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.”
In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance acknowledged the economic forces that had hollowed out the industrial base of his hometown and wrought problems like domestic violence and opioid abuse. Yet he was reluctant to blame “faceless companies” for the self-destructive impulses of people like his mother, who worked regularly as a nurse until she started stealing prescription narcotics and getting high. Raised in chaos, Vance attributes his success largely to the interventions of his fierce grandmother, Mamaw, the only real source of stability in his life. As the memoir continues, Vance is propped up by a handful of other parental surrogates: the paternalistic Marine Corps and the Tiger Mother herself, his law school mentor Amy Chua, who guided the book to publication.
Vance’s family had moved to the Ohio Rust Belt from rural Kentucky, and the book’s focus on what he deemed Appalachian culture was key to its broad appeal. Published in the summer of 2016, it was pitched as a generous but unsentimental portrait of the disaffected White working class — though not one that drifted into potentially off-putting populist territory. In a rapturous Times review, Jennifer Senior wrote that Vance had situated the problems of his community in a “fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.” What he was really writing about, she said, was “despair.”
When “Hillbilly Elegy” came out, Trump wasn’t expected to win the presidency, which made soft-focus TV segments and book-club conversations about his supporters feel like abstract exercises in empathy. After the election, the liberal mentality of urgent resistance no longer coexisted easily with these exercises. In August 2017, after the Charlottesville white supremacist march, journalist Frank Rich tweeted, “Hillbilly elegies have now officially reached their expiration date.” Vance replied, “This is unbelievably stupid. The alt-right is primarily a movement of spoiled rich babies who turned to hate. Don’t blame hillbillies.”
Vance, who was writing regular columns for the Times, felt his relationship with liberals was growing untenable. “For a few weeks, a few months, there was this sort of empathetic moment,” he later told conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro, about the 2016 election. But then, he argued, the narrative shifted: Liberals became convinced Trump’s win was not correlated to economic strife, but rather delivered by Russian interference and Republican racial animus. Whatever the ultimate strength of this diagnosis — which at minimum seemed to discount some portion of voters who had previously supported Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders — it meant that blue-collar voters didn’t need to be won back after all. Which, functionally, gave cosmopolitan America permission to look away from the troubles of rural White America.
When the “Hillbilly Elegy” movie came out on Netflix in 2020, it was not just critically panned but greeted with intense online mockery, and the tenuous cultural diplomacy achieved by the book seemed to unravel for good. (Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 83 percent. Critics’ score: 25 percent.) According to Vance’s best friend from Yale, Jamil Jivani, the wounding commentary was the “last straw” in his falling-out with elites.
Ironically, this breakup seemed to bring Vance closer to certain critics who had accused him of blaming low-income Appalachians for their own problems. In his book, Vance cited the research of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, which found that a region’s lack of social mobility was strongly correlated to its percentage of single-parent households. Subsequently, he has been more likely to cite MIT economist David Autor’s work on globalization, which estimates that imports from China cost the United States about a million manufacturing jobs in the first decade of the 21st century. By 2020, Vance was tweeting that the legacy of Reaganite-Thatcherite conservatism was “the rise of China, the decimation of the American family, and a lot of tax cuts for the rich.” As his friend Sohrab Ahmari — one of the leading intellectual proponents of national conservatism — suggested to me, Vance had eventually come around “to the correct conclusion of his memoir.”
When we spoke on the phone, I told Vance I found it noteworthy that his book dissected the “learned helplessness” of Scotch-Irish hillbilly culture, while now he plays up external factors. He pushed back on my characterization, arguing that it made sense to talk about one thing in a memoir and the other in a Senate race. Besides, they weren’t mutually exclusive. Take “trade and industrial policy and fatherlessness,” he said. “We should understand deindustrialization as, in part, something that decimates working-class families, and, of course, when you destroy working-class families, then a whole lot of social pathologies move in.”
