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Opinion J.D. Vance is scaring America’s elite. Good.

J.D. Vance. (Jeffrey Dean/AP)

Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance is being attacked by critics on the left and right for his populist economics and his changed views on former president Donald Trump. That’s a good sign that Vance’s message is getting through and that he can win.

Vance has some qualities that most politicians lack these days: thoughtfulness and an authentic willingness to speak his mind. I’ve known him since before his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” made him famous. He is the same person now as he was then. He is deeply concerned about the state of working-class people of all races in today’s hyper-corporate, globalized America, and he hasn’t surrendered his mind to polls or to the donor class in an effort to fit in. He is what he has always been, warts and all, and he’s offering that to the people of his home state with the belief that they will sooner trust a person like themselves than they will yet another ambitious politician twisting to meet the prevailing political winds.

Critics claim the opposite. They say Vance is a man who in 2016 criticized Trump and then shifted his views to suit his potential constituents. On the one hand, that’s rich; if criticizing Trump in 2016 disqualifies a person from office, precious few Republicans would still be around today. Former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney went so far as to call Trump “a terrible human being” in 2016, yet Trump overlooked that insult and named him his top aide. On the other hand, Vance says Trump’s performance in office made him change his mind and that the views of his potential supporters, who do like Trump, shouldn’t be ignored. Why shouldn’t we take him at his word?

The anger and vitriol behind some of the attacks on Vance belie the real motivation for them. Vance calls out big corporations for hollowing out U.S. manufacturing, sending jobs overseas, and making themselves and their educated hangers-on — the lawyers, financial mavens and others — rich in the process. Perhaps his critics don’t like that he says what most Americans of all ideologies think: that the powerful have moral and social obligations to other Americans that transcend the pure pursuit of profit. The nerve of the guy!

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The left opposes Vance because his views would deprive them of their chance for really big government. No one attacks Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for using her privileged perch at Harvard Law School to become one of the nation’s most prominent left-wing populists. That’s because she is pushing social democracy, the form of economic regulation that is acceptable in media and academic hallways. Yet because Vance, who was educated at Yale Law School, expresses a populist anger over economic decline that doesn’t include yet another expansion of government, they claim he is not an authentically working-class candidate.

Anger on the right stems from the naive belief among many conservative intellectuals and commentators that the Trump era was a mirage and that free-market fundamentalism can now resume its reign at the top of the conservative policy hierarchy. These pundits want Vance’s smart economic populism to fail, because they know their goose is cooked if he wins.

With a May 3 primary, the race is already crowded, with more than 10 declared candidates and a few others still waiting in the wings. Ohio’s Republican primary law does not require a runoff, so whoever gets the most votes will become the GOP’s nominee and presumptive favorite. With such a crowded field, a candidate could easily win with only around one-third of the vote. That’s a standard that is easily within Vance’s reach.

Recent contested Republican presidential primaries in Ohio show how this is possible. Both Trump and Rick Santorum received roughly 36 percent of the vote in their 2016 and 2012 presidential campaigns, respectively. They both ran as economic populists, and Santorum was also a favorite of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Santorum swept most of the state’s rural counties, losing narrowly to eventual nominee Mitt Romney because he lost in the state’s major metropolitan areas. Trump also did well in rural counties but was particularly strong in Ohio’s south and southwest, the Appalachian region that harbors depressed coal and manufacturing communities. The state’s three large cities and their surrounding upper-income suburbs cast less than 40 percent of the vote in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary. Vance’s message of anti-Big Tech social conservatism and anti-corporate economic populism is tailor-made for the other 60 percent of the GOP electorate.

Mr. Smith isn’t supposed to actually go to Washington. The fact that Mr. Vance could is scaring America’s bipartisan elite. Good.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: Selections from J.D. Vance’s reworked, pro-Trump edition of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Greg Sargent: An ugly new right-wing attack poses a test for populists like J.D. Vance

Greg Sargent: J.D. Vance realizes Trump was right about Trump voters, after all

Gary Abernathy: J.D. Vance is trying to bend himself to a moment that isn’t really his

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