Illustrated | AP Photo, iStock
Like so many other liberals seeking to understand the then-incipient Donald Trump era, I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy when it was published in 2016. At the time, Vance was offered to the public as a sort of “Trump whisperer,” somebody who had grown up among the white underclass but also attended an Ivy League school, and thus could bridge the two cultures. The memoir was far from perfect — I thought Vance was self-deluding about the role of race in the backlash against President Obama — but overall it seemed a worthy effort, a reminder in our polarized and self-sorted society that our fellow citizens are not two-dimensional movie villains, but flesh-and-blood people who have different ideas and priorities.
Vance announced Thursday he is running in Ohio’s GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Disappointingly, he’s turned away from his thoughtful persona to become just another shrill Trumpist politician — armed with an elbow-throwing Twitter account and backed by the kind of oligarchical big money he claims to despise.
Vance spent the months before Thursday’s announcement prepping the political ground— hanging out on Tucker Carlson’s show, railing against public mask-wearing, and decrying “wokeness.” He also memory-holed his past criticisms of Trump. Rather than serving as a bridge, he has evidently calculated there’s more advantage to be had in division. It’s depressing, both for what it says about Vance and for what it suggests about the state of GOP politics.
“Vance’s slide from path-breaking writer to Trumpist troll tracks perfectly with the decline of the Republican party,” Mona Charen wrote at The Bulwark in March.
Many of our politicians arrive in the public consciousness with their public personas fully formed — do you remember who Matt Gaetz was before he was Matt Gaetz? — and we tend to judge the package that’s presented to us. But with Vance, we’ve been able to watch him devolve in real time. A few years ago, it looked possible that the one-time “hillbilly” might offer America a different, better form of conservative politics, one that could advance the right’s priorities without being so nasty. Instead, he’s turned out to be all too typical. Somebody should write an elegy for that.