The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A crazy GOP primary shows how worship of Trump warps reality

Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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J.D. Vance is running for the GOP nomination for Senate in Ohio, but he has a problem: He has criticized Donald Trump, which for many GOP primary voters is immediately disqualifying. So he’s atoning for his heresies by positioning himself as the true keeper of the flame of Trumpism.

Which in turn is providing a glimpse into just how hollow the ideology of Trumpism truly is. For those who want to salvage from the Trump era an ideological space that will endure — a Trumpist “populist nationalism” — Vance is demonstrating the vacuousness of this as a political project.

All this arises from a remarkable new Politico report on the battling between Vance and the leading contender for the nomination, former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel. This war is all about who is more slavishly loyal to Trump and his legacy.

Two super PACs supporting Mandel have launched nearly $1 million in ads hammering Vance’s past criticism of Trump. These include Vance’s admission that he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, and Vance’s descriptions of Trump as “noxious,” “reprehensible” and “an idiot.”

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Vance has groveled for forgiveness for his anti-Trump apostasy, but those quotes live on. So he’s now arguing that he’s much more faithful to the ideology of Trumpism than Mandel is.

To accomplish this, Vance is highlighting the funding of these ads by the Club for Growth, a group that favors standard-issue plutocratic GOP priorities on taxes and deregulation. Vance’s campaign says the plutocrats are desperate to keep a true Trumpist populist out of the Senate:

“J.D. is a strong supporter of President Trump, and his rapid rise in the polls is scaring the same pro-China, globalist D.C. establishment that spent millions of dollars attacking President Trump in 2016, because they’re terrified of someone who stands with Trump and working-class Americans on tariffs and a pro-America trade policy getting elected to the U.S. Senate,” said Taylor Van Kirk, Vance’s press secretary, in a statement.

The mythology here is that Trump’s 2016 victory represented a triumph over the GOP donor class. Trumpist populism, in this narrative, challenges that class and its ideology with something much more pro-worker.

But notably, Vance’s need to frame all his positions around the idea that he represents the true heir to Trump’s legacy requires a wholesale rewrite of the Trump presidency.

Vance tells a similar story to Trump’s 2016 narrative. Elites with no loyalty to the nation or its people have hollowed out the virtuous American heartland through globalization (more immigration, fewer trade barriers) and donor-class trickle-down economic dogma that prioritizes “free” markets and refuses to use government power to protect workers and boost wages.

But probably the single largest Trump “accomplishment” was a multitrillion-dollar tax cut that largely benefited corporations and the rich. Not only did the GOP donor class enthusiastically champion this; it also largely failed to deliver on its promises of more societally beneficial corporate investment and supercharged wages. It both acted on and reminded us of the falsity at the core of the very trickle-down ideology Trumpism was supposed to challenge.

Meanwhile, the real action in challenging this ideology is on the Democratic side. Democrats are nearing a deal on a multitrillion-dollar package that would constitute a far more dramatic move in the other direction — and would act more substantially on some of Vance’s own stated priorities — than anything emanating from Vance and his fellow travelers.

For instance, as a recent Niskanen Center study demonstrated, the package’s expanded child tax credit is both pro-family policy and would deliver disproportionately large benefits to rural and less populous parts of the country.

Vance has built a brand around telling a story about the social crises that have taken hold in such places after their abandonment by globalists and plutocrats. But as Paul Krugman notes, Vance appears more interested in demagoguing this by blaming it on the supposedly anti-family values of elite cultural liberalism than he does in concrete policies to boost them.

Indeed, by helping remove barriers to the flourishing of struggling families, and by boosting their purchasing power — and with it regional demand and opportunity — the Democrats’ expanded child tax credit might help mitigate such a sense of decline. Vance is generally supportive of pro-family policies. As senator, would he vote to extend this specific policy?

Meanwhile, the Democratic bill would also prevent multinational corporations from evading taxes with profit-shifting chicanery abroad, which starves the nation of revenue. It would beef up IRS enforcement to prevent wealthy elites from enlisting high priced lawyers to avoid paying taxes they already owe.

As Binyamin Appelbaum notes, such policies might reinforce faith in our system among ordinary Americans who cannot avail themselves of such elite gamesmanship of the rules. One might add that this might help restore some social cohesion and sense of obligation to the nation. The fraying of both of those are a big time preoccupation of conservative populists.

Vance talks a lot about preventing financial elites from rigging the system to pay less in taxes and about taxing the globalist elites who have “plundered” the nation. Where will he come down on these specific solutions?

There are good things about Vance’s conservative populism. But he is offering up a version of it that’s saturated in performative anti-cosmopolitan posturing and demagoguery about elite cultural liberals, about critical race theory, about tech oligarchs, about immigration. He wants to raise taxes on corporations … to punish them for standing up for the voting rights of African Americans.

All this flows from Vance’s obvious goal of casting his populism entirely in the image of Trump himself. The need to pander to the Trump worship of GOP primary voters makes a reality-based conversation about the very problems Vance himself identifies impossible.