Step one: attend an Ivy League university and edit a prestigious law journal. Step two: write a lyrical memoir about growing up in challenging family circumstances. Step three: become a senator for a Midwestern state. Step four: become president of the United States. This was Barack Obama’s trajectory. Could it also be that of JD Vance?
Vance went to Yale Law School (not Harvard, Obama’s alma mater) and is running for senator in November’s midterm elections in his home state of Ohio (not Illinois) on the Republican ticket, but the pattern is startlingly familiar. The rookie politician lacks Obama’s smooth oratorical gifts, but he is still young – he’ll be 38 on 2 August – and has cosmic ambitions.
In 2016, Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, found immediate success. It describes in affecting detail growing up in Middletown, Ohio, with his heroin-addicted mother, who brought a stream of new “stepdads” home, and his fierce grandmother, Mamaw, the rock of the family with her Kentucky roots. She taught the young JD to stand up for himself and succeed at school. More broadly, Hillbilly Elegy took a compassionate, but clear-eyed, look at the economically depressed white community he grew up with. Published in June, it also caught the political mood, coinciding with Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. The book was far more successful than the initial edition of Obama’s Dreams from My Father, and it was turned into a Netflix film in 2020, directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams.
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Even before he was a bestselling author, Vance had forged a lucrative career. Four years in the marines led to university in Ohio followed by law school at Yale. After leaving education in 2013, Vance worked for a venture capital firm in California owned by the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel (named Mithril Capital, after the elvish metal in The Lord of the Rings). Shortly after the publication of his memoir, Vance left to found a non-profit organisation in 2017, dedicated to combating opioid abuse in Ohio, as well as his own private equity firm, Narya Capital (another JRR Tolkien reference). Two years later he moved with his wife, Usha – whom he met at Yale and is the daughter of Indian immigrants – and their young children to Cincinnati, living on a street named after William Taft, the 27th president of the US.
Was it a sign of greater ambitions? At the time, Vance told the press he was moving closer to his family roots and his mother, Bev, but in July last year he finally announced he was running for the Senate. He held his campaign launch event at a factory in Middletown, an explicit appeal to the working-class vote. In his launch speech he declared: “Every issue I believe traces back to this fact: on the one hand, the elites in the ruling class in this country are robbing us blind, and on the other, if you dare to complain about it, you are a bad person.”
“He’s the real deal,” his friend Rod Dreher, a conservative writer and senior editor at the American Conservative magazine, told me. “I look for him to get to the Senate and become a national voice in short order. The GOP is desperately in need of visionary leadership.” An orthodox Christian, Dreher attended Vance’s baptism into the Catholic Church in 2019. “I think JD’s conversion to Catholicism was primarily intellectual,” he told me. “He has always believed in God, but didn’t have much formation as a young man.”
“Will he run for president?” asked Dreher. “God, I hope so.”
Vance has not even won Ohio yet. The polls show he faces a tough Senate race, and he did not distinguish himself during the primary campaign. It’s still unclear whether swing voters, or even Republicans, fully trust him. In 2016, the shape-shifting Vance was damning about Trump, telling National Public Radio he couldn’t “stomach” the guy. “I think he’s noxious and he’s leading the white working class to a very dark place.” By April this year, he was describing Trump on the campaign stump in Marion, Ohio, as “a great president”, adding, “When the facts change, you gotta change your mind.”
Loaded with “Thielbucks” from Thiel’s $10m super-Pac (political action committee), Vance still only managed to scrape through the Republican primary on 4 May with a slender 32 per cent of the vote. But a win is a win. “They wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s America First agenda,” Vance crowed in his primary victory speech. “Ladies and gentlemen, it ain’t the death of the America First agenda.”
Reed Galen, a founder of the anti-Trump Pac the Lincoln Project, composed of both former and current Republicans, said: “It’s very simple. Vance is a very smart guy who decided to take the easy path and go for the full Trump base. He did it without compunction or a second thought because he understands that the people he grew up with and raised him don’t want empathy. They want anger.”
Those close to him have commented on the shift as well. “He looks different,” an unnamed law-school friend told the Washington Post in January, noting Vance’s new beard. “He’s going for a severe masculinism thing. He looks like Donald Trump Jr.”
