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Hillbilly energy

Tipped to be Trump’s running mate, JD Vance is the voice of the new American right.

By Sohrab Ahmari

Does America’s 2024 election come down to a choice between two different shades of your crazy uncle, one semi-senile, the other vulgar and erratic? A decade ago, when Donald Trump launched his presidential bid, there was a real clash of visions for the US at stake. “Make America great again” (Maga) heralded the end of globalisation and the return of tariffs, hard borders and nationalism: the stuff of the Dark Ages, as far as establishments on both sides of the Atlantic were concerned.

Today, the Trumpian critique of neo-liberal globalisation is echoed by Financial Times columnists – and enacted into policy by the Democrats. The Joe Biden administration has retained Trump’s tariffs against China. More than that, Biden has implemented industrial policies aimed at returning manufacturing to the US and taking the lead on semiconductors and green tech.

For Senator JD Vance of Ohio, reportedly among the top-three choices for Trump’s running mate, these concessions aren’t enough. While a new consensus recognises distinct national interests in economics, and that America must restore the industrial foundations of its power, Team Biden has failed to reverse the domestic “decay” Vance railed against in a recent speech opposing the latest Ukraine funding bill. The Bidenites remain committed to liberal internationalism and the free movement of labour, galvanising populist insurgents such as Vance to insist on a Maga restoration.

Start with the internationalism. As Vance told me in a recent phone interview, “in most areas, Biden fundamentally sees the role of the United States as to work towards the liberal international order, the rules-based American order, and to use American power to enforce that order”. Trump’s approach, by contrast, can’t be described “in any other way than Jacksonian, because I think it’s a mixture of extreme scepticism towards intervention overseas, combined with an extremely aggressive posture when you do intervene overseas… Don’t punch often, but when you punch, punch really goddamn hard.”

Trump’s vision “recognises that we are in an era of rising multipolarity, and you can’t fight against that – you have to deal with it”, said Vance. “It recognises that Russia is occasionally an adversary but also has sometimes aligned interests… You have to deal with them as a complicated actor in foreign affairs. So I think there’s just a much different foreign-policy agenda.”

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Then there is immigration. Notwithstanding Biden’s economic nationalism, Vance noted, the administration is “fundamentally unwilling to make a critique of the free movement of labour. This is where you hear them making arguments about immigration that are straight out of Koch brothers talking points from eight or ten years ago.” This is a reference to the billionaire clan famous for pushing libertarian border policies.

Biden’s devotion to a liberal account of belonging clashes sharply with the need to survive the election. For many voters, the issue of immigration epitomises the administration’s fecklessness. Each week brings fresh news that roils not just conservative areas on the Mexican border, but even Democrat states: in Boston, a recreation centre in a low-income black community gets converted into a migrant shelter by overwhelmed local authorities; in New York, a tourist gets shot by a shoplifting migrant and two police officers are badly beaten up by a gang of migrants (who are soon sprung thanks to the state’s loose bail measures and caught on camera giving the middle finger to reporters). And so on.

This month, the Biden administration suffered another blow when a compromise border proposal in Congress went down amid opposition from Republican senators. The bill would have granted the president emergency authority to shut down the border, but only in the event new arrivals reach 5,000 a day, thus ratifying nearly two million crossings per year. For populist Republicans determined to capitalise on the realignment of low-income Americans towards the GOP, the fatal flaw was a provision allowing asylum seekers immediate work permits, even though less than a fifth eventually qualify for asylum in the US. The move would have created “a shadow army of reserve labour”, as Josh Hawley, Vance’s senatorial ally from Missouri, put it.

“The anti-free-movement-of-labour argument,” said Vance, “is not just a workers’ rights argument, though it is that. It’s not just that this decimates the bargaining power of workers, though I believe it does that. It’s also a tech-forward argument. If you can’t constantly do the same things with cheaper and cheaper labour, your economy is forced to innovate.” It’s this kind of thinking that makes Vance a compelling choice to be Trump’s vice-president, if another term is to show the reforming seriousness it too often lacked the first time around.

Few in Washington better embody the spirit of Trump’s first campaign. Born in 1984 in the Appalachian “holler”, of pure Scots-Irish descent, James David Vance grew up in broken homes before being adopted by his grandparents. His grandmother, “Mamaw”, especially, instilled a drive to make something of himself. And so he did, enlisting as a marine in 2003 before earning a degree in 2013 from Yale Law School, the ultra-selective training ground for America’s uppermost elite.

After decamping for San Francisco’s venture-capital scene, Vance published a memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, at a mentor’s behest. The book became a bestseller during the brief interval immediately following the 2016 election when the East Coast media earnestly tried to understand Trumpian America’s pain, before framing them as bigoted deplorables once more. Vance urged sympathy for these voters, even as he called himself a “never Trump guy”.

