JD Vance and republican elephant inside a crystal ball
Gage Skidmore

White Supremacy

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Which Side of Wrong Is J.D. Vance’s New Right Wing?


To say the 'Hillbilly Elegy' author and now GOP Senatorial candidate in Ohio is without principles is an overstatement. But Vance can't even figure out which fascist faction of the neo-Trumpist GOP to pander to.



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JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, is one of five official candidates in Ohio’s packed neo-Trumpist Republican primary for its open U.S. Senate seat in the 2022 election, all of whom are apparently jockeying for the endorsement of the former president. Vance, of course, used to be a mild critic of Trump’s on the right and has since had to back away from that with alacrity by claiming it was a 2016 error of judgment. (His reversal, of course, ignores the 2018 afterword of his own book, in which he said “the rancor of the 2016 campaign continues to infect our discourse” and “the populist rhetoric of the campaign hasn’t informed the party’s approach to governing.”)

Vance has become no stranger to saying one thing to the purported audience of his book and another to the conservatives political elites with whom he’s (now openly) yearning to make a career. As Adam Wren of Business Insider recently pointed out, Vance took to the pages of the New York Times in March 2017 to announce that he was “moving home” to Columbus to start a charity to tackle opioid addiction in Ohio. (Readers of the book might remember that, in Chapter 15, he chronicled having moved back to Cincinnati “for a year” around the time he married his wife in 2014, though.) That charity, Wren reported, is conspicuously absent from candidate Vance’s plan to tackle opioid addiction once he’s elected and doesn’t appear to have done much, if anything, since being established.

Of course, he’d already been working as a partner at Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm for nearly a year at that point, and a week after the Times Op-Ed, joined Steve Case’s investment firm as well. He was probably busy.

Still, the first time I personally wondered if Vance was just pandering to what certain people—the ones he believed are dumber than he is—thought was November 2020. In a now-deleted tweet on the first of that month, which happened to mark the changing of the clocks for Daylight Savings Time, he wrote: “As a parent of young children and a nationalist who worries about America’s low fertility I can say with confidence that daylight savings time reduces fertility by at least 10 percent.”

Put aside the inanity that someone would spend a Sunday worrying about whether other people are bumping uglies at a high enough rate to produce whatever demographers might consider “enough” extra humans in the United States. And let go of your eye-rolling over the seeming necessity of declaring oneself “a nationalist” in order to justify thinking about whether other people’s sex lives are productive “enough.”

The fact of the matter is that many, many people—and certainly those who have gone to Ohio State, Yale Law School, and written best-selling memoirs that have been made into movies—know that, in fact, November marks the end, not the beginning, of Daylight Savings Time. So if Daylight Savings Time actually reduced fertility, then people would have already been fucking less for several months, and November would mark the beginning of sexing season, not the end of it. (And, in fact, birth rates by month confirms that November generally marks the beginning of an uptick in conception, not a decline in it.)

Vance, of course, came in for plenty of criticism and, before deleting it entirely, declared his tweet a joke and the liberals who criticized him humorless. 

But what that November did mark was the beginning of what has become his continuing pablum about natalistic nationalism—a neo-Trumpist obsession now sweeping the male middle-aged Ivy-educated “populist” conservative right to such a degree that no less than conservative firebrand Ann Coulter felt obliged not only to comment on it but criticize it as “embarrassing.” And it suggests that the only joke was the part about Vance being less interested in sex in November.

It wasn’t Vance’s first public airing out of his recent “deep” (and, if you’ve actually read his Hillbilly Elegy, seemingly new) thoughts about why Americans ought to get to having more kids. That came in May 2019, when at his keynote speech at the American Conservative‘s annual gala. In it, he outlined first a ham-handed economic argument for having more kids: “Places that have fewer children have less innovation, less dynamism, they’re less stable societies.” (This is, by the numbers, untrue.) And he further suggested a ham-handed socio-political one, which is that fatherhood reduces people’s sociopathic tendencies, for which there is literally zero evidence, and that less sociopathy is inherently politically conservative, which seems also likely untrue.

I know about his 2019 speech only because he mentioned it during another speech this past July in D.C., after which he embarked on an interminable series of media appearances and then rehashed the speech in adapted form for The American Conservative. In it, he proposed that children be given voting rights to be utilized on their behalf by their parents until they achieve the age of majority as a way to counteract the “childless left” who “don’t have a personal and direct stake in [this country] via their own offspring.” 

But at the outset, Vance bemoaned that “the Washington Post” had attacked him as a racist for the 2019 speech by suggesting that he was only lamenting the falloff in white births in the U.S., rather than all births. (In fact, one “Outlook” column by an outside contributor did so, and the mention of him has since been redacted with a prominent retraction notice at the top of the piece.)

Still, the “childless left” that needs countering, according by Vance, included only Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Vice-President Kamala Harris (D-CA) who has stepchildren, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (who announced less than three weeks later that he and his husband were close to finalizing an adoption). And while Vance, in July, acknowledged that many people don’t have children because they are infertile, or because they find the right person with whom to have them too late to conceive (or not at all), he said “let’s set them to the side,” and suggested that his “childless left” were not among those people.

Of the speech, let me just point out again that Ann Coulter—who is publicly anti-abortion—wrote, “I’m hoping [it] was just a brilliant satire of political pandering.” (That’s sarcasm, by the way.)