Channelling Trump has perhaps helped Vance in his political ascent; it at least earned him the former president’s endorsement. But it is not the summit of his ambition. “He isn’t Maga any more, he’s Ultra-Maga,” Galen warned, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Ultra-Maga has gone past Trump. It’s more extreme. That’s where Vance is. He is a might-makes-right, America First, isolationist, Charles Lindbergh kind of guy.” Galen thinks Vance has his sights on the White House: “Absolutely, 100 per cent I think he wants to run for president.”
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Vance has become part of a rising New Right circle of politicians and thinkers who have embraced a neoreactionary (or “NRx”) form of politics. This alt-right group regards the governing US establishment as a “regime” run by elites that is ripe for dismantlement. The growing movement is also boosted by a collection of journals which promote its ideas, including Dreher’s American Conservative, the quarterly American Affairs and the religious publication First Things.
One of Vance’s leading allies includes Blake Masters, the 35-year-old president of the Thiel Foundation, who is running for senator in Arizona, peddles electoral-fraud lies and has cited the Unabomber as one of his intellectual influences. Masters also vociferously opposes same-sex marriage. (Though he’s backing Masters, Thiel himself is gay and married to a man.)
The group is also associated with Curtis Yarvin, a 49-year-old reactionary blogger known for his concept of “the Cathedral”, which describes the matrix of liberal institutions and media supposedly forcing a liberal ideology on America. Yarvin has also argued for a Caesar-like “national CEO, what’s called a dictator” or, more recently, a monarch to take over the republic.
Vance has already proposed a version of Yarvin’s much-touted policy known as Rage – Retire All Government Employees. Interviewed at the annual National Conservativism conference (NatCon) in Orlando last November, Vance told a Vanity Fair writer he would advise Trump, if he became president again in 2024, to “fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people” – and defy the courts to enforce it. “This is a description, essentially, of a coup,” the writer concluded.
Dreher was at the same NatCon conference. The “new thought movement”, as he calls the New Right, thinks of itself as a broad church. “The nature of the fight in front of us now is such that we can’t afford to be over-prissy about our allies,” he said. “I think Curtis Yarvin’s monarchy ideas are bonkers, but you know what? He’s absolutely on to something real with his concept of the Cathedral.”
Dreher said that Vance and Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor tipped as a presidential contender, are the future. “It’s arguable that their ideological trajectory would not be possible without Trump – and I give Trump credit for that – but Trumpism has no future unless it trades in Trump for acolytes who are actually good at politics, and who prefer governing to tweeting,” he said.
“Watching the rise of people like JD Vance, Blake Masters and Ron DeSantis – well, they give me hope.” We are a long way from Obama’s rhetoric of hope; it is more a case of Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” maxim moving into politics.
Yet does Vance really have the political gifts, stamina and broad reach to succeed as a front-line politician? He is siding with some divisive allies. At the Claremont Institute in California, an abrasive hothouse of the New Right where the country’s deepening divisions are regularly debated, Vance delivered an alarmingly martial, almost Bolshevik lecture on “woke capital” in May 2021.
Evoking the threat of civil war between red and blue states, Vance told his audience: “It may not be as bad as it was in the 1860s, but we are going through a fiery trial. The people in this room are the people who are going to be in the vanguard of a conservative movement that fights back against its enemies instead of just taking it.
“If our enemies are using guns and bazookas, then we had better fight back with more than wet noodles. We need to use the same means if we are actually going to win this fight. And I’m not in this to lose; I’m in this to win.”
All this sound and fury is profoundly alienating to the admirers Vance won with Hillbilly Elegy. In 2016 I gave his memoir a five-star review in the Sunday Times, describing it as the “political book of the year”. Liberals in particular hailed Vance as the astute prophet of Trump’s runaway success with the left-behind, white working class in rural and declining industrial America. The timing of its 2016 publication was fortuitous. The Ohio police had just released a shocking picture of a four-year-old boy sitting in the back of a car, his parents slumped unconscious in the front, after overdosing on heroin and painkillers. The country’s opioid crisis was escalating, and Vance summed up Trump succinctly as “cultural heroin” for his tribe.
In his memoir, Vance recounts how his grandmother left the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky in the 1950s with her teenage husband for the steel mills of Middletown. It was possible then to bring up a family on a single working-class income, which Vance still touts as the masculine ideal. But it is not a path he follows at home, gaining him a reputation for hypocrisy. His wife, Usha, works for Munger, Tolles & Olson – one of the most successful and prestigious “white-shoe” law firms in the country. She was also a Gates scholar at Clare College, Cambridge, earning an MPhil in early-modern British history, and has clerked for two conservative Supreme Court justices.
