The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In J.D. Vance’s primary, nonstop Trump-worship shows the perils of populism

J.D. Vance, candidate for Senate in Ohio. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Here’s an unsettling thought: In GOP primaries, declaring unshakable fealty to the mythology that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump is becoming a bedrock condition of political survival. This is becoming so routine that it’s hardly newsworthy anymore — which only risks normalizing it further.

That’s the takeaway from the latest news out of the Senate primary in Ohio, where J.D. Vance is facing former state treasurer Josh Mandel and several other candidates. The race has featured a kind of loyalty competition, in which displays of fealty to Trump’s 2020 lies, pushed relentlessly by Mandel, have kept escalating to comic levels of groveling.

This escalation also highlights unpleasant truths about Vance’s evolution. The “Hillbilly Elegy” author has reinvented himself as a take-no-prisoners conservative populist and culture warrior, and his efforts to keep pace with Mandel illustrate how effortlessly those populist tendencies feed into the very worst forms of gutter Trumpism.

On Thursday night, Mandel upped the ante on the Trump-worship again. At a candidate forum, Mandel declared: “I believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.” Mandel infused the word “stolen" (as well as Trump’s middle initial) with grandly inflated umbrage, suggesting he has carefully rehearsed this display.

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Mandel also described the coronavirus as a “bioweapon manufactured by the Chinese Communist Party,” and even declared this had been created to punish Trump for confronting China.

That account elides Trump’s weeks of praise for China’s initial handling of the virus, which disastrously helped enable its spread here. But that aside, the idea that Trump was such a scourge to China that it created a bioweapon killing millions, all in retaliation against Trump, is a display of lionization of Trump that’s almost too comical to believe.

Mandel’s efforts recently succeeded in forcing Vance’s hand. This month, after previously describing Ohio’s elections as “gold standard,” Vance finally declared he believes the election was indeed stolen from Trump.

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What’s of interest is how Vance has evolved. His big problem in this primary, which will turn heavily on who scores Trump’s endorsement, is that he has long been on record harshly criticizing Trump in 2016. Groups allied with Mandel aired nearly $1 million in ads highlighting that apostasy.

Vance has been atoning ever since. Sometimes he has portrayed himself as more faithful to the ideology of Trumpism than Mandel, as if highlighting his populist economic ideas would persuade GOP voters to overlook his heretical criticism of Trump himself. Oddly, that hasn’t done the trick.

More recently, Vance offered a fascinating explanation by way of illustrating that he really, truly has become a zealous convert to the cause of Trump.

“What changed my mind about Donald Trump more than anything is that I saw the corruption in our institutions,” he told an Ohio news outlet.

The ideas loosely under the umbrella of conservative populism or “the New Right” turn heavily on the notion that our elite institutions are hopelessly corrupt to their core. These include everything from the media to universities to Big Tech to our elections to law enforcement.

Vance himself constantly invokes such tropes, of course. But, tellingly, this has effortlessly fed into an embrace of an account of 2020 that’s largely in sync with Trump’s mythologizing, even if it doesn’t match Mandel’s sublime levels of obsequiousness.

For instance, Vance depicts the Jan. 6 defendants as political prisoners languishing in the gulags of a corrupt system of “show trial” justice. That’s in keeping with a depiction of law enforcement itself as corrupt to its core that’s popular among Vance’s ideological fellow travelers.

One cannot help but notice that this notion has taken on such force at precisely the moment when law enforcement appears poised to impose a measure of accountability on the foot soldiers in Trump’s effort to overturn democracy, if not on Trump and his lieutenants.

Meanwhile, the idea that the depth of corruption in our institutions is what sparked the divine revelation turning Vance into a convert to Trump adds an additional narrative layer. As Simon van Zuylen-Wood chronicles, such emerging convictions about this irredeemable institutional corruption have been key to his broader evolution.

And once you accept that account, it’s a short leap to deciding that only a figure like Trump, with his willingness to bring a wrecking ball to the entire system, can rescue us from total damnation:

This is not meant to paint the whole conservative populist project with this broad brush. As I’ve argued, conservative populism does have many features that represent an admirable break with older conservative orthodoxies.

But you cannot listen to Vance talk about Trump, our elections and our institutions without marveling at how easily elements of this populism, in the hands of someone like Vance, bleed into the very worst pathologies that Trumpism has to offer.

At this point, even the very worst of this stuff is seen as so unremarkable that it barely merits national media attention anymore. That’s too bad, because this is coming at exactly the moment that it’s growing more widespread — and dangerous.