I’ve spent a lot of time beating up on “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance over the past year or so. My review of his book is here and some further stuff on him and his political writing is here and here, in case you’ve missed it. The short version of my beef with him: while his personal story may have been compelling enough for a decent memoir, he and others have attempted to use that personal story as disingenuous cover for an odious political agenda.
It’s not a new political agenda, mind you. The gist of it involves blaming the poor and downtrodden for their misfortune, which has long been a talking point of the conservative establishment of which Vance, a Yale Law graduate who worked for a hedge fund in Silicon Valley for years, is quite firmly a part.
The twist is the use of Vance himself and his dubious hillbilly bonafides to provide absolution to anyone who would prefer to look away. “It’s not your fault that poor people in flyover country are screwed,” Vance has told both conservatives and liberals alike, “they’ve done it to themselves!” Upon being told that they all exhale in relief, content in the knowledge that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away, their guilt assuaged because, hey, a hillbilly said it was OK for us not to care. It’s almost genius, really.
As coastal elites have gotten off on Vance’s guilt-free rural poverty porn, Vance himself has been plotting a political career. Now relocated to Columbus, Ohio, he strongly considered a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. While he ultimately decided against that, he has surrounded himself with the sorts of advisors and donors, both in Columbus and nationally, who anoint political stars. He’s writing Op-Ed pieces, spoken at political luncheons and has gone on the lecture circuit. It’s the usual stuff a future candidate does.
Vance, however, claims that he has a particular problem for a Republican in middle America: he does not support Donald Trump and did not support him during the election. This “problem,” of course, will increasingly be seen as a strength the longer Trump stays in office and the lower his popularity plunges. Vance, no idiot, knows this quite well and will likely continue to position himself as a Republican Party savior, seeking to take it back from the insane fringe that has taken it over in the past few years.
There’s only one problem with that. He’s buddying up to Steve Bannon, who is angling to get Vance installed as the next head of the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation:
J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about his upbringing in Appalachia, was also floated early in the process as a possible high-profile, younger recruit. He has met in recent months with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who has returned to his post running Breitbart News, and Bannon has privately expressed a desire to see an ally installed at Heritage.
You can endeavor to heal the nation of its Trumpist fever, or you can work with the leader of the alt-right agenda who parted with Trump because he wasn’t extreme enough. Likewise you can work to elevate the voices of the overlooked people of poor middle America, as Vance has claimed over and over again that he desires to do, or you can fall in with Bannon, who has worked tirelessly to exploit these people into backing his twisted, white nationalist delusions. You cannot do both.
What J.D. Vance decides to do in this regard is his own business. It’s a wonderful time for all of the rest of us, however, to stop listening to Vance and to stop believing he’s some fresh new voice of reason who can bridge the vast political, cultural and social divides in this country. Because once you start taking meetings with a guy who blows up bridges and brags about doing it, you’ve opted out of the “bringing us all together” business.
UPDATE: I have some other ideas on politics and bringing people together. It’s a decidedly more inclusive view of the world than whatever it is Bannon and, by extension, Vance is interested in pursuing.