Hillbilly Agonistes

J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, talks about running for office on NBC Today, June 23, 2017. (Screengrab via YouTube/Today)
Can Trumpist politics succeed without Trump? J.D. Vance is about to find out.

A question that obsesses Republican circles: What happens to Trumpism after Trump?

Maybe J. D. Vance has an answer.

Vance, the Marine Corps veteran and venture capitalist who wrote Hillbilly Elegy, is expected to soon announce his candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio. He is generally associated with what we must call for lack of a better term the Trumpier tendency in Republican politics: a self-described nationalist who believes that government and civic institutions have failed many Americans outside of the urban elite, and is skeptical of the globalization he believes has resulted in “an American economy built on consumption, reliant for production on regimes either indifferent or actively hostile to our national interest.”

Vance has seen both ends of American life: Raised in the despair and dysfunction he describes in Hillbilly Elegy, he climbed up through some of the great American institutions — the Marine Corps, Ohio State University, Yale Law, Silicon Valley — and built for himself a very different kind of life from the one he might have had. His story gives us reason both for hope in our institutions and for sober-minded reflection on how strait the gate that leads from rags to riches really is: Hard work and dedication alone will not get you into an Ivy League law school or a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm — these avenues of advancement demand gifts and talents that are not equally distributed and not subject to redistribution.

The contrast between Vance and Donald Trump — a New York City rich kid who inherited a vast fortune and then spent much of his adult life in bankruptcy court — is almost novelistic in its symmetry. Vance is the real deal, a man of genuine accomplishment. And though I am only slightly acquainted with him, there is every reason to believe he is a man of good character as well.

(A note about Hillbilly Elegy: I almost wrote that it is a book that has been subjected to surprisingly stupid criticism, but it is in fact a book that has been subjected to unsurprisingly stupid criticism.)

Vance’s candidacy will present an interesting case. I have heard for lo these many years from Republicans who said they disliked Trump’s shenanigans (often condensed as “the tweets”) but liked his policy agenda. I never believed them and still don’t: They voted for President Troll, who delivered exactly what he promised. Trump’s policy agenda, such as it was, vacillated between incoherence (trade), wishful thinking (the coronavirus epidemic), and utterly conventional Republican stuff (the tax bill and the judges). It wasn’t signing Paul Ryan’s tax cuts that bought President Troll all that loyalty. It was weaponized celebrity.

Vance is a celebrity of a different kind. If my understanding of the actual political situation is correct, then Vance is going to have trouble tapping into that Trump energy, because it will turn out that after all there was no Trumpism, only Trump.

I hope I am wrong.

(I’m not.)

Vance’s views are, in many cases, not mine. But he is not auditioning for the vacancy at Lou Dobbs’s old desk. We can have a useful argument with intelligent, informed, honest people with whom we disagree. I wish there were more opportunities for such disagreement, both within the Right’s factions and between the Right and the Left. Our politics have been tribalized and sacralized (which ultimately are the same thing) at just the wrong time in our cultural history: the moment when new manners and mores associated with social media and the mutation of celebrity culture into an airborne virus have led to a general lowering of intellectual standards and the nearly complete annihilation of the spirit of compromise and cooperation. Reversing that dismal tide will require a campaign for hearts and minds, and a very different kind of politics from the one we have endured so far in this wretched century.

I imagine that I would find a lot to disagree about with a Senator Vance. But that’s a fight to look forward to.


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