I hesitate to call Vance’s showy efforts to promote child-bearing as an attempt to solidify conservative majorities “political pandering.” I do so only because I hesitate to suggest that there is core set of agreed-upon facts, beliefs of values that everyone of a certain economic or educational level shares as a result of that education, and that neo-Trumpist politicians’ attempts to appeal to people they believe have different educational levels or economic classes are a departure from their actual beliefs rather than a statement of the ones they’ve been hiding from their status peers. 

That said, it is a new public stance for the author of Hillbilly Elegy, written by author J.D. Vance.

Take, for instance, this section of conservative J.D. Vance’s 2019 speech:

“I care about declining fertility because I’ve seen the role of fatherhood, the positive role that it can play in the lives of my friends and in my community. I’ve seen young men who are relatively driftless, but became rooted and grounded when they had children. I’ve seen people who become more attached to their communities, to their families, to their country, because they have children.”

And, though it’s hard to pick only one example from Author J.D. Vance’s 2016 book, which was completed about 2014 or so, here’s one: 

In chapter one, he describes a then-recent trip to his family’s ancestral home in Jackson, Kentucky, and going on a walk with his second cousin Rick’s  kids. This is how he describes one family.

“When passing a small two-bedroom house, I noticed a frightened set of eyes looking at me from behind the curtains of a bedroom window. My curiosity piqued, I looked closer and counted no fewer than eight pairs of eyes, all looking at me from three windows with an unsettling combination of fear and longing. On the front porch was a thin man, no older than 35, apparently the head of the household. … When I asked Rick’s son what the young father did for a living, he told me the man had no job and was proud of it. … That house might be extreme but it represents much about the lives of the hill people in Jackson.”

He later describes the town: “Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them.” (He also repeatedly refers to the man as “mean.”)

If you haven’t read the book, it might be possible to believe that this one [possible caricature of a] man in his hometown is an outlier to the many, many positive stories of how fatherhood enlightened other men—but you’d be wrong. The book abounds with examples of men beating their wives and kids, abandoning their kids, consigning their kids to poverty out of what Vance repeatedly terms their own laziness and being a drag on their own communities.

Vance doesn’t even spare his own family. He describes in detail how his beloved Papaw terrorized his Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Wee, and mother as a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic in their childhood, leading Vance to eventually diagnose his family members with trauma as a result of their “adverse childhood experiences [ACE].” (Coincidentally, in an August tweet, Vance posited that “liberals have higher rates of mental illness,” sans citation, though he noted in his book with citations, that “a report by the Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund showed that among those with a college degree or more (the non-working class), fewer than half had experienced an ACE. Among the working class, well over half had at least one ACE, while about 40 percent had multiple ACEs.” There is no particular evidence in the book that Vance’s living family members are liberal, though his Mamaw voted Democratic.)

Women, of course, are not left out of his worldview on parents in Hillbilly Elegy

Vance describes being 17 and having one of his Mamaw’s neighbors begin to rent their house out to people who qualified for Section-8 Housing Assistance. The first woman tenant came from a similar background as his family. Of her, Vance wrote, “She had gotten involved with a couple of men, each of whom had left her with a child but no support. She was nice, and so were her kids. But the drugs and the late-night fighting revealed troubles that too many hillbilly transplants knew too well.”

His Mamaw had slightly different thoughts, in Vance’s telling. “She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job,” he wrote, empathizing with  his grandmother’s position (whom he describes in the next breath as a “bleeding heart” liberal).

Contrast this vision of the extremely limited way in which the government bothers to support single moms (it’s in his chapter about food stamps, in which he recounts food-stamp recipients as living higher on the hog than his family, of course) and how that doesn’t help people, with his speech this past July:

“Why can’t we give resources to parents who tell us the only reason they’re not having kids is because they can’t afford it? This is a civilizational crisis, and if we’re not willing to spend resources to solve it, we’re not serious about the very real problems that we face.So we should do it. We should give resources to parents who are going to have kids.”

Those are competing visions for the same problem, to say the least, unless you’re not applying those visions to the same people. Vance is, as he always is, quite careful in his formulations. But it’s hard to imagine that Vance plans to use government largesse or extra voting rights to subsidize the child-bearing of either the poverty-stricken fathers-of-eight of Jackson who he believes are lazy, or the mothers-of-several of Middletown who he thinks are taking advantage of the current system, or that he now believes having children made them more grounded, community-oriented people. (It’s also hard to believe that Vance truly credits the idea that most people don’t have children because they can’t afford it, given how often he wrote about poor people and all their kids in his book.)

So rather than asking whether J.D. Vance is serious about some sort of extra-votes-for-parents plan or family subsidization scheme (these are not the policy proposals of someone who seriously expects them to be enacted into law), the question to ask is who is Vance aligning himself with, and against, by making them and why. I mean, he says he’s against “weird cat ladies,” so presumably he’s for “extremely normal dog men”—though even after reading his book, it remains unclear what inspired Vance’s grudge against pussies and the people who love them.

The truth is probably that he’s trying to appeal to the people who didn’t read his book by speaking what he thinks is their language (the insults, self-aggrandizement, and hyper-partisanship he decried in his book) in order to get accepted into highest ranks of the elite that he spent said book trying to win the broad approval of (while constantly explaining how he felt out of place among).

The funny thing is—as Rep. Ocasio Cortez could probably tell him if he stopped insulting her long enough to have one of those honest conversations among working class peers he once trumpeted in his book—that it doesn’t matter what elite status you achieve on your merits if you didn’t start out among the elites. They’ll still look down on you, and take pains to remind you that you used to be just “a bartender”… or even “a hillbilly.”

 

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