Vance argues that his alienation from polite society isn’t about him; it’s about them. When his memoir came out, he said, “people like Ezra Klein or David Brooks, you know, establishmentarians, center-right, center-left, however you want to describe their politics, they were sort of interesting people who were willing to challenge their social caste.” After Trump won, he contends, they retreated to their tribe. “Anybody who departs from the standard neoliberal orthodoxy ends up getting blasted, either from right or the left,” he went on. “The institutions that enforce conventional wisdom are incredibly hostile right now.” In effect, Vance is still framing himself as a conservative champion of the dispossessed — one who’s no longer fixating on the perceived failings of the people he grew up with, but of the professional class to which he ascended.
In November, Vance delivered the closing speech at the second annual national-conservatism conference, held at a Hilton in Orlando near SeaWorld. Called “Universities Are the Enemy,” the speech wasn’t exclusively about the campus — the title echoes a famous Richard Nixon line — but the priorities of progressive elites. The left, he argued, pushed for lax border control while average Americans were the ones overdosing on fentanyl from Mexico. Grocery and gas bills were skyrocketing, but Janet Yellen escaped blame for inflation because she is the first female Treasury secretary. “So long as we’re trailblazing on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Vance complained, “it doesn’t matter if normal people get screwed.” After the speech, Dreher says, Vance texted him: “When you realize that culture war is class warfare, everything becomes easy.”
National conservatism is the intellectual version of Trumpism, committed to the populist reorienting of the GOP away from free markets and interventionist foreign policy. As Trump never fully pursued his own project, the movement has taken on a slightly anarchic quality; surveying the conference’s speakers, it could be difficult to tell what linked Orban-defender Dreher to, say, Orlando Magic power forward Jonathan Isaac. Still, what the key factions agree on, as Sam Adler-Bell wrote in a recent New Republic essay, is that “classical liberalism — of the sort embraced by previous generations of conservatives — has a big hole in the middle of it where a substantive concept of the Good should be.”
Vance’s immersion in this universe can be traced to his close relationship with billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, a NatCon eminence who delivered the conference’s opening speech — and has plunked $10 million into a pro-Vance super PAC. Vance met Thiel about a decade ago, after he gave a lecture at Yale that spoke to a dissatisfaction Vance felt with Ivy League life. Thiel’s reputation on the left has become a word-salad of villainous associations — from the demise of Gawker to the rise of “surveillance capitalism” and Trumpist nationalism. But before he was associated with politics, he was largely known as a critic of technological stagnation, captured by his famous line, “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
That stagnation, Thiel claimed in his lecture at Yale, was linked to the credentialist rat race Vance and his classmates were engaged in. “If technological innovation were actually driving real prosperity, our elites wouldn’t feel increasingly competitive with one another over a dwindling number of prestigious outcomes,” Vance wrote in a spring 2020 essay in the Catholic publication the Lamp. In that piece, he called Thiel’s talk “the most significant moment of my time at Yale Law School,” helping him see that he “was obsessed with achievement … not as an end to something meaningful, but to win a social competition.”
Vance’s law school friend, the one who talked about his beard, told me that Vance was wrestling with the values of his new milieu throughout his time at Yale. “He is thoroughgoingly illiberal in his instincts,” he said. “I don’t mean it as a slur. I mean it in a technical sense. He is skeptical of the political project of enlightenment liberalism, like, We’re all just autonomous individuals trying to self-actualize and maximize our own interests.”
Jivani, who grew up in Toronto but shared Vance’s low-income background, says Vance drew a connection between Yale’s careerism and its liberal politics: “You’re sitting in a seminar room, you’ve got a professor who’s written a million books, surrounded by 20 students from San Francisco, New York, mostly, all pontificating about how to help poor people in America.” Their solutions, Jivani says, reflected the atomized enclaves they came from: “Yale’s approach is that judges, senators, policymakers can save the world. They completely omit the role of family, community and culture in people’s lives.”
