voters who show up to events like seven months before a primary for what’s that words among that crowd, you know, 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? You know, making him kind of repent for his anti-Trump is. And it’s like talking about, you know, January 6th for Kyle Rittenhouse or 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 kind of groundbreaking opioid trial was going on just in a. There was a county just 10 miles to the north 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. And that trial was the first federal trial in which chain pharmacies have been found responsible for exacerbating the crisis. And like, this is exactly the kind of thing that JD Vance you know should be talking about and should care about. You know, he hears that the opioid crisis has personally hit him. His hometown of Middletown, Ohio, was totally wracked and devastated by the opioid crisis. And yet, like, nobody was talking about anything that wasn’t just on TV. I mean, this is part of the broader nationalization of politics, which has been super depressing. And I think Vance ended up just having to play to that crowd. I mean, I did not see his big lines about American manufacturing get a lot of applause people wanted to talk about, you know, the same old culture war stuff.

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S1: Yeah, it’s funny because I was looking at this line from his book. And it was the opposite of what you’d say if you were running for office.

S4: He writes, I believe we Hillbilly are the toughest goddamn people on this Earth. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? We Hillbilly must wake the hell up.

S2: It’s a really interesting passage. It actually gets to like one of the most interesting and paradoxical things about his transformation. If that’s what you want to call it, which is that one of the reasons he was embraced by the establishment is that by turning inwards and blaming the cultural factors that you know had made, quote Hillbilly is the way they were. You weren’t actually suggesting anything all that radical politically. What’s happened now is that he’s now turning his ire away from his own community and towards the elites, which again, is the more obvious political move right to bash Washington. Let’s bash Wall Street, especially the coasts, whomever. But I think he’s become kind of less popular, in part because of the troller stuff and because of the disagreeable online persona he has now. But also because there’s there’s a more of a populist demeanor to him that looks outwards instead of inwards. And so he’s attacking a lot of the same people that he was embracing before and vice versa. He’s not talking about the failings of his community anymore.

S1: Simon, I’m so grateful for your reporting. Thanks for coming on the show. Sure. Thanks. Simon Vance Island with story about J.D. Vance, appeared in The Washington Post magazine. Go check it out. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Carmel Delshad, Elena Schwartz, and Mary Wilson. Each and every day we get leadership from Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. See if I made a meme about today’s show. I actually did that last week. I’m at Mary’s desk. Meanwhile, I’ll catch you back in this field tomorrow.