The critical burst of momentum began last month, with Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson gossiping about a prominent Republican’s penis. It has climaxed, for now, with one the most egregiously zealous converts to the cult of authoritarian Trumpism finally on the inside track to securing a seat in the United States Senate.
J.D. Vance won Ohio’s Republican primary for Senate on Tuesday, riding Trump’s home-stretch endorsement to best fellow MAGA devotee Josh Mandel and state Sen. Matt Dolan, who ran a more traditional conservative campaign while Vance and Mandel battled for Trump’s affection.
At Vance’s watch party — turned victory party — in a reserved room at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, subtitled Fox News primetime played on two large screens, as the results trickled in and Vance-supporting attendees huddled around the cash bars. As the clock ticked passed 8 p.m. in Cincinnati — and as the loudspeakers blasted the likes of ABBA, Neil Diamond, ZZ Top, Huey Lewis and the News, Billy Joel, Electric Light Orchestra, AC/DC, Miley Cyrus, Elton John, and (of course) Trump’s own campaign song and Village People hit “Y.M.C.A.” — party-goers and Vance staff remained in the dark about the vote tally, though many remained confident that Trump’s blessing would help Vance net a clear win on Tuesday.
Around 8:30, Rolling Stone ran into Vance at the urinal stalls just outside of the watch-party ballroom. Asked how he felt at that point with the race too close to call, the Trump-endorsed contender simply said, “As good as I could feel right now.”
By 8:45, election wiz Dave Wasserman unequivocally called the primary for Vance. Starting around 9:20, the party began erupting periodically into whoops and applause, as Vance’s lead solidified on Fox’s live coverage. Attendees shouted things like “WE LOVE YOU, BILL HEMMER” toward the screens, American flags, and the stage where Vance was set to make his triumphant entrance.
The Associated Press called the race at 9:34 p.m. EDT, and by 9:45 a back-to-back soundtrack of “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” were blaring, with Vance fans dancing in the ballroom and belting sporadic victory chants.
Shortly before 10:00, Vance was up at the mic, delivering the expected applause lines about the “political corruption in this country,” the big-bad “establishment Republican Party” and “establishment” liberals, the “fake news,” the “beautiful state” of Ohio, and the scary “woke” agenda and its alleged corporate sponsors.
“Tonight, we’re going to celebrate. Maybe a little too much,” Vance assured the crowd just before finishing his victory lap to the tune of Fleetwood Mac.
Over the past year, the GOP Senate primary in the Buckeye State has stood out as perhaps the most shambolically MAGA race of the 2022 cycle. Each of the top-tier MAGA candidates have relentlessly jockeyed for Trump’s seal of approval; engaged in increasingly ludicrous antics, threats, and tactics; and constantly campaigned to prove to Ohio voters who is the most proudly and slavishly devoted to Trump’s brand of anti-democratic politics and xenophobic populism.
More than any other primary in the country during this critical midterm election year, this intra-MAGA fight has accentuated the giddily Trumpist, far-right momentum animating the mainstream Republican Party in the Biden era — and which will likely continue to animate it well beyond 2024.
In fact, Vance’s win may be the strongest testament yet to Trump’s power over the Republican base. The Peter Thiel-backed Hillbilly Elegy author-turned-venture capitalist was polling well behind Mandel and businessman Mike Gibbons before the former president endorsed him on April 15. The Trump-led effort to buoy Vance, highlighted by a late-April rally in Ohio, slingshotted him ahead in the polls. He remained the favorite at the close of business on Tuesday, and will now take on Democrat Tim Ryan in a state that has been shading redder and redder since Trump took office.
Trump’s endorsement did not come easily, and the former president reportedly had not made up his mind about which candidate to back until soon before he announced it publicly. Days before he did, Trump spoke on the phone with David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth, the Republican group backing Mandel. A few hours later, he spoke to Tucker Carlson, one of Vance’s most powerful allies. Rolling Stone reported last week that Carlson closed his pitch by telling Trump that McIntosh had a “chronic” sexual predilection. The two then joked about McIntosh’s penis and the “fucking disgusting” and “fucking gross” alleged habit.
Trump came around to Vance despite Vance’s history of bashing Trump prior to the 2016 election. Vance called Trump an “idiot” and “reprehensible.” He said in interviews that if Trump were to win, it would be because he was able to appeal to racists and lapsed Christians. He even wrote a scathing piece for The Atlantic comparing Trumpism to heroin addiction. “Trump’s promises are the needle in America’s collective vein,” he wrote.
Vance’s campaign for the Republican nomination doubled as a campaign to convince Ohio Republicans that, actually, now that he thinks about it, he really does love Trump. He pivoted to calling Trump the “greatest president of my lifetime,” while chalking up all that talk about racism and opioid addiction to the fact that “all of us say stupid things,” and that he happens to “say stupid things very publicly.”
Trump seems to have bought it. “Like some others, J.D. Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades,” Trump wrote in endorsing Vance last month. Trump continued to praise Vance at his Ohio rally a week later, describing him as the best option to take down the “radical Democrat nominee.” He proceeded to call him “J.D. Mandel” at a rally in Nebraska on Sunday.
Vance has proved he’s willing to stoop to far lower than flip-flopping on Trump to advance himself politically, which is why the prospect of him making it to Washington is so terrifying. He’s been palling around with noxious, far-right figures like Carlson, and two of his most prominent backers in Congress are conspiracy theorist Reps. Matt Gaetz, who is currently under investigation for sex trafficking a minor, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Vance defended Greene for speaking at a white nationalist rally earlier this year — something that even offended Rep. Lauren Boebert, who reportedly almost came to blows with Greene over the appearance.
Vance has pushed plenty of conspiracy theories himself while hammering immigration in an effort to play to the xenophobia of Trump’s base. He’s described migrants seeking refuge in the United States — not Russia’s deadly incursion into Ukraine — as the only “invasion” that matters. He even suggested that Biden’s border policy, which isn’t a drastic departure from Trump’s, may be part of an “intentional” effort by the president to flood the United States with fentanyl in order to “kill a bunch of MAGA voters.”
He’s also, of course, as is now required by candidates seeking Trump’s approval, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Vance’s biggest fabrication, however, may be that he’s actually a true believer in the far-right talking points he’s pushed in his desperation to win over MAGA nation, whose xenophobia, bigotry, and susceptibility to Trumpism he abhorred — or at least claimed to abhor — just a few years ago. True believer or not, Vance’s professed allegiance to Trump landed him the former president’s blessing, and along with it the blessing of the state’s conservative voters.