It’s funny to think about the J.D. Vance of 2016. At the time, hot on the heels of his staggeringly successful memoir Hillbilly Elegy, he was a liberal darling, the media’s chosen intermediary between their ivory towers and the unwashed masses that mysteriously swept Donald Trump into power that November. Vance was a man of both worlds: Yale-educated, Kentucky-raised, and building a powerful mythos around himself as the personification of a united America, while the country around him grew ever more divided.
It seems inevitable that Vance would see this myth as one that people would vote for, but somewhere along the way he found an even more powerful ideological wave to ride: far-right nationalism, propelled by the everlasting culture wars that rage every day online. Vance, who is running for Senate in his sort-of-home state of Ohio, on Tuesday eagerly accepted the endorsement of far-right conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
Honored to have Marjorie’s endorsement. We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags. https://t.co/tKFWOvRvq3
— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) January 25, 2022
As Vance was briefly the poster child for working-class kids who bootstrapped their way into a job at Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, Greene may be best avatar for the modern GOP’s hard-right wing: a Crossfit-addled suburbanite obsessed with conspiracy theories, and who is openly hostile to any notion of compassion. Members of the GOP, most recently Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, have attempted to push back this lunatic fringe, correctly reasoning that it makes them all look bad. They’ve gotten absolutely stuffed. Smarter members of the party, like Mitch McConnell, have practiced willful ignorance of Greene and her ilk, profiting off of their zeal while keeping the worst of their idiocy at arms length.
But it’s clear now that Vance has chosen the third path: joining them. His transformation from clean-shaven venture capital skinsuit to bearded culture war crusader was a definite choice, and one that he – and the aforementioned Thiel – are clearly hoping will pay off. The depressing thing is he might be right: It’s entirely possible that Ohio voters will respond better to a muck-slinging firebrand frantically virtue signaling every conservative cause than the smooth biotechnology corpo-fascist Vance used to be.
The Washington Post, in a lengthy article on Vance’s transformation, summed it up like this:
Five years ago, Vance was eloquently decoding Donald Trump supporters for liberal elites, while lamenting the rise of Trump himself. Vance, whose mother is a recovering heroin user, compared Trump to an opioid, calling him an “easy escape from the pain.” Now, since announcing his run, he’s reversed himself on Trump and adopted a bellicose persona at odds with the sensitive, bookish J.D. of his memoir. On Veterans Day, 48 hours after the Steubenville event, Vance tweeted that LeBron James — of Akron, Ohio — is “one of the most vile public figures in our country.”
This radicalization, in other words, wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, nor was a genuine heel turn from the mainstream consensus. The only way that a disciple of Peter Thiel accepts the endorsement of someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene is if he thinks she carries more political power than the fading John McCain wing of the party. That wing is now represented largely by deluded figures like Mitt Romney, who think that they can still usher in a gentle brand of fascism without hurting too many feelings.
What’s left, then, is the people willing to get dirty. There are the McConnell types, content to let the Tea Party and the America First Party and whichever flavor of white nationalists come next run amuck and solidify minority rule for the next decade, and there are the ranting, raving, overtly bigoted conspiracy theorists like Greene. Vance has clearly decided that in order to get elected, he has to dumb himself down and join the latter, but it seems a safe bet that his commitment to the lunatic fringe is about as sincere as his persona in 2016.
“We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags,” Vance tweeted in accepting Greene’s endorsement. Which scumbags, he doesn’t specify. If he shaved his face again, he might see one of them looking back at him from the mirror.