In an effort to demonstrate their familiarity with my region, people I meet often mention that they have read one of two books. One is “Dreamland,” the 2015 opus by Sam Quinones detailing the opioid epidemic through a narrative focused in part on Portsmouth, Ohio. The other is 2016’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance’s description of his chaotic upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, as part of a family rooted in Appalachian culture.
As valuable as they are, neither book is all-inclusive. As is the case with any culture or people, it’s an unhealthy stereotype to think that all Appalachian or rural White people are alike. Our experiences, outcomes and philosophies are much more disparate than some might think.
Vance’s memoir has long been targeted by the left for suggesting that the poor should not be characterized as victims of their circumstances. Now, after declaring himself a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, the criticism of Vance is also coming from the right.
The Club for Growth PAC, which supports Republican and former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel in the race, issued a statement attacking Vance: “He says he’s from Middletown, but he made a boatload dissing his former neighbors to sell his book. He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in the short time Mr. Vance has been active in politics he’s spent the bulk of it tearing down President [Donald] Trump and mocking Trump voters.”
While not mentioning Vance by name, a tweet from a Toledo journalist noted that there are “many Ohioans [who] have great, authentic, true stories of growing up in Appalachia” — but pointed out that Middletown is not actually in Appalachia. Ouch.
Vance is billing himself as the “conservative outsider,” and a new TV ad features him pledging to “shake the system up” while raising the taxes “of corporations shipping our jobs overseas.” Sound familiar? Vance obviously thinks Trump-style populism is the key to winning the hearts of GOP voters in Ohio, as do virtually all the other Republican candidates.
Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC that funded the TV spot, is financed in large part by $10 million from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a Vance business associate. Whether Vance has much financial backing in-state is yet to be seen. The timing of his announcement means it will likely be late September before we see his first finance report.
As he gets rolling, Vance seems to be struggling with who to be. As Politico reported Monday, Vance said he regrets now-deleted tweets from 2016 “calling Trump ‘reprehensible’ because of the former president’s views toward ‘Immigrants, Muslims, etc.’ ” Vance recently trekked to Mar-a-Lago for an audience with Trump, as have others in the race. But the about-face smacks of pandering and no matter what he does now, his old tweets will undoubtedly be featured in attack ads ad nauseam.
It’s too bad, because one gets the sense that Vance has something to offer in the future if he doesn’t surrender his credibility today. He indeed overcame difficult circumstances and “went on to serve our nation in the Iraq War as a proud Marine, graduated from The Ohio State University, received his law degree from Yale Law School, and became a successful investor in Silicon Valley,” as his official biography points out.
But Mandel, also an Iraq veteran, has been working his way up the ladder from local to statewide politics for nearly two decades, though some accuse him of opportunism for his frequent efforts to job-hop. Jane Timken, the Ohio Republican chair for all of Trump’s term, comes from a family that has long supported Republicans and conservative causes. She has built a grass-roots infrastructure bolstered by her well-regarded leadership of the state party.
According to one source, Vance currently places third in internal polling behind Mandel and Timken, and many think Timken is best positioned to receive Trump’s endorsement, which would likely be the ballgame in the GOP primary. But other hopefuls abound, including business executives Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno, with more considering the race. Congressman Tim Ryan is the only Democrat to have declared so far. Vance may be the best-known of them all nationally, but that just isn’t enough against longtime Ohio political players.
Director Ron Howard’s film version of “Hillbilly Elegy” was criticized for watering down the conservative political messages in Vance’s memoir. The Associated Press’s review complained that the film “has stripped away the most sermonizing, debatable parts of the book, but also denuded it of any deeper purpose, leaving us with a cosplay shell of A-list actors chewing rural scenery.”
Likewise, by reducing himself to a Trump-style populist pandering to the former president’s base, Vance risks making himself a caricature in his own impressive story. The original J.D. Vance — Trump critic, overcomer of a dysfunctional family, thoughtful advocate for his region and its people — might not be electable right now. But he could be if we still recognize him when things change someday, as they will.