J.D. Vance’s transformation from Trump translator to MAGA combatant

In 2016, Hillbilly Elegy positioned Vance as an interpreter of white working class voters, now he seeks to mobilize their resentments

By: - August 3, 2022 4:00 am

COLUMBUS, OH — APRIL 23: J.D. Vance, candidate for the U.S. Senate speaks at the Save America Rally featuring the former President Donald J. Trump, April 23, 2022, at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, Delaware, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal.)

Since publishing his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Republican U.S. Senate nominee J.D. Vance has been on something of an ongoing lecture tour.

The book wove together the opioid crisis and the challenges of growing up in poverty in an industrial community in decline. But most fortuitous for Vance, it came out as Donald Trump was ascending to the presidency. Arriving as it did, the book was said to offer a window into the communities that were throwing their support behind the eventual president, and so Vance’s perspective was in high demand.

In book lectures and podcast appearances, Vance laid out not just his explanation of what ails the Middletowns of America, but what he believes could help them recover. Already a frequent blogger about politics, the success of his book gave Vance greater entrée into the world of conservatism. In addition to talking about his memoir, Vance was soon delivering addresses about the future of the movement as well.

Wending through more than eight hours of speeches, discussions and Q&As over the past six years, a number of themes emerge — Vance’s growing skepticism for “elite” institutions, his preoccupation with a particular vision of the family, and an unmistakable shift toward aggressive political rhetoric.

Among Vance’s pronouncements are appeals to Victor Orbán-style social policies, a proposal that parents get additional votes based on how many kids they have, as well as the dubious suggestions that corporations favor abortion access to keep labor costs low and that Amazon gave money to Black Lives Matter in hopes of harming brick and mortar competitors.

Tone shift

From the outset, Vance’s discussions have been concerned with politics. One interviewer described him as the “Trump whisperer” because of his seeming ability to translate what’s on the minds of rural voters and why they backed Donald Trump. In those early conversations, Vance both embraces and downplays this role. He describes Trump as a “middle finger” to the country’s elites, but also warns there is no “magic bullet” to help fortify declining families and towns.

But throughout, politics remains abstract — a serious concern, but a topic of discussion rather than a battleground. Even at explicitly political events, like 2019’s National Conservatism conference, Vance’s discussion of “Conservatism beyond Libertarianism” is concerned more with the prevalence of opioids and how online bullying and porn isolate young people. The chief target of his criticism was conservatives themselves for being too skeptical of political power to exercise it when necessary.

“If people are spending too much time addicted to devices that are designed to addict them we can’t just blame consumer choice,” he said. “We have to blame ourselves for not doing something to stop it.”

As late as January 2021 in a discussion with North Dakota State’s Challey Institute, Vance remained optimistic, and described political rancor as driven by “something further upstream.”

“When you look at people on the other side of the political aisle and you see them as not people who disagree politically but occupants of almost a totally different country then I think the divisiveness in our political debate is almost inevitable,” Vance said. “So the way to solve it, I think, is to actually start to bring some sense of national cohesion back.”

Although he recognizes political divisions, it’s as if he’s not yet a participant. He referenced Biden’s impending inauguration off-hand, but less than two weeks out, the Jan. 6 insurrection wasn’t even mentioned.

Somewhere in early 2021, however, Vance’s tone takes a hard rightward turn. That May, shortly before declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, Vance argued at The Clermont Institute that restoring a 1950s version of the nuclear family ought to be a core aim of the conservative movement.

“I think that we should fight for the right of every American to live a good life in the country they call their own, to raise a family in dignity on a single middle-class job,” Vance told the crowd.

He went on, railing against “woke” corporations.

“If you are fighting the American nation state, if you are fighting the values and virtues that make this country great,” Vance warned, “the conservative movement should be about nothing, if not reducing your power and if necessary, destroying you.”

The family

In 2017 at the University of Chicago, Vance argued policymakers are too preoccupied with the nuclear family to the detriment of extended families. He argued kinship care, where grandparents or other relatives step in as caretakers, is often better than relying on the foster system. He said policymakers should simplify the legal process and even offer financial aid.

