J.D. Vance, author of the New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, has all but officially announced his campaign to seek the Republican nomination for Ohio’s open Senate seat in 2022. Vance will likely seek to capitalize on his reputation as a well-educated American success story with a rural, working-class upbringing. But a closer look at his writing and public statements belies — at least to me — a dangerous, extreme brand of politics.
Vance’s political journey has been a rollercoaster; in 2016, when his book was received with critical praise, he was the darling of the liberal commentariat, serving as a “Trump whisperer” who lent his insight to urban-dwelling Democrats about why people from his part of the country backed the blustery billionaire’s presidential campaign (for his part, Vance voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin in 2016, which has gotten him labeled him as a “Never Trumper”). Vance’s elite background — a millennial who served in the Marines, graduated from Yale Law, and became a venture capitalist — provides him with the legitimacy needed to be taken seriously by the establishment.
While Vance, whose family hails from Breathitt County, Kentucky, has crafted a reputation as an expert on Appalachia following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy (which Netflix also produced as a Ron Howard-directed Oscar-bait movie in 2020), the underlying themes in the book suggest he has always had contempt for the poor, white American underclass he claims to speak for. As Sarah Jones wrote for The New Republic in 2016, Vance’s bestselling book suggests “hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles.”
“Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class,” Jones wrote at the time. “This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.”
Judging by his social media presence, Vance’s politics have become decidedly more reactionary since 2016. In April, he resigned from the board of a green technology company after several tweets in which he expressed support for Fox News host Tucker Carlson — who has been the focus of an ongoing advertiser boycott in response to disparaging comments about the Black Lives Matter movement — and opposition to corporations taking action against draconian anti-voting laws like Georgia’s.
Vance also appeared to embrace a white nationalist talking point in 2019. At the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, he seemed to allude to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which white nationalists cite to argue the existence of a plot by immigrants and refugees to “replace” white people. While on a panel with Senator Josh Hawley (who famously saluted far-right insurrectionists on January 6), Vance said the way he measures the health of a society “is whether the American nation is having enough children to replace itself.” This is eerily similar to the notorious “14 words” slogan frequently touted by white supremacists.
Tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention, is bankrolling Vance’s candidacy with a $10 million investment in a pro-Vance super PAC. In 2016, Thiel reportedly hosted a private dinner with Kevin Deanna, a prominent white nationalist who wrote for anti-immigrant, white nationalist websites under pseudonyms.
As someone who lived in all four of Kentucky’s area codes before graduating college (from Morehead State University in Eastern Kentucky), I can confidently say J.D. Vance’s knowledge of what afflicts the white working class in Appalachia is extremely limited. Rather than Elegy‘s diagnosis of laziness and a lack of traditional conservative values, what really plagues working class residents of Kentucky and Ohio is much more simple — capitalism. Which is something a venture capitalist with billionaire backing like J.D. Vance will likely never admit.
In his 2007 book “Deer Hunting with Jesus,” author Joe Bageant laid out how capitalism has so thoroughly decimated the lives of the residents of his rural Virginia hometown that their dreams and sense of self-worth have evaporated to almost nothing.
“Tommy is a guy who often cannot get forty hours’ work at a living wage and has to scramble for a nickel more an hour, then kid himself that opportunity is knocking at his door. I know these things because he’s a relative of mine. And like many others in my family, he was taught by his experience in American society that he is not worthy of a traditional house or decent treatment in the labor market or a living wage,” Bageant wrote. “The relentless, autocratic, blue-collar American workplace has ground these people down, rendered them unable to imagine the kind of self-determination their World War Two-era daddies had.”
Rather than Vance, Americans who are truly interested in understanding the struggles of working-class Americans in Appalachia should instead look across the Ohio River to Charles Booker, a Kentucky Democrat who also declared his Senate candidacy this week. Booker is a former state lawmaker who represented one of the poorest districts in the Kentucky General Assembly. He very nearly won the Democratic nomination for US Senate in 2020 while running on an unapologetically pro-working class platform that included Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Whereas Charles Booker represents the hollers of the 606 area code devastated by opioid addiction, the overworked and underpaid Toyota and 3M factory workers in the 859 area code, and the hardscrabble hoods of the 502 area code, it sure feels like Vance represents the cold, calculated capitalism championed by the Silicon Valley and Ivy League elite.
Vance’s road to the US Senate will be fraught with difficulty, given the number of high-profile Republican candidates all vying for an endorsement from former President Trump, and additional opposition in the general election from one of the several Democrats running. But given his toxic views and wealthy funders, his candidacy should not be taken lightly.
Carl Gibson is a freelance journalist and columnist. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs.