The GOP Establishment is shocked and appalled that J.D. Vance won the race to the bottom that was the Ohio Republican Senate primary. A Senate Republican leadership source had previously said “that of all the Ohio Senate candidates, Vance caused the biggest headaches, but the good news was he wouldn’t win,” reports Axios, which observes that “the Republican establishment privately regards Vance with the same disgust many felt toward Donald Trump.”
However — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the party is still supporting him as the nominee. There is no evidence it has even considered an alternative. Vance rival Matt Dolan (the least pro-Trump candidate in the race), retiring Establishmentarian Rob Portman — they have lined up behind Vance without hesitation. In case you still harbored the faintest hope that the party has some moral red line, its unquestioning affirmation of Vance ought to dispel it.
Let me state my thesis directly. Politicians who wish to defend democracy ought to draw a line at supporting allies who pose a threat to democracy