Six years ago, J.D. Vance was a vocal Never Trumper, once going so far as suggesting Donald Trump could be “America’s Hitler” in a private Facebook message to a law school friend. This week he got Trump’s blessing in Ohio’s Republican primary for Senate, which he’ll receive in person during a rally on Saturday.
“I think there are so many reasons I was wrong about Trump, but I’m happy that I was wrong about Trump,” Vance said by phone on Thursday, while driving to a campaign town-hall meeting in Findlay, Ohio. His opponents have attacked him as a flip flopper and painted him as an opportunist and a secret RINO, but he brushed off the criticism by portraying himself as an honest convert compared to others in the party. “Something our voters respond to on the campaign trail is being told the truth,” he said. “‘Yeah I had one beef six years ago and I have a different view today, this is why it changed’ is a hell of lot better than trying to pretend that you didn’t say something you said.”
Vance contrasted this with other candidates in the race “who all go down this rabbit hole” in trying to explain away their prior deviations from Trump. He was apparently referring to rivals Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer, Jane Timken, the former state party chair, and businessman Mike Gibbons. (A fifth candidate, state senator Matt Dolan is explicitly running to appeal to the Trump skeptical wing of the party. He is not expected to win.) Several candidates made repeated pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to beg for Trump endorsement, but none dealt with their apostasies head on in the way he has.
As Vance tells it, there is an ongoing “war for the soul of the Republican Party” with Trump on one side and “the old guard” on the other. “The reason Trump’s endorsement matters so much is that it signals to our voters who is on the right team,” he said. In his view, Trump was standing alone as the only check preventing the party going backwards to days when it was led by figures like Paul Ryan and John Boehner and “that that has to change. He needs allies personally and again the agenda needs allies or we go back 5-10 steps over the next ten years.”
“These people all try to say the MAGA words but [Republican voters] can tell they don’t actually believe it, they have no real view of what American trade policy should look like, they have no real view of what we should do with big tech,” Vance said. “They just know our voters are kind of pissed off about it and it is very obvious that they just try to mouth the slogans.”
Vance himself is an unlikely avatar for the party’s populist wing. The author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy about growing up in Appalachia, the Yale Law graduate moved to Silicon Valley to work for Peter Thiel and even signed a contract as a CNN contributor and wrote op-eds for the New York Times. In the Republican primary though, the son of a drug addicted mother blamed unfettered immigration and the lack of border security as the driver for the opioid epidemic, most vividly in a recent campaign ad that began with him pointing to the camera and asking “Are you a racist?” if you agreed with him.
For all his past skepticism, Vance scorned those who he said praised Trump before the attack on the Capitol and condemned him afterwards. “It’s crazy how many of the people who were saying nice things about him on television a week before the election were basically accusing him of being a traitor a week after January 6 and then had to completely flip flop … because it was obvious our voters are still with him.”
“The one positive thing I could maybe say about Liz Cheney is that she’s consistent,” he said, adding if “Trump was willing to drop a hydrogen bomb on Moscow I’d guarantee she’d be his biggest fan.”
Vance had seen the light. Now, he could only hope that the rest of his party would as well.