After graduating in 2013, Vance clerked for a federal judge in Kentucky and worked a stint in corporate law. (At Yale, he began dating Usha Chilukuri, who would clerk for then-D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh and later Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, before joining the white-shoe firm Munger, Tolles, and Olson. Now married, they have three children.) He soon left the field and moved to San Francisco to join Mithril Capital, one of Thiel’s firms. From there, he became a partner at AOL founder Steve Case’s venture-capital fund Rise of the Rest, which invests in start-ups not based on the coasts. Vance called the idea “geographic arbitrage,” a sublimely insider-y way of describing an effort to help outsiders. After that, he moved back to southwest Ohio, settling in an exclusive Cincinnati neighborhood where Sen. Rob Portman — whom he is vying to replace — used to live. Vance started a flyover fund of his own, called Narya Capital; its portfolio includes a service that lets you invest in farmland, a Catholic prayer-and-meditation app and a right-leaning video platform. (Vance has aped Thiel’s grating habit of borrowing names from “The Lord of the Rings.” According to the website One Wiki to Rule Them All, Narya is a Ring of Power forged to inspire Elves “to resist tyranny, domination and despair.”)
If you read Vance’s career progression in the context of his Yale-era anomie, you can see a coherent philosophy emerging. Technological stagnation wasn’t just producing a self-centered striver class, but a frayed national fabric. Wealth and cultural capital, after all, were concentrated in the coastal knowledge sectors, and not in once-vibrant manufacturing regions. Vance’s concerns dovetail with a number of recent polemics from across the political spectrum, including Daniel Markovits’s “The Meritocracy Trap,” Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit,” Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” and Ross Douthat’s “The Decadent Society.” (Vance has said Douthat’s book, which can be read as an expansion on the “flying cars” lament, is the work that best encapsulates his belief system.) American Affairs, the comically dense quarterly journal that informs national conservatism’s policy side, and which Vance reads, is in some ways a never-ending critique of the “professional managerial class.” All these sources, in turn, borrow from a previous generation of, well, proto-post-liberals, including the critic Christopher Lasch, who attacked ostensibly tolerant yuppies for believing they’d earned their spoils and therefore feeling little need to give back to their communities.
For Vance, the story of the past few decades is that the social permissiveness of the left fused with the free-market creed of the right to create the soulless ethic known as neoliberalism. It’s why Vance will decry unregulated capitalism in one breath and porn in the next. It’s also why so many national conservatives are drawn to Catholic social teaching, as opposed to Protestant work-ethic individualism. In his NatCon speech, you could hear Vance articulating both sides of the argument: “The fundamental lie of American feminism of the past 20 or 30 years is that it is liberating for women to go work for 90 hours a week in a cubicle at Goldman Sachs.”
Ahmari — also a Catholic convert, as well as a refugee from the market-oriented Wall Street Journal editorial page — thinks that the “meritocratic, neoliberal world is in some ways an aberration” that basically just benefits educated Western elites. “An open border,” for instance, “is a bonanza to the kind of managerial class people in my milieu, who like, say, cheap nannies and so forth. Not so good for workers on the low end.”
Vance’s solution is economic and spiritual nationalism. On the campaign trail, he riffs that in the old days “what was good for GM was good for America.” The winners of the new economy, in his formulation, are bad for America: liberal-leaning tech companies that cover up for hiring cheap foreign labor with “woke” posturing about gender and race.
The political forefather of this vision is probably Pat Buchanan, who inveighed against free trade and multiculturalism in the 1990s. But it also draws from the milder “Reformicon” blueprints of 10 years ago, as well as older strains of leftism, such as the anti-globalism of the Seattle WTO protests. One unlikely text Vance has cited is Elizabeth Warren’s 2004 book “The Two-Income Trap,” about the financial pressures families experience when two parents enter the workforce.
If you look for it, elements of Vance’s current critique were in “Hillbilly Elegy” too. People like his grandfather, who moved to southwest Ohio to work in the then-bustling Armco Steel plant, strengthened the local social fabric as producers. A generation later, with jobs disappearing, his mom and his neighbors were not just isolated and angry but also, he wrote, “consumerist.”