Usha was born in California to parents who moved from India to the US. The film version of Hillbilly Elegy makes much of the way the couple bonded as outsiders while students at elitist Yale. It has become part of Vance’s political shtick to hark back to the past. “I just want normal Americans to know they still have a voice in this country,” he told Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, last year when he announced his Senate run on air. “I have two boys. I love those kids. I want them to live in the same great country as I did.” (The Vances had a third child, Mirabel, in December.)
Carlson, who frequently promotes Vance on his top-rated show, spoke admiringly about his combination of high- and low-brow political savvy: “This is not flattery. I don’t think I know anybody who understands both worlds as well as you do.” Dreher also credits Vance’s ability to balance his past and present. “What I admire about JD is that he managed to overcome his traumatic young life and make a success of himself, but stayed true and loyal to his people without sentimentalising them.”
Vance’s political rhetoric is deeply nostalgic, about the return of the traditional values he grew up with. Yet his grandmother, Mamaw first got pregnant at 13 and doused her drunken husband, Papaw, with fuel and set fire to him when she could no longer put up with his violence and alcoholism (he survived). On his campaign website, Vance boasts that Mamaw’s “tough love and discipline kept him on the straight and narrow. That, or maybe the fact that she owned 19 handguns.”
Is this the lost Eden he wants America to return to? Perhaps it is. Vance has heaped scorn on the “childless left” and cheered when the Supreme Court threw out Roe vs Wade in June. To his satisfaction, Ohio now bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy with no exemptions for rape and incest. “It’s not whether a woman should be forced to bring a child to term,” Vance told a reporter when asked about the experimental ban on abortion in Texas last year. “It’s whether a child should be allowed to live, even though the circumstances of that child’s birth are somehow inconvenient or a problem for society.”
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s verdict in June, a ten-year-old rape victim from Ohio, barely past her sixth week of pregnancy, was forced to travel to Indiana for an abortion. Her very existence was falsely mocked as fake news by the right. At the time of writing, Vance has not commented on her case.
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Yet Vance’s tone has become notably meaner and harsher. The empathy in Hillbilly Elegy has given way to the trolling mockery adopted by the alt-right, which he regularly indulges on Twitter. “If your world-view tells you that it’s bad for women to become mothers but liberating for them to work 90 hours a week in a cubicle at the New York Times or Goldman Sachs, you’ve been had,” Vance tweeted after Roe vs Wade was overturned. This was rich, critics fumed, coming from a millionaire venture capitalist.
Many old-school Republicans also winced at his tone-deaf tweet on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, when a video of him saying, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other,” was posted on Twitter. His position on the war has not changed. The following month, he stuck up for Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican congresswoman, who had been criticised for attending a white-nationalist conference, where the baby-faced fascist commentator Nick Fuentes cheered on Vladimir Putin. She is “my friend and did nothing wrong”, Vance said at an Ohio Senate debate.
On a recent trip to Ohio, it was apparent how ugly the political campaigning had become. A large sign emblazoned with “F*** Biden” could be spotted in a residential neighbourhood, where children pass by every day. The race is tight between Vance and Tim Ryan, a moderate Democrat from the industrial Youngstown region. Two July polls commissioned by the Democrats showed Ryan leading Vance in Ohio by two and nine percentage points respectively, but the outcome is uncertain given rising inflation and Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings. Trump won the former swing state for the Republicans by eight points in 2020.
Dreher is bullish about Vance’s prospects, noting that the Senate hopeful’s working-class background has enabled him to understand something important about low-income, non-college-educated America. “JD has pointed out that the culture war is really a class war – a truth that needed saying clearly. Americans aren’t used to the language of class conflict, but JD Vance, the hillbilly who went to Yale, understands how these dynamics work better than just about anybody in national politics.”
Could JD Vance go all the way to the White House? He sounds increasingly as though he wants to. “It’s time to fight back,” he told Carlson on Fox News at the launch of his political campaign. “If you’re not willing to wade through a bit of crap to save this country, then you’re not willing to stand up on the big stage – and I am.” His embrace of the New Right makes him dangerous, but leaves questions unanswered: who is the real JD Vance? Is he a uniter or divider? A cynic or true conservative believer? Until he knows himself, he may not get to the Senate.
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special