Venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance is one of a number of Republican candidates for high office (in his case a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio) who has stumbled in trying to keep up with the MAGA zeitgeist of his party. As a celebrity cultural conservative in 2016, Vance declared himself a “Never Trump guy” and mulled a vote for Hillary Clinton. As late as October of that year, he tweeted of his future lord and master: “My God what an idiot.” Now in the midst of a Trumpier-than-thou Senate race, Vance has had to eat his words, which he now “regrets.”
Reversed opinions aside, Vance’s compensation for his past heresy has mostly involved becoming the most serious “outsider populist” in the Senate field — sort of a Buckeye version of Josh Hawley. Or perhaps Vance can best be compared to his most avid media booster, Fox News commentator and own-the-libs provocateur Tucker Carlson. Like Carlson, Vance has praised Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, the self-styled defender of Western Christendom against migrants and immigrants. But in a recent interaction with an even more outspoken Orbán ally who was the original MAGA architect, Steve Bannon, Vance made a crucial mistake while trying to sound like the 45th president. On Bannon’s War Room podcast on the brink of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vance said, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” It wasn’t a gaffe, since his campaign proudly tweeted out his remarks:
This flippant isolationist comment did not go over well after Russia invaded, so Vance put out a long statement expressing sympathy for Ukraine but blaming the “globalists” of the “foreign-policy establishment” for backing Putin into a corner and thus leading “the Ukrainians directly into the slaughterhouse.” Subsequently, though, he went on Carlson’s show once again and argued that any aid being offered to Ukraine should instead be appropriated and tripled to spend on America’s borders. Even now, Vance’s campaign website features an image of the candidate and Carlson under the legend: “Secure our Southern Border and NOT Ukraine’s border! Stand with Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance.”
At a time when most Republicans are attacking Joe Biden for insufficient aggressiveness toward Moscow and generosity toward Ukraine, the Vance-Carlson message is jarring. And it’s getting some bad reviews. Vance has been suddenly disinvited — or as the Bulwark’s Jim Swift put it, “canceled” — from a scheduled keynote speaking appearance at the Minnesota Republican Party’s annual Lincoln-Reagan fundraiser:
Michael Brodkorb, former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican party, observed that “numerous Republican operatives” were “fuming” about the selection of Vance as the keynote speaker, highlighting Vance’s ill-informed and callous (not to mention electorally stupid) comments about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a primary reason for their ire. Though maybe the objection is really about Vance being Vance.
Vance is trailing opponents Mike Gibbons and Josh Mandel by sizable and steady margins in recent polls, with the Senate primary a bit more than six weeks away. Perhaps he figures any publicity, even of the notorious variety, will help. Or maybe he thinks Trump himself, who is indicating he intends to make an endorsement in the Senate race, will come to his rescue if he appears more America First than his rivals. But Trump is surely aware that his own history with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO makes him vulnerable given the current atmosphere in U.S. public opinion and in the Republican Party. Vance calling Trump “an idiot” may not be the only words the author ends up regretting.