Just before the pandemic, Vance and Jivani recorded an episode of a podcast together. Jivani asked whether Vance’s nationalist vision could devolve into a more jingoistic or bigoted form. Vance acknowledged the risk but countered that a healthy nationalism was an antidote to right-wing grievance politics. “What this hyper-atomized approach to living has done is it’s denied people a sense of solidarity,” he said. “I think some people go and find it in their racial identity or ethnic identity, and I think that’s especially dangerous.”
But what does a national-conservative vision look like in a primary campaign that doubles as an audition for Trump’s endorsement? The answer, often, has been Vance’s own coarse brand of identity politics. In July, he gave a sneering speech about the “childless left,” including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (whose twins were delivered about a month later). On Twitter, he called Times columnist Paul Krugman “one of the many weird cat ladies with too much power in this country.” In the most charitable reading, Vance was trying to echo Ahmari’s point about a political class that caters to urbane McKinsey consultants. In practice, he came across like the relative who spams you with uncomfortable political memes, or worse.
One thing that struck me as I checked out Vance’s campaign events was how rarely voters wanted to talk about topics of local relevance. One night, Vance held an event in Boardman, a suburb not far from the Lordstown GM plant that closed in 2019. That day, a federal trial was taking place in Cleveland that would result in the first-ever jury decision finding chain pharmacies responsible for exacerbating the opioid crisis. One of the two plaintiffs in the trial was Trumbull County, 10 miles north of where we were. Yet nobody in the room — or any other event I went to — asked about drug addiction. It’s not that voters didn’t grill Vance. They just preferred to ask about his past anti-Trumpism, or his relationship with Thiel, or any number of more unexpected national concerns, such as term limits. After the event, I drifted over to a folding table where other candidates had dropped off campaign paraphernalia. A placard for Josh Mandel read “ELECTION INTEGRITY NOW!” on one side and “STOP DEMOCRAT CHEATING!” on the other. I picked up a calendar and learned that former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway would be stopping by the area for a Christmas party.
To get a different lens, I drove to Vance’s home city of Middletown, 35 miles north of Cincinnati. In some sense, it resembles what you’d expect from a community of 50,000 that has lost virtually all the steel and paper mill jobs that once sustained it: the familiar ruin-porn of vacant buildings bearing picturesque signs for long-gone hotels or furniture stores; a windswept main drag announced by the perversely glorious-looking Richie’s Pawn Central; a Dollar General where the family-owned Dillman Foods (which had employed Vance in high school) used to be. The vast Armco steel mill — now known as AK Steel — is still in business, though it has many fewer employees than in its peak years.
Still, a fledgling retail comeback has taken place downtown, anchored by a town-square-type coffee shop called the Triple Moon. There, I met up with 52-year-old Rodney Muterspaw, until recently the city’s police chief. The axis along which Vance is debated locally has less to do with his politics and more to do with whether he betrayed his hometown by depicting everyone as a bunch of degenerates. “People in town were saying, ‘That’s not Middletown,’ ” Muterspaw told me. “Well, hell yeah, that’s Middletown, 100 percent.” Muterspaw is 15 years older than Vance but shares a nearly identical lineage. His grandmother moved to the area from Appalachian Kentucky; his dad worked at Armco steel and didn’t end up raising him. Muterspaw lived with his mom, shuffling between apartment complexes, getting evicted, stealing from stores.
We went for a drive in his Dodge Ram. He showed me Vance’s modest childhood home on McKinley Street. Then we drove to the neighborhood where Ron Howard shot scenes for the movie. He showed me where Amy Adams, playing Vance’s mom, Beverly, ran into the street with a bloody gash on her wrist. “J.D.’s lucky his mom is still alive, you know,” he said. “In the movie, you’ll see the Parkway Inn — that’s where she was getting her fix at. We’ve had problems there for years.” (When I reached Beverly, she told me she had to check with Vance before speaking to me, and I never heard back. Muterspaw texted Vance’s sister, Lindsay, who still lives in Middletown, to give her my phone number. I didn’t hear from her, either.)
