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Home/Rod Dreher/J.D. Vance: Pat Buchanan’s Heir

J.D. Vance: Pat Buchanan’s Heir

J.D. Vance (Vance campaign photo)

Let me start by saying that this blog is a J.D. Vance stan blog. Though nothing in this post should be considered an endorsement — TAC doesn’t do endorsements — J.D. is my friend, I admire him, and if he were running in Louisiana, I would vote for him twice (and this being Louisiana, I could!). If you are going to criticize him in the comments section, of course I will allow it — he’s a politician, after all — but be aware that there is a limit to my patience for what critics say about him. My point is, try to avoid the ad hominem. Nobody likes to hear their personal friends criticized harshly. Remember that there is a human being moderating the comments — a human being who recognizes his professional obligation to let commenters have their say, but who also has a finite capability to stand by while his friend is being slandered.

Now, to business. The Washington Post has a big piece out on the “radicalization of J.D. Vance.”  The reporter spoke to me for an hour or so about it some time back. Though he only used one or two comments from me, and though it is very frustrating to not see all the positive things I said about J.D. and his character, he did not misquote me. Anyway, this is the gist of the piece:

The beard isn’t a bad symbol for Vance’s U.S. Senate campaign — or at least for how that campaign is being received. Discourse around the race centers mostly on the idea that Vance is a changed or fraudulent person. Five years ago, Vance was eloquently decoding Donald Trump supporters for liberal elites, while lamenting the rise of Trump himself. Vance, whose mother is a recovering heroin user, compared Trump to an opioid, calling him an “easy escape from the pain.” Now, since announcing his run, he’s reversed himself on Trump and adopted a bellicose persona at odds with the sensitive, bookish J.D. of his memoir. On Veterans Day, 48 hours after the Steubenville event, Vance tweeted that LeBron James — of Akron, Ohio — is “one of the most vile public figures in our country.” (James had joked that Kenosha, Wis., shooter Kyle Rittenhouse “ate some lemon heads” before crying on the stand during his trial.) Watching Vance campaign, I felt him straining to deliver his talking points in an angry register. It wasn’t just that steel jobs had been offshored; they were outsourced by “idiots” in Washington, to countries that “hate us.”

Commentary about Vance from Never-Trumpers and liberals tends to strike a note of personal chagrin about his evolving image. …

The reporter asked me about that. I can’t remember exactly what I told him — we spoke weeks ago, as I was driving home from Birmingham — I’m pretty sure I explained the change in J.D. by citing the Great Awokening. See, I completely reject the thesis that J.D. turned combative to try to win office. What people who say that conveniently ignore is the Left’s hysterical reaction to Trump, and the way that, over the four years of his presidency, wokeness seized control of the commanding heights of American institutions. Believe me, in 2016, I was a lot closer to 2016 J.D. Vance’s take on Trump than I am today … in which I still don’t care for Trump, but I am far more concerned about the soft-totalitarian Left. Liberals and Never Trumpers are so fixated on Trump as a unique menace that they ignore what so many of the rest of us see.

To his credit, the Post reporter, Simon van Zuylen-Wood, gets what eludes Vance’s critics:

The surface-level changes are indeed striking. Yet the more I watched him, the more it seemed to me that the emerging canon of “what happened to J.D. Vance” commentary was missing the point. Vance’s new political identity isn’t so much a façade or a reversal as an expression of an alienated worldview that is, in fact, consistent with his life story. And now there’s an ideological home for that worldview: Vance has become one of the leading political avatars of an emergent populist-intellectual persuasion that tacks right on culture and left on economics. Known as national conservatism or sometimes “post-liberalism,” it is — in broad strokes — heavily Catholic, definitely anti-woke, skeptical of big business, nationalist about trade and borders, and flirty with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. In Congress, its presence is minuscule — represented chiefly by Sens. Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio — but on Fox News, it has a champion in Tucker Carlson, on whose show Vance is a regular guest. And while the movement’s philosopher-kings spend a lot of time litigating internal schisms online, the project is animated by a real-life political gambit: that as progressives weaken the Democratic Party with unpopular cultural attitudes, the right can swoop in and pick off multiracial working-class voters.

