Let’s start with the beard. J.D. Vance didn’t used to have one. The Vance who in 2016 achieved incandescent literary fame with his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” was all baby fat and rounded edges. The Vance I’m watching now, from the back of a coffee shop in the depressed steel town of Steubenville, Ohio, has covered up his softer side. In small-format events like this one, addressing a couple dozen primary voters, he spends about 15 minutes attacking corporate and governmental elites for failing the country, then answers questions and mingles for maybe another 45 minutes. Vance, 37, is comfortable in the folksy idiom of GOP campaigning (e.g., “she loved the Lord, she loved the f-word — that’s what Mamaw was”) but he tends to gloss over his famously traumatic childhood, immortalized on screen in Ron Howard’s 2020 film adaptation of his book. In Steubenville, he paces the room with a Big Gulp-sized foam cup in his hand, an Everyman touch that accentuates his new aesthetic.
I’m not the only one thinking about J.D. Vance’s beard. Recently, I asked one of his law school friends to tell me about his personality. “He’s lovely,” the friend said, describing Vance’s smile and laugh. Then he paused. He wanted to talk about Vance’s facial hair. Even as a slightly older law student — Vance had served four years in the Marines before enrolling at Ohio State as an undergraduate — he came across as guileless, boyish. No longer. “He looks different,” the friend said. “He’s going for a kind of severe masculinism thing. He looks like Donald Trump Jr.” Toward the end of our conversation, which was mostly about the way the culture shock of Yale Law School informed Vance’s politics, I asked the friend if he wanted to discuss anything else. He returned to the beard. “That’s honestly occupied an outsized amount of my attention,” he said.
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. Pundit Mona Charen, writing about Vance as if he had died, called him an “extremely bright and insightful man who could have been a fresh voice for a fundamentally conservative view of the world.” Frank Bruni of the New York Times predicted that a Vance tweet about Alec Baldwin’s recent accidental shooting incident would “endure as one of the boldest markers of his descent.” In Ohio, meanwhile, the pressure on Vance runs entirely in the opposite direction. Every campaign stop he makes, he patiently tries to explain away his past Never-Trumpism, which has been exhumed in the form of deleted tweets and “Charlie Rose” clips. An attack ad playing his anti-Trump sound bites ends with a woman saying, “That’s the real J.D. Vance.”
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.
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.
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.
A couple of weeks after I saw him in Steubenville, Vance called me from the road, on his way to an event in Toledo. I asked about his sudden estrangement from polite society. “The price of being beloved by the establishment is you don’t say anything interesting,” he told me. “And if you don’t say anything interesting, you’re not going to be a useful part of solving any of the problems we have in this country.” What Vance is saying now may or may not prove appealing to voters, but it certainly meets the test of being interesting. “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.”
The term "radicalization" is true, but it also partially absolves Vance of his screaming, hateful racist rhetoric. As he says in the last paragraph above, he made a choice.
That choice was deciding, as so many white Americans have done over the years, that blaming, attacking and destroying the rights, lives, and humanity of those who are not white is the best way for a white Americans to stay in power at our direct expense.
There's a significant chance he ends up as Ohio's next senator, where he will seek to codify that racism into permanent law.
Vance isn't anything new, but something as old as America itself.