The book came out close to the peak of the local opioid epidemic, which lasted from 2015 to 2017. Muterspaw was chief then: “Three years of nothing but opioid calls, overdoses and deaths.” There were stretches of 2017 when more people died of overdoses — typically heroin, laced with fentanyl — than of natural causes in Butler County, where Middletown is located. The overdose problem started to slow in 2018, Muterspaw explained, after the city began sending three-person teams — police officer, medic, social worker — to house calls. The rates also slowed, he said, because so many addicts had died. (The city’s big problem now, he noted, is meth.)
National conservatism sells itself as a philosophy that could save these places, with its child subsidies and steel tariffs. But just how committed are national conservatives to the parts of their platform that are more traditionally left-wing — the infrastructure investments, the social-service interventions? Vance himself seemed to take a stab at on-the-ground social work around addiction, starting an anti-opioid nonprofit with Jivani called Our Ohio Renewal in 2017. Yet virtually nothing came of it, aside from the sponsorship of a year-long fellowship for Sally Satel — an American Enterprise Institute scholar who has long maintained that prescription pain meds are unlikely to turn the average person into an addict — to work at a drug treatment clinic in southeast Ohio. (When I asked her what came of the fellowship, Satel pointed to two lengthy essays she wrote about addiction, based on her time there.) In 2018, Jivani was diagnosed with cancer (he is now in remission), which seems to have crippled the nonprofit’s efforts. But the whole venture was puzzling from the start.
In the Senate, Josh Hawley crusades against “the tyranny of big tech,” while Marco Rubio pushes for an industrial policy to revive domestic manufacturing. Meanwhile, NatCon junior member Mitt Romney used the emergency of the pandemic to break with party orthodoxy on spending, authoring widely praised legislation offering parents up to $15,000 a year to defray child-rearing costs. (The bill went nowhere.) But they haven’t meaningfully tilted the GOP’s direction. “I mean, Donald Trump was elected, and the only thing the Republican Party accomplished in two years with control of Congress was a big tax cut,” says Oren Cass, who runs a new national-conservative think tank, American Compass. Worth noting: Rubio, Hawley and Romney all supported Trump’s corporate tax cut.
I went to see Vance in the picturesque, troubled river town of Marietta, Ohio, across the border from West Virginia. He had a 9 a.m. event at a little GOP headquarters on the main drag. Not including me and his three-person team, there were 12 very committed political junkies there. I sat down at a table covered with coloring-book images of nuzzling elephants that local elementary students had apparently been conscripted into drawing. The event was a nice window into the indignities of Republican primary campaigning. At one point during the Q&A, a guy called Trump “caring.” Vance concurred: “He was a caring guy. He made us laugh.”
A more compelling exchange happened a little later. A woman commented that Democrats “hate Trump”; here, Vance got excited: Actually, they didn’t all hate Trump, and that gave Republicans an opportunity. “You know, Mamaw and Papaw, the people who raised me, they were classic blue-dog Democrats, union Democrats, right? They loved their country, they were socially conservative.” Now, Vance said, Democrats were turning off these voters. They “talk more about these ridiculous identity politics issues than they do about people’s jobs,” he argued.
Liberals would retort, of course, that they care about social and economic issues. And it’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have spent the past year voting against pandemic relief and social-safety-net spending. Yet it’s clear that for many voters, working-class priorities don’t seem like Democratic ones. In 2020, Florida voted for Trump, along with a significant minimum-wage hike. The recent drift of voters of color to the GOP — despite, or possibly thanks to, liberal efforts at cultural progressivism — has been hard to ignore.
The focus of the 2021 NatCon conference was the identitarian “Great Awokening” of recent years. While Vance engaged plenty on that topic in his speech, he is privately more downbeat about the obsession with political correctness. “I think anti-wokeness is probably enough to win elections,” he told me. “But I don’t think it can actually bring the country together to solve some of our big problems.”