Yep. J.D. Vance is not a hypocrite. He has learned a valuable lesson from the past five years. His political worldview is, as the article states, coherent, and part of a wider reaction on the Right. More from the Post piece (emphasis mine):

Vance’s Senate race is an almost perfect test of these ideas because the front-runner in the Republican primary, former state treasurer and tea party product Josh Mandel — who, according to recent polling, leads Vance by 6 points — is the candidate of traditional conservative tax-cutters. To those watching the Vance-Mandel slugfest from afar, it may just look like two candidates trying to out-flank each other on the right; but the fissures between them run deep. The Club for Growth, known for its free-market zealotry, is supporting Mandel and has spent roughly $1.5 million on anti-Vance attack ads. One TV spot highlights a tweet in which Vance says he “loved @MittRomney’s anti-Trump screed.” The narrator does not linger on the rest of the message, which reads: “too bad party will do everything except admit that supply-side tax cuts do nothing for its voters.” Before Vance deleted his old anti-Trump tweets, he tended to attack Trump for abandoning his stated commitment to economic populism. In a 2020 interview with anti-establishment pundits Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, Vance contended that Trump’s great political failure wasn’t his handling of the pandemic, but his signature corporate tax cut and his attempts to undo Obamacare.

That is the only thing Ohio conservative voters need to know: that The Club For Growth is behind Josh Mandel. Elect Mandel, and nothing changes. Elect Vance, and there is suddenly a threat to the cozy system. Mandel fronts as a populist, but in the end, is the candidate of The Club For Growth. That tells you something. That tells you everything.

On the point that Vance, a Yale Law School graduate, is a hypocrite, he says:

“Dominant elite society is boring, it is completely unreflective, and it is increasingly wrong,” he told me. In other words: “I kind of had to make a choice.”

He did — and in my view, he chose correctly. The piece explains Vance’s pivot from criticizing the personal failings of hillbillies that led to their chronic problems, which he did in Hillbilly Elegy, to criticizing the neoliberal system, characterized by free markets and “whatever” morality. These are two sides of the same critique, Vance says: neither excludes the other, and in fact the calamity that has overtaken so much of America, especially working class America, has its roots in both camps. This is a version of a critique we heard a generation earlier in Christopher Lasch — and not just Lasch. The Post says:

The political forefather of this vision is probably Pat Buchanan, who inveighed against free trade and multiculturalism in the 1990s. But it also draws from the milder “Reformicon” blueprints of 10 years ago, as well as older strains of leftism, such as the anti-globalism of the Seattle WTO protests. One unlikely text Vance has cited is Elizabeth Warren’s 2004 book “The Two-Income Trap,”about the financial pressures families experience when two parents enter the workforce.

If you look for it, elements of Vance’s current critique were in “Hillbilly Elegy” too. People like his grandfather, who moved to southwest Ohio to work in the then-bustling Armco Steel plant, strengthened the local social fabric as producers. A generation later, with jobs disappearing, his mom and his neighbors were not just isolated and angry but also, he wrote, “consumerist.”

Exactly! It was there in Hillbilly Elegy all along, which is why all this “J.D. Vance is a hypocrite” talk is ridiculous, and shows that many people only read the book looking for their own biases to be confirmed. I love how the Post reporter goes on a ride-along with the sheriff of J.D.’s hometown, and brings up the standard left-wing critique of Hillbilly Elegy (that Vance was snobbishly blaming the victims); the sheriff said no, he told the truth about the problems here.

It is no bad thing to have the Washington Post anoint J.D. Vance as the heir to Pat Buchanan. It is also the truth. The Vance candidacy gives Ohio voters a real choice, not an echo of Club For Growth conservatism wearing populist drag. As I told the Post reporter, J.D. has made the breakthrough to realizing that the culture war is really class war. A US Senator who has understood that can go very far claiming unexplored territory in American politics — and in owning the conservative future.

UPDATE: A friend said one of the shitposting integralists accuses me of saying that I’m worried about J.D.’s soul. Here’s how the Post quoted me:

Vance’s friends split the difference: They say he’s the same guy but he’s been radicalized.“I think he’s gotten a lot more bitter and cynical — appropriately,” conservative blogger Rod Dreher told me. To Dreher, the change in tone is justified by the course of American politics over the past five years. “Trump remained Trump — but the Left went berserk,” he wrote in a post defending Vance. Still, Dreher — who attended Vance’s 2019 baptism into the Catholic Church — worries about the toll campaigning is taking on his friend. “S–t-posting has become the signature style of young radicals on the right, and this is particularly a hazard I think for Christians,” he told me.

For the record, I’m not worried about J.D.’s soul. I told the reporter that it was a temptation to me as well, and to all of us who mix it up in public. It does not surprise me that one of the integralists is mischaracterizing my work to try to break up my friendship with J.D. Those guys are trying to build a brand on the rubble of friendships they’ve destroyed, and bridges they have burned.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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