Since then, Ohio lawmakers actually have taken some modest steps in that direction. At the end of 2020, Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 310 and an executive order which directed COVID-19 relief funding to kinship caregivers. The measure’s lead sponsor was Vance’s primary opponent Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, and the bill picked up broad support across the aisle.

But more recently Vance’s policy prescriptions around families have taken a turn to some eye-opening places.

Last month VICE uncovered a talk he gave in 2021 at Pacifica Christian High School in which he suggested it was better for children when parents stuck out unhappy or even violent marriages.

“These marriages were fundamentally you know, they were maybe even violent, but certainly they were unhappy, and so getting rid of them and making it easier for people to shift spouses like they change their underwear, that’s going to make people happier in the long term,” Vance said. “And maybe it worked out for the moms and dads, though I’m skeptical, but it really didn’t work out for the kids in those marriages.”

The Vance campaign has disputed the characterization of the VICE article, but not underlying statement. In a WEWS story, senior strategist Jai Chabria called it “preposterous” that Vance supports staying in violent relationships.

“All he is saying is that it is far too often the case where couples get divorced, they split up and they don’t take the kids needs into consideration,” Chabria said.

During the same speech at Pacifica High, Vance invoked a financial incentive policy for families introduced by Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán — darling of American conservative figures like Tucker Carlson because his pugilistic pursuit of a “Christian Democracy” suggests a path for cementing conservative control in America. A few days later, Vance brought up the same policy at The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, calling Orbán the “bugaboo of nearly every liberal in the mainstream American media.”

“They offer loans to new married couples that are forgiven at some point later if those couples eventually stay together and have children,” Vance explained. “Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we actually promote family formation here in our country? Why can’t we give resources to parents who tell us the only reason they’re not having kids is because they can’t afford it?”

It’s a far cry from Reagan-era GOP criticism of “welfare queens,” and in a sense, the idea isn’t that far from the expanded child tax credit introduced during the pandemic. Asked whether the child tax credit would address Vance’s policy goals, his campaign didn’t respond.

Vance has repeatedly argued that families should be able to support themselves on “one middle class wage,” but he doesn’t just advocate a positive policy vision — he also criticizes those who choose not to start families. He described the “childless left” as “perhaps the most pernicious and most evil thing the left has done.” Last November in another speech at the National Conservatism Conference that critique took on an explicitly anti-feminist tone.

“The fundamental lie of American feminism over the past 20 or 30 years is that is liberating for a woman to go and work 90 hours a week in a cubicle at Goldman Sachs shipping her fellow countrymen’s jobs off to a regime that hates them. That is liberation compared to the problems of family and patriarchy in our modern society.”

Vance contends people who don’t have children don’t have a “personal and direct stake” in the country’s future, and that there should be consequences for that decision.

“Let’s give votes to all children in this country, but let’s give control over those votes to the parents of those children,” Vance argued at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. “When you go to the polls in this country, as a parent, you should have more power. You should have more of an ability to speak your voice in our democratic republic than people who don’t have kids.”

He went on, anticipating the pushback. “Doesn’t this mean that non-parents don’t have as much of a voice as parents?” he asked, “Doesn’t this mean that parents get a bigger say in how our democracy functions?”

“Yes. Absolutely,” he said as the crowd applauded.

In an emailed statement, Vance campaign press secretary Luke Schroeder wrote, “J.D. does support pro-family policies and stands by his comments in those speeches. The fact that so many American companies are offering thousands of dollars for abortion services but nothing for moms and dads who choose to have families gives lie to the idea that this is about choice.”

“For far too long our leaders have neglected American families,” he continued. “We need to fight for policies that’ll strengthen families and provide stable, positive upbringings for every child. This used to be a country where Americans could support their family, and live a comfortable middle-class life, on a single income. That changed when corporations decided to trade a working class with well-paying jobs here at home for cheap labor overseas. It’s time we make families a priority again, and that starts with bold ideas.”