Moreover, if Vance and company argue that neoliberal elites use the language of social justice to advance their interests, they also worry that mainstream conservatives will attack social justice to advance their own. “I would lament if the post-liberal movement became just a new skin or new mask for the same old GOP agenda,” Ahmari says. In other words, Mitch McConnell and company would push for goodies for the rich, while memorizing words they learned at a NatCon conference. “Like, ooh we’re against Ibram X. Kendi, how edgy, you know?” Mandel — Vance’s main opponent in Ohio — fits this bill, Ahmari says. “That’s a classic case of someone using the language of American populism, but you look beneath it, and it’s just the same old establishment consensus.”
Another way of framing the dilemma for the NatCons is this: From a certain angle, anti-wokeness just ends up looking like classic liberalism. If your general critique of the social justice left is that it’s doctrinaire, it becomes harder to push for a top-down “common good” conservatism that probably requires some level of indoctrination.
“What social progressives have accomplished over the last couple of decades is to deprive our country of any real shared — any real shared anything, right?” Vance told me. “We don’t have a shared sense of our own history. We don’t have a shared sense of our own great monuments and figures. We do not have a shared religion.” (Maybe that’s a good thing for a Catholic NatCon in a country that’s only about 22 percent Catholic.) Later in our conversation, he returned to the point: “You look into some of the social justice people, [and] you realize what they’re doing is responding to a world without norms and without borders. And they’re trying to reconstruct this stuff from nothing. And I sometimes want to shake them and say, ‘There is a philosophy out there that worked pretty good for Western civilization at erecting norms and erecting social borders. Maybe you should try that out.’ ”
It’s not totally clear which philosophy he meant, or how far back in Western civ he hoped to go. The Federalist Papers? “The City of God”? I asked him how national conservatives might accomplish all this without drifting into their own versions of dogma. “Ah, I mean, honestly,” he replied, “I don’t know.”
This past summer, Times columnist Ross Douthat, a NatCon fellow traveler, appeared on the podcast of his colleague Ezra Klein. Klein asked him, essentially, What happened to J.D. Vance? Douthat had a few answers, among them a stylistic point: If you need to play to the Trump base — which Vance suddenly, desperately, needs to do — it’s not a bad idea to do so via online trolling: “You can own the libs without going on long paranoid spiels about all your enemies within the Republican Party who have failed to steal the election for you.”
Vance’s media strategy seems to be that by playing Don Jr. on the Internet, he can push for more substantive populism in real life. The success of that tactic may depend on how far removed he truly seems from the Brookings Institution-to-Netflix pipeline he was riding until recently. In November, Vance tweeted an invitation to join him and Peter Thiel for an exclusive dinner — to whoever donated $10,800 by the next day. “This will be a small group, with good food and better company,” Vance wrote. On Twitter, Mandel replied with a picture of himself outside a Denny’s. He wrote: “BERKSHIRE, OH — For $10.80 anyone can join me eating fries off the hood of the car from a gas station Denny’s at midnight.”
In late November, the Ohio Republican Party held a very awkward candidate forum in an evangelical church near Middletown. None of the seven candidates were allowed to rebut one another. The statements from Vance’s opponents were a procession of uninspired to alarming GOP tropes. Party fixture Jane Timken pledged to “fight back against the socialists.” Mandel thundered that the election had been stolen and that America was not a country for “atheism” or “Muslim values.” (Mandel, who is Jewish, is for “Judeo-Christian values.”)
Vance, seated on the edge of the stage, tried to move the conversation onto his turf. Censorship, opioids: not just the fault of Democrats, but of multinational corporations. Fielding a question about “fiscal sanity,” he pivoted away from the national debt and gave an answer about buying American-made, instead of Chinese-made, goods. Blaming big business certainly distinguished him from his opponents, but it did not appear to thrill the die-hards in the pews.
Eventually, however, Vance landed on something that got the audience going: He called for Republicans to shut down the government until President Biden ended his vaccine mandate for federal workers. A vaccine mandate is exactly the sort of idea that a “common good” national conservative like Vance should support. Yet a few days after the forum, I got a text message from his campaign, raising money off the line.
Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer in New York.