When in 2021 he ran for the Senate as a Trump Republican, he was instantly accused of inconsistency, at once the gravest and most boring sin in public life. Vance’s memoir, moreover, had ended on a note of personal uplift that jarred with his later message: that the conditions of Trumpian America had to be fixed via policy and politics, rather than mere individual effort.

Yet the combination of a populist demand for a fair social settlement and revulsion at individual indolence isn’t anomalous. On the contrary, that attitude was central to Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, and why he framed social security as an earned benefit, rather than a taxpayer handout that could be taken away later. It was also the politics of Mamaw. “My grandma’s politics [was] a sort of hybrid between left-wing social democracy and right-wing personal uplift, and there is virtue to both of these world-views.”

Vance said he might draft a bill to return manufacturing to US shores, garnering support from progressives for creating higher-wage jobs. “But I do think it’s important – and this is where my social conservatism comes in – to recognise that people who grew up in broken families are likely to have some psychological issues that are completely separate from the economic facts of their lives.”

He added: “We know that a kid who grows up in a two-parent household where the family income is $60,000 [a year] is going to have a better social income than a kid who grows up in a broken home where the family income is $60,000. And so, you can simultaneously believe that you want to raise both families’ incomes to $80,000, while recognising that there is a problem” with family breakdown.

The Biden administration has been described – correctly, I think – as post-neoliberal. When the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, rails against the “Washington consensus”, it’s obvious that the party of government has changed its mind on globalisation. Labour markets are tight, the economy is clocking Ireland-level growth, and the administration is pouring billions into redeveloping the left-behind rural heartland.

Yet if opinion polls can be believed, voters will return Trump to power. GOP operatives watch with delight, and Democrats with horror, as global chaos swamps an administration led by an 81-year-old recently described in a government report as an “elderly man with a poor memory” – and who, in attempting to counter that impression at a news conference, described the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “the president of Mexico”.

The mental acuity factor can’t be underestimated. When I asked Vance if he thought Biden is mentally qualified to be president, he flatly said no: “I met Biden in early 2017, when Trump was inaugurated… He’s just fundamentally a different human being now than he was then. I don’t know if that’s capital-D dementia, or whether he has lost a lot of his energy.”

Not that Trump is “predictable or conventional”, Vance granted. But Trump’s “proponents would say that in a world where everything a leader does is transcribed and analysed by multiple analysts from multiple intelligence agencies, there’s something to be said for not always being predictable”. For these proponents, the Trumpian way of diplomacy recalls the Nixonian model, in which the risk of the president taking unpredictable or drastic action disciplines friends while creating deterrence among enemies.

Beyond energy and mental fitness, there is the Democrats’ bizarre refusal to relent on the border, even as their mayors and governors  are exasperated with the number of newcomers. “People on the left have a justifiable fear of allowing the country to become an explicitly racialist project,” Vance said. “But that bleeds into a fear that you can’t exclude anybody from the American story, you can’t exclude anybody from the promises of American citizenship. It’s kind of this ‘America is an idea’ taken to its most extreme conclusion.”

Who belongs? “This is obviously a very Catholic insight [but] I’m totally OK saying, ‘Yes, we have some obligation to the world at large, but we owe a more pressing obligation to people in our community.’ I think the left is uncomfortable with accepting that people feel bonds of kinship with the people that they live amongst, that’s much stronger, that is in fact the raw materials for how to build a truly social democracy. And if you erode that… you defeat the left’s own social aspirations.”

It remains to be seen whether JD Vance can advance, as a matter of policy, the kind of conservative social-democratic instinct that came naturally to his Appalachian kin. While he has proved adept at partnering with congressional progressives on discrete issues – such as clawing back the ill-gotten gains of bankers whose institutions had to be bailed out by taxpayers, or forcing the rail industry to rethink its just-in-time staffing – the mainstream labour movement has yet to find in Vance a partner on its legislative priorities.

Still, the motivation is there. Ohio is one of the US states most severely harmed by manufacturing job losses because of free trade, with many counties losing between $5,000 and $10,000 in the value of goods produced per worker had they been made domestically, rather than in China. The children and grandchildren of workers with good union jobs barely scrape by on low wages and benefits. Many leave the labour force and anything resembling what used to be known as ordinary American life: as recent scholarship has found, there is a striking overlap between the map of Ohio counties most exposed to Chinese trade and those most grievously afflicted by the opioid crisis.

Vance escaped all this, not least thanks to the seemingly infinite love of “Mamaw”. But millions of others from his background are dead or dying. Their bodies are strewn across “the holler”, their infants orphaned and inconsolable. This is the American wreckage neoliberals of both parties left behind. Vance’s rage is real, and it won’t easily be quenched.

[See also: Sheryl Sandberg: “Ending hate on social media will cost billions”]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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