Elite skepticism

In 2016, shortly before Donald Trump won the election, Vance sat down for an interview with Uncommon Knowledge at The Hoover Institution. He argued the sense among white working-class voters that “elites” looked down on them was “partially right.” But the failing, as he described it at the time, was mutual. Elites reducing voters to one dimensional actors driven by little more than racism only propels the worst assumptions about elites, he said.

“As much as I disagree with so many folks back home about Trump in particular, I think that the reaction of a lot of elites to Trump-ism, or the Trump voter, feeds into the very worst narratives of how elites feel about the rest of the country,” Vance said.

A year later he delivered a similar message at The Aspen Institute, calling anti-elite sentiment “the animating force” of contemporary politics. He argued that, while unfortunate, that mistrust is well earned after catastrophic blunders like the Iraq war and the Great Recession. Still, he expressed some measure of optimism that the country’s divisions could be overcome.

“More geographic mobility, more social mobility would really help,” Vance said. “But at a fundamental level we have to get people in the same room together in a way that was much truer of our society 30 years ago than it is today.”

Now, instead of describing anti-elite sentiment at elite forums, Vance stokes the flames.

Last year at the National Conservatism Conference he delivered a speech entitled “The Universities are the Enemy,” in which he claimed higher education has become an organ of progressive politics. Seizing on critical race theory he argued, “It’s not about uplifting minorities. It’s not about healing our planet. It’s not about looking after the poor.”

“Progressive politics is a language,” he continued, “a language used by our new oligarchy to do two things: on the one hand to rob the American people blind, and on the second hand to tell them to shut the hell up about it if they dare complain.”

Further illustrating his sharp partisan turn, in an aside Vance noted the issue might help elect Glenn Youngkin governor in Virginia. He delivered his speech in the evening on election day as Virginia ballots were being tallied, and he cracked a joke about 2020 election conspiracies.

“I heard somebody say he won. I remember a similar feeling about a year ago, certain that my guy won, and it turned out that there was some toilet problems as the late night counting (went on),” he quipped, in an apparent reference to flooding in Georgia that delayed the count of absentee ballots in 2020.

Vance argues that the financial system is built to deliver benefits to elite institutions like nonprofits and universities sitting on lightly taxed endowments as well as large corporations that are able to shift their earnings overseas to avoid taxes at home.

He contends the incentive structure makes it easy to neglect pressing social issues at home and far too easy to pursue disastrous adventures overseas.

“Let’s just be honest with ourselves,” he said earlier this year. “A lot of people get very rich when America goes to war.”

Vance was the lone voice in Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate primary to stake out a position opposing U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine, and he argued that policymakers ignore the border and the opioid crisis because “nobody gets very wealthy” solving those problems.

But he carries the concern with financial incentives to even more dubious territory. At the Clermont institute he referenced Stacey Abrams’ argument that a Georgia abortion law would be “bad for business” to claim that corporations support abortion access because it reduces their cost of labor.

“This is something those of us on the right have to accept — is that when the big corporations come against you for passing abortion restrictions, corporations are so desperate for cheap labor that they don’t want people to parent children,” Vance argued.

Ironically Abrams’ point, coming at the end of a twitter thread, actually emphasized how little concern business leaders were showing about the legislation.

Later in the same speech Vance decried “woke capital” as a force that not only distorts political debate but also directly harms the country.



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A post shared by Jeff Bezos (@jeffbezos)

“The best example, of course, is Jeff Bezos, one of the largest funders of the Black Lives Matter movement in this country to the tune of millions of dollars,” Vance said.

“Who benefits most when small businesses on Main Street are destroyed? Who gets to see their competitors unable to deliver goods and services to people so that you get it delivered in your brown Amazon box? Jeff Bezos,” Vance continued. “There is a direct connection between woke capital and the plunder that’s happening in our society today.”

Schroeder addressed the Amazon claims in his email as well stating, “it is undeniable that the summer of violence encouraged by ‘racial justice’ protesters helped the bottom line of big tech companies while they crushed local businesses.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment, but in 2020, Bezos posted an email from a customer complaining about the company’s contribution on his personal Instagram page. He shared his response to that email as well, writing in part that “Black lives matter speaks to racism and the disproportionate risk that Black people face in our law enforcement system.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.



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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.