The question of what will become of the Republican Party in the post-Trump era seems to be on everyone’s lips. A New York Times survey found that Republicans themselves have five distinct views of Donald Trump, including 35% who are either “Never Trump” or “Post Trump.” But 65% fall into the “Die-hard” camp (27%), the “Trump Booster” faction (28%), or the “InfoWars” segment (10%).
Whatever the future of the Republican Party will be, the shape-shifting J.D. Vance sheds light on the dynamics of how we got here and where the Republican Party is headed. This week, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel announced that he is donating $10 million to a super PAC supporting Vance’s potential run for the United States Senate seat from Ohio.
Vance today is a fixture of the Trumpist right, but that isn’t the way he debuted. Not at all. Rarely does a nonfiction book make the kind of splash “Hillbilly Elegy” did in 2016. I was part of the cheering section. Vance emerged as an authentic voice of the working class — a self-styled “hillbilly” no less — to declare that the problems of many working-class people were largely self-inflicted.
Or perhaps a better way to say it is that their problems are a matter of personal choices. Drug abuse, welfare dependency, domestic violence, irresponsible spending and family disintegration were all omnipresent in Vance’s family and community. The stories of his upbringing are harrowing. He described his home life as “extraordinarily chaotic.” His grandmother once attempted to murder his grandfather by dousing his bed with gasoline and lighting a match (he survived). In a 2016 interview, Vance told Rod Dreher that his mother probably cycled through 15 husbands/boyfriends during his childhood. Family disintegration was the greatest handicap Vance and others like him were saddled with. “Of all the things that I hated about my childhood,” he wrote, “nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.”
His depiction of working-class life wasn’t a complete rejection of his origins. He stressed that he loved his family, and that a majority (even if a bare majority) of his community does work hard. For children trapped in dysfunctional homes, one can have nothing but sympathy. And he believed that elites did fail to evince much understanding for people who were struggling. On the other hand, he was keen to counter the pervasive sense of helplessness in the community he was raised in. “There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” In a sense, Vance was the anti-Trump. He was a true son of Appalachia striving to lift his community, in contrast to the faux populist from Manhattan seeking to flatter and exploit them. Vance felt that they needed hope and a generous dose of honesty. Trump offered fantasies and cunningly curated hatred.
During his 2016 book tour, Vance was not shy about his disdain for Trump. When NPR’s Terry Gross asked how he planned to vote in November, he said: “I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place.” And appearing on the podcast I hosted at the time, “Need to Know,” Vance recalled texting his editor to say that, “If Trump wins it would be terrible for the country, but good for book sales.”
But a funny thing happened after the introduction of J.D. Vance, anti-Trump voice of the working class. He began to drift into the Trump camp. I don’t know why or how, but Vance became not a voice for the voiceless but an echo of the loudmouth. Scroll through his Twitter feed and you will find retweets of Tucker Carlson, alarmist alerts about immigration, links to Vance’s appearances on the podcasts of Seb Gorka, Dinesh D’Souza and the like, and even retweets of Mike Cernovich. But the tweet that really made my heart sink was this one from Feb. 12: “Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children.”
By citing the cases of Jeffrey Epstein and John Weaver, one a convicted abuser of underage girls and the other an accused abuser of teenage boys, he is whitewashing the QAnon conspiracy. Jeffrey Epstein was a despicable creep. John Weaver seems to have done bad things (though he has not been convicted of anything yet). But the QAnon conspiracy teaches that a cabal of leading Democrats and Hollywood celebrities sexually abuses not teenagers but little children, and then eats them. No decent human being should in any way remotely suggest, far less with all caps, that those conspiracies might not be so crazy.
I’m not sure which is worse: that Vance, who just four years ago lamented the rise of conspiracy theories on the right, is now helping to foment one of the worst, or the fact that the Republican base is so warped that ambitious men feel the need to sink into the sewer in search of political success. Vance’s slide from path-breaking writer to Trumpist troll tracks perfectly with the decline of the Republican Party. Peter Thiel clearly believes his new incarnation will win votes. And it may. But to quote Vance back at himself, if he does win, “it will be terrible for the country.”
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