As a potential vice president, it’s paramount that progressives understand J.D. Vance’s grift

On Monday, former President Donald Trump announced his running mate for the 2024 election: Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH). The 39-year-old selection is, among other things, a succession plan for the MAGA movement.

Once a prominent critic of Trump and his ideology, Vance garnered mainstream attention with his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which explored Vance’s experience as a child of the white underclass. It eventually was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie for Netflix.

Though Vance never mentioned Trump directly, his narrative about poor whites and their culture, (which, according to the future senator, “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it”) found national traction following Trump’s victory in 2016. The idea that the rise of MAGA was a product of left-behind, economically neglected Rust Belt communities was a simplistic, yet soothing story for the political and cultural elite. And Vance, who had climbed the meritocracy to become a successful lawyer and venture capitalist, seemed like the perfect avatar 

But as the Mother Jones reporter Eamon Whalen — who specializes in deciphering the inner politics of the contemporary right — explained, Vance’s newfound celebrity with liberal commentators would be short-lived. The best-selling author would soon sour on his jet-set credibility and pivot toward authoritarian, culturally reactive conservatism. 

“Vance fashioned himself as a ‘New Right’ class warrior returning to his salt-of-the-earth roots in Ohio to run for Senate, talking up the need for a renewal of industrial policy and a return to retrograde gender roles as a part of his campaign,” Whalen wrote. “The credulous liberals that made up a large part of Vance’s initial audience were recast as his primary enemy: a sneering, self-righteous coterie that represented everything wrong with America.” 

To combat his perceived enemies, Vance returned to Ohio to run a populist campaign for an open Senate seat in 2022 — one which positioned the hometown kid as an avenger who fought for the people against the effete, out-of-touch political class. Vance combined “anti-woke” rhetoric with a supposed “worker-first” version of Republican politics. Such bluster would prove effective in catapulting Vance into the highest echelons of GOP power, as he beat Democrat Tim Ryan in the general election. 

And in his short time in office, Vance has made himself one of Trump’s most vocal acolytes. So much so that Trump’s own children were emphatic about selecting Vance over North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. 

“Don Jr. and Eric went bats--- crazy: ‘Why would you do something so stupid? He offers us nothing,’” a Republican insider revealed to NBC News. “They were basically all like ‘JD, JD, JD.”

Trump’s children, along with other big backers of Vance like Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon and Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts, may be on to something for once. Vance offers both youth and an anti-establishment brand that disguises his more standard, unpopular right-wing proposals. 

For starters, Vance posits himself as someone antagonistic toward the financial 1%, who he paints as pushing a liberal cultural agenda to disguise their repressive economic agenda. To the untrained ear, this could sound akin to what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) emphasized during his two presidential runs. Yet Vance’s take is more a bastardization of messaging, wherein Sanders stressed that economic issues needed to be front and center to strengthen multiracial democracy. But a disengaged, disaffected voter might not be able to tell the difference. 

Which should be concerning given Vance’s actual legislative record. On the labor front in particular, Vance is very deceptive. While he does have experience with poverty and grew up around low-wage workers, Vance as a candidate and a politician has been decisively anti-worker. During his 2022 run, the supposed pied piper of the working class failed to back Ohio grocery workers who were threatening to strike if the massive Kroger corporation wouldn’t raise their wages.  

According to a pro-labor gradation created by AFL-CIO, Vance has a 0% lifetime score during his brief tenure in Congress. 

“Sen. J.D. Vance likes to play union supporter on the picket line, but his record proves that to be a sham,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said Monday in light of Vance’s nomination. “He has introduced legislation to allow bosses to bypass their workers’ unions with phony corporate-run unions, disparaged striking UAW members while collecting hefty donations from one of the major auto companies, and opposed the landmark Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would end union-busting ‘right to work’ laws and make it easier for workers to form unions and win strong contracts.”

Vance’s act then is predicated on the public not knowing about his policy positions. Not only is his main shtick a farce, but it also disguises his more odious beliefs, like a desire to undermine Medicaid,  fire countless federal employees and replace them with Trump loyalists and staunch support for policies that would surveil those seeking an abortion. 

So if progressive forces hope to defeat Trump and his new protege, they’ll need to counter with a message to highlight Vance’s very public (and contradictory) record. And, most importantly, they need to offer a platform that puts workers’ rights at the center of their campaign. 

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Jamie Larson