Former President Donald Trump made the most courageous decision of his post-presidency so far by endorsing J.D. Vance for the GOP Senate Primary in Ohio. Vance is an authentic representative of America’s populist tradition, contending against a field of establishment phonies. For the discontent that propelled Trump to the White House in 2016 to be addressed, Vance must find his way into the halls of the Senate. And thanks to Don’s nod, he likely will.
A disclosure: Vance and I are friends. We first met online around his conversion to Catholicism, a distant friendship that deepened at the height of the pandemic before we finally met “in real life,” as the kids say. And that’s a good place to start a brief for Vance. The Vance I’ve gotten to know over the past few years has something few politicians possess: namely, depth of soul.
Readers of his memoir, including liberals prepared to rise above their partisan hatred, will have glimpsed this quality in Hillbilly Elegy. Vance can be shrewd, yes. He is book-smart and people-smart. He rose from “the holler” to the stratospheric heights of Yale Law School and venture capital. But he is still foremost the grandson of “Mamaw”: the ferociously loyal guy who will offer to host you and your family for a weekend refuge from New York City’s lockdown madness while his wife is pregnant and he’s running for the Senate.
The book-smarts matter, too. Anyone who has spent any amount of time around members of Congress knows that most are absolute morons. Yes, they might possess a base kind of intelligence for flattery and for sniffing out others’ weaknesses. But genuine intelligence, deepened by serious reading, is something else. Vance has it. That obscure blog offering cutting-edge takes on this or that social problem? Chances are, he not only reads it but knows the author.
Most important, Vance has courage, of the kind Trump must have recognized when he decided to endorse Vance, over and against the opposition and underhanded scheming of much of the Republican establishment, including inside the Buckeye State GOP.
It took courage for Trump, during the GOP primaries, to question many of the Swamp Republicans’ most donor-beloved orthodoxies, from privatizing entitlements to endless war. It took courage for Trump, as president, to stand by his second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, once he became the target of an unprecedented barrage of lies about his sexual record. It took courage for Trump, as commander-in-chief, to put the United States on the path to withdrawal from the Middle East, knowing it would invite the wrath of the national-security Blob.
Likewise, it took (and takes) courage for Vance to question the pro-war uniparty’s rush to escalation in Ukraine. Many other would-be populist contenders among the party’s new crop of interesting senators and senators-in-waiting succumbed to the pressure to endorse MOAAARRR war. That includes two of Vance’s primary opponents, the dull Mike Gibbons and the ridiculous Josh Mandel, both of whom endorsed a European-led no-fly zone over Ukraine—a step that would almost certainly have drawn Washington into a catastrophic shooting war between NATO and Russia.
Vance’s memoir arguably ended on a note somewhat discordant with most of the rest of the text, preaching cultural transformation and self-help for his people languishing in the poverty shacks and trailer parks of Appalachia. More recently, however, Vance the intellectual has reached the true conclusion of his own memoir: That while self-help and self-making should be encouraged, the policies this nation’s ruling class has adopted for the past two generations have materially harmed working-class people. It takes courage, finally, to grow politically. I seriously doubt Vance’s cookie-cutter opponents have the capacity for that, even if they were so inclined.