JD Vance and Donald Trump belong together

Photo illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

As Donald Trump endorsed JD Vance wrapped up a long and frenetic dance in Friday’s Ohio Senate race. Most candidates in the Republican primary have been bickering for Trump’s approval, and Vance didn’t seem to have much of a chance at fame. He has yet to translate his fame as a best-selling author Backwoods Elegy to substantial political support. He has consistently stalked Josh Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer, and Mandel seemed the closest thing to a Trump endorsement. Vance had practically contorted himself to get Trump’s attention by linking his mother’s addiction problems to immigration from Mexico a campaign ad That was bait for Trump as well as voters.

However, Trump’s endorsement was never guaranteed. Vance was not a staunch Trump loyalist. That honor goes to Mandel, whose Trump impression is solid and whose commitment to Trump himself is unquestionable. Meanwhile, Vance praises the ex-president with all the passion of a convert. In the early days of his public career, he was a Trump critic, which made him even more popular with liberals. For a Blue State reader, Vance was a dream: an educated conservative who they would actually invite to dinner. Ron Howard even made one Movie about his life. What happened?

Vance and Trump have always had more in common than the author’s public statements long ago suggested. The proof is there Backwoods Elegy, an essentially conservative, even reactionary, work. At a high school job, Vance writes, he learned “how people play with the welfare system.” Customers would “buy two dozen packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them for cash at a discount,” he claims. “They regularly walked past the register and talked on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those who lived on government generosity enjoyed jewelry I only dreamed of.” The story contains shades of the old Obama phone Conspiracy theory that falsely claimed President Obama gave free cell phones to welfare recipients. It doesn’t matter that mobile phones are tools, not a luxury, and the poor have a right to own them.

But Vance continues. He would carefully note how much of his paycheck went in taxes, also noting that his “drug addict neighbor” was buying “T-bone steaks,” which I was too poor to buy myself, but from Uncle Sam was forced to buy for someone else.” He quotes Charles Murray positively for “addressing the way our government has encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” There is no mention of Murray’s involvement in racial science, and the lack of broader context is significant. In Vance’s account, the man is simply a “revealing” social scientist.

The passages should have alarmed any reader interested in lifting Americans out of poverty. Lightly scratch the surface of Backwoods Elegy and right-wing themes become visible. Vance’s characterizations of the poor have only repackaged myths about welfare queens and the incurable laziness of the disadvantaged. But since Vance described himself as a graduate of the working-class Appalachian experience, liberals rated his comment on a sliding scale. His conservatism was forgivable; his addicted mother had abused him to do so. Because of his background, he understood populism and was able to explain it to the bubble dwellers who propelled it to great heights. He was a rarity, a real self-made man. Vance reaffirmed America’s innate, achievement-oriented greatness that made him a safe and trusted figure for many.

Vance is not a great writer. Backwoods Elegy is little more than a collection of resentments in book form. His observations are trite, his conclusions derivative. The same facts form the basis of Vance’s appeal. Vance was not challenging liberals or their perception of poor whites. The people who bought his memoirs and recommended them to others didn’t need to be persuaded that poor whites were garbage with a culture in decline. You already suspected this to be true. For decades, conservatives and neoliberals alike had preached the gospel of self-reliance as the solution to poverty. Now there was Vance, acting as a sort of native informant to repackage old ideas and validate old prejudices. Vance’s true skill is that of a marketer. He is a seller and the product he sells is himself.

He shares this quality with Trump. The ex-president also presented himself as a self-made success with his finger on the pulse of the populists. While this is an invention – Trump, remember, inherited millions from his parents – this is the image he projected onto the world, with the support of television’s feared liberal elites. Trump the man and Trump the brand are the same. There is no level to which it will not sink in the name of personal gain. He understands that his political future depends on his ability to sustain an act that resonates with his supporters. So does Vance. In fact, Vance has always known that. He played the respectable conservative when it worked for him, and when the tide turned, he did.

Vance’s pivot isn’t as dramatic. It’s not a big reversal. He was made famous by a story about white culture in crisis and continued to move right along with the rest of the GOP after Trump gave them permission to do so. Trump has now rewarded him for his efforts. If the liberal shocks, they may wonder what they once found so compelling about Vance and Backwoods Elegy. JD Vance is who he has always been. The signs were there from the start.

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/04/j-d-vance-and-donald-trump-belong-together.html JD Vance and Donald Trump belong together

Laura Coffey

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