JD Vance, venture capitalist and author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy,” in 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images).
MARILOU JOHANEK and Ohio Capital Journal
The last time I spoke with J.D. Vance, he was living the good life as an elite West Coast venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. He was a baby-faced investor from southern Ohio who was basking in the unexpected sensation of his newly published bestseller. Everybody had to get their hands on his memoir for what it might explain about the inexplicable presidential appeal of a former reality TV star. Vance’s book about his self-described hillbilly roots promised insights into why a dirt-poor, down on its luck demographic was swooning over a billionaire celebrity who wouldn’t be caught dead in Appalachia.
At the time I wrote for a newspaper in a blue-collar Ohio town whose glory days as a manufacturing mecca — like Vance’s hollowed-out hometown near Cincy — were long gone. So, I invited the author to connect with an Ohio audience that might relate to his story. He called from his office in San Francisco, and we spoke for over an hour. Recently, I went back to look at the transcript of that conversation to make sure it was the same Vance who now wants to be Ohio’s next U.S. Senator.
The senatorial candidate looks and sounds like the J.D. Vance I interviewed, save for the full Midwestern beard he’s sporting, but something’s very different. The Vance appearing — on any FOX show that will have him — is passing himself off as a fawning Trump acolyte and far right culture warrior. Who the heck is that guy and what did he do with the thoughtful conservative I questioned who castigated another charlatan for pulling off a similar con to become president?
The 37-year-old moved back to Ohio, bought a sprawling million-dollar estate in a tony neighborhood in the Queen City and decided to boost his profile with a vain bid for national office. To that end, however, the 2021 version of Vance has sidled up to the infamous Mar-a-Lago insurrectionist, hobnobbed with big money donors on the coasts and rebranded himself as an alt-right grievance peddler. This character jumped right into the smarmy attack mode of the extreme right, owning the “degenerate liberals,” deriding the “party of childless people,” (what??) disparaging desperate immigrants as “dirty” drug traffickers threatening to overrun Ohio, dismissing critical race theory as “crap” parents don’t want in their schools, defending a white supremacist banned from Twitter for inciting violence and, of course, discounting life-saving measures during a surging pandemic as nefarious “efforts to control our lives.”
Candidate Vance opined that: “Obesity is a far more serious public health crisis than Covid,” and sardonically asked, “Should we mandate that no one be allow to eat fried chicken?” He parroted the insanity of right-wing Republicans that COVID “is not the only bad thing” and “people don’t trust (life-saving) vaccines because our public health authorities are understood, reasonably, to be political hacks who don’t know what they’re doing.” Besides, he added, brushing over 600,000 dead Americans, “what about basic bodily liberty?”
Seriously, who is this guy and why is he embracing the ugly scorch and burn tactics of the fearmongers and scapegoaters that 2016 Vance denounced as divisive and dangerous? Back then he told me, “Trump voters can be encouraged to look at their fellow countrymen as fellow citizens and that’s good. Or they can be made to think of them as scapegoats for all their problems and [that’s] the reason I am so against Donald Trump.” He [Trump] is pulling “a significant portion of the white working class” into a “more racist direction,” concluded Vance.
“He’s changing the political conversation in a way that makes it less likely for people to think of Black folks and Mexicans as countrymen” and instead “think of those people” as the ones to blame for everything that’s wrong in white America. “Racism is definitely a part of the Trump phenomenon,” said Vance. “The David Dukes of the world…[are] absolutely a part of the Trump movement. And I think to his great discredit, Trump hasn’t disavowed these people as strongly as he should. I really believe that Trump bears a lot of blame… we are seeing an unprecedented level of racial resentment and racialized rhetoric in this  election.”
But Candidate Vance is blowing the same dog whistles he once disavowed from a candidate he derided as a “moral disaster.” Trump’s personal conduct alone, Vance said, “would have been so offensive to my [Appalachian] grandmother that she would have hated it… there’s no way she would have voted for him.” Vance confided he was disappointed in religious leaders “who have made a lot of apologies for Trump’s behavior…if Barack Obama, who by all accounts is an incredible family man, if he had fathered five children from three women…there would be a lot of religious conservatives all over him…”
“I don’t think it’s totally out of bounds to say we should hold our presidents up to a certain moral standard…and it’s just astonishing to me that we haven’t done the same thing for Donald Trump,” Vance told me. That was before Trump was elected and the serial corruption, deceit, dishonor and damage commenced. Before his first impeachment for trying to rig the 2020 election in exchange for foreign aid and his second impeachment for inciting an insurrection against his own government to steal an election he lost.
It was also before J.D. Vance pulled a 180 on his former self. The young writer I talked to over four years ago was different. He was authentic, unafraid to chastise his community for its “lack of agency” and “a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” It was personal for Vance, whose mother was in the same rut. “I don’t blame Mom for the way she lived her life. I don’t blame her for the addiction. I don’t blame her for the way she sometimes treated me and my sister. What I would blame Mom for is if she stopped trying.”
That J.D. Vance was nothing like the Ohio Senate candidate blaming everyone else today. That actor is degrading all the people MAGA supporters love to hate — from rich educated elitists (like himself) to the mainstream media, Brown immigrants and Black Lives Matter protestors. So, which J.D. Vance is the real deal, and which one is running a clumsy con as a faux extremist to pursue an open Senate seat in Ohio?
You know. Ohio voters can spot the phony a mile away.
MARILOU JOHANEK is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.