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Home/Articles/Time for Senator J.D. Vance?

Time for Senator J.D. Vance?

A surprise Senate seat has opened up in “the Heart of it All.” It is attracting the attention of a who’s who of Buckeyes, including a bestseller made famous in a dyspeptic political era.

Why do people go into politics?

For some, it’s perhaps hard to imagine them doing anything else, such as President Biden’s special climate envoy, John Kerry, last seen Wednesday at the White House, chromed and constant in his national presence, a welcome statesman in an era of state breakdown, or a perennial pity party, thrown another bone by the Democratic establishment which still feels sorry for him on account his 2004 presidential loss, depending on your perspective. Maybe both.

Then there are those who perhaps shouldn’t: the talented, hard-working, and truly lonely and lost. Bear witness to former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, by all accounts a charismatic of the first rate, who ran an office for his constituents with the work ethic of a sweatshop, the college friend of talk show host Jon Stewart, Manhattan’s favorite son, lost in the depths of a later life political marriage, who lost himself still further in the sexually macabre, who rendered his sui generis surname of childhood taunts the punchline of adult infamy. Diseases of the mind take differing forms, and if personal indiscretions are yesterday’s vice, then consider today’s: souls deformed in the world of conspiracy, judgements suborned by the supercomputers in our pockets, agitants of political assassination and government overthrow who rise to the halls of that very same government. 

Then, perhaps especially in America, there are those who we see in ourselves, or perhaps they are ourselves as we’d like to be seen. Perhaps relatedly, these figures can usually write. These are figures of biography.

There was a young Massachusetts senator, pushed into the family business by his father, dominated by personal loss, precarious personal health and inner demons aplenty, who wrote a book about folks who got over all that, Profiles in Courage, biographizing salutary other senators. He became the first president not white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, as well as the first born not in the eighteen or nineteen century, and well its first former combat participant in mankind’s bloodiest struggle.      

There was a young Illinois state senator who wrote about being half-black and alone in America, but still wanting to believe in it. Dreams from My Father. Then, The Audacity of Hope. He had indulged in drugs and drink to “push questions of who I was out of my mind” and flatten “out the landscape of my heart” and “blur the edges of my memory.” Not surprisingly, when you can turn a phrase like that, the country has a tendency to elect you president. He would draw on his experience in running a country that infamously consumes a quarter of the world’s drugs, and as a new, synthetic heroin crisis unfolded in America during his tenure. 

So, perhaps it’s unsurprising that some now see a future for a memoirist who wrote about people that no one cares about, that is, white trash. Hillbilly Elegy became the book of the 2016 election, as someone who has never written his own book, Donald Trump, summited the presidency. At first, J.D. Vance’s autobiography was warmly greeted in almost all corners as a testimonial on what was going on in America. Then, as happens now, its acclaim became utterly politicized. To conservatives, a writer of a skill had reported on America’s lost people, for once, not, say, Los Angeles. To the left, he’d penned a scoldy, Appalachian dispatch on the pitfalls of the welfare state. If Vance runs for the United States Senate in Ohio, one could argue he will face a climate nastier than John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama ever encountered. Or, perhaps, we are misremembering how America treated a skinny Irish kid taking on the WASPs, or a skinny black kid who got laughed out of Chicago’s south side during his first run for Congress.

And run for Senate in Ohio, Vance might. 

Sen. Rob Portman is passing on a third term, in a move he divulged to almost no one before this week. In what passes for the man making a joke, Sen. Mitt Romney jested that the staid, even anonymous Portman was building a war chest to run for president. Whatever the reason, his seat will open up next year, and Vance, among many others, is taking a look.

If he gets in, as some at this magazine have urged, it will be a litmus test on at least a few matters. 

First: what constitutes a good movie anymore? I first met Vance in Los Angeles, when he was in town with one of those relatives he famously wrote about. It was a decided break from his rocky childhood, though, as he was there meeting with Ron Howard and Glenn Close, the Academy Award-winning director and world-famous actress, who were putting together the film rendition of Hillbilly Elegy. It came out this year on Netflix, as the world sat at home. The critics say it sucks. Vance’s lefty detractors piled on, not missing an opportunity to stick the knife. Interestingly, though, audiences disagree. They liked it. At least, if we are to believe Rotten Tomatoes. The adaption scored 26-percent approval among elites. But 86-percent of everymen enjoyed it. Enter the latest chapter of elite/public disconnect. 

Second, what is the future of “Trumpism”? If anyone can be described as a practitioner “Trumpism without Trump,” it’s Vance— humble, from the hardscrabble, but plausibly actually means business on going after big technology firms, trade cheats and America’s tormentors in Beijing. If he gets anywhere, he shall emerge as the bete noire of Jim Jordan, who could be described as archetypical of “Trump without Trumpism.” The former president has hailed him before Ohio crowds, and could plausibly wade into the race to endorse the Urbana-area Congressman, a major problem for a candidate Vance. Jordan, like Trump, has become politically powerful thanks, in part, to Fox News and a gadfly approach. But he rose in the laissez-faire Tea Party wave, and was, unlike Trump, a hardline conservative who cared enough about debts and deficits to consistently and notoriously draw his sword against his fellow Ohioan, the then-speaker of the House, John Boehner. He’s received donations from Google, as would be pointed out by skeptics on the right during this campaign. Jordan is likely to get in, because Jordan is the favorite in this race. 

Third, can America have a conversation about immigration without character assassination? Vance would likely run on reforming America’s immigration laws, that is making them more restrictive, as the country’s political compact has become more confused and withered in recent years. With Usha, his South Asian-American longtime partner and wife, to say nothing of his biracial children, Vance hardly cuts the figure of a white nationalist. His detractors might try anyway. 

But Vance might try anyway.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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