Vance Is Like An Opportunistic Disease
Dave Frum's Atlantic column yesterday was more edifying than most. The premise was based on writing from an old website of his, FrumForum.com, and the decade-old posts done on it by an already politically ambitious young J.D. Vance (under a pseudonym). Frum felt honor-bound not to rat him out during the horrifying recent campaign for the Ohio Senate seat, which is now all but his, since he's running against an incredibly weak opponent with nothing to offer except "Vance is worse than I am." But now that Politico exposed Vance's writing on the website, Frum felt free to write about it.
Vance supported many things he would never cop to today-- cutting Medicare and Social Security for example, pretty astounding coming from someone who paints himself as a champion of the forgotten working class. He also wrote that he agrees with race-based affirmative action, one of the biggest MAGA taboos.
This was all pre-Hillbilly Elegy and the fame that brought Vance, the launching pad for his career. "Vance," wrote Frum, "urged understanding of the people who had voted for Trump, even as he excoriated Trump himself as unfit, bigoted, authoritarian, fraudulent-- a deceiver and exploiter of the people Vance spoke for."
Vance’s message was tough, but his tone was measured. In those days, the figure he most modeled himself upon was Barack Obama. Vance made the comparison explicit in an early-January 2017 opinion article for The New York Times, titled “Barack Obama and Me.” Vance pointed out the similarities between their lives: absent father, raised by grandparents, prestigious law degree, literary fame. He described President Obama as “a man whose history looked something like mine but whose future contained something I wanted … I benefited, too, from the example of a man whose public life showed that we need not be defeated by the domestic hardships of youth.”
Before the 2016 election, Vance’s future political path looked straightforward. He would await the expected Trump defeat, then emerge as a next-generation Republican savior: a candidate who could speak from his origins in Appalachia to the suburbs of Columbus, all while preserving his connections to his donors in Silicon Valley.
Trump’s Electoral College victory complicated the calculation. Some Democrats wooed Vance to change parties. Obama’s campaign guru David Axelrod had Vance as a guest on his popular podcast the month after Vance’s Times article was published.
More plausible was a path for Vance as leader of the internal Republican opposition to Trump. About a week after the inauguration, in 2017, Vance invited me and a dozen other anti-Trump conservatives to a quiet meeting in a downtown Washington, D.C., conference room to discuss ways forward from the Trump predicament. That meeting was off the record, but Vance subsequently emailed participants to alert us that he himself had spoken to a reporter about it.
Among the topics we considered: Could any good come from the Trump administration? How outspoken should we be in opposition? The meeting did not reach conclusions, but it did not need to. The unspoken but widely understood agenda looked further into the future: We were present at the creation of a “Vance for President” campaign that might go into operation sometime in the late 2020s or early 2030s.
I imagine that many of the participants in that meeting still hold such hopes. Vance’s subsequent choices, however, have ensnared his plans. In a reversal of the usual political trajectory, Vance’s writing and speaking have edged angrier and uglier as he has gained success and prominence.
In July 2021, Vance inveighed against the “childless left” who have made no “physical commitment to the future of this country.” In November, he attacked fellow Ohioan LeBron James for criticizing Kyle Rittenhouse’s demeanor at his homicide trial: “Lebron is one of the most vile public figures in our country. Total coward.”
In a September podcast, he urged that Trump, upon his hypothetical restoration to office in 2024, purge the government of federal employees who aren’t loyal to him and defy the courts if the purge was held illegal.
When he got the endorsement recently of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who notoriously floated a conspiracy theory about California’s wildfires being started by space lasers associated with “Rothschild Inc.,” he tweeted: “Honored to have Marjorie’s endorsement. We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags.”
The former supporter of the Iraq War has turned into one of the nation’s preeminent scorners of Ukraine’s fight for independence, declaring: “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” At the end of last month, Vance even suggested that President Joe Biden was plotting intentionally to flood the U.S. with deadly fentanyl: “It does look intentional. It’s like Biden wants to punish people who didn’t vote for him.”
In April of this year, Vance tweeted: “Barack Obama is articulate but has never made a memorable speech. The reason is that his views are utterly conventional. He’s unable of saying anything outside of the elite consensus. He’s a walking, talking Atlantic magazine subscription.” What prompted that highly personal outburst against Vance’s former role model and the magazine to which he himself had contributed his sharpest anti-Trump criticisms? A video clip of Obama speaking negatively of Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin.
Many who knew the early Vance ponder the question: What happened to him?
I don’t overthink that question; the answer seems obvious enough. I ponder something else.
The anti-populist conservative Vance persona of 2010–17 was well designed to please the individuals and constituencies that held power over his future at that juncture in his career. The angry-white-male persona of 2017–22 was as perfectly aimed at the Thiel-Trump-Tucker nexus as the earlier iteration had been to the Allen-Aspen-Atlantic one.
With a Senate nomination secured, Vance now has new constituencies to please. Ohio today is not the swing state it used to be, yet it’s still home to many non-Trumpy constituencies, including tens of thousands of voters of Ukrainian descent. If elected to the Senate, Vance may rekindle still-higher ambitions, ambitions that cannot be realized by the narrowly based support that got him not quite a third of the vote in last week’s Ohio Republican primary. I very much doubt that the “Vance for President” dream has died-- not in him, and not in his backers.
So the question I ponder is not: What happened to the J.D. I knew? It is: Who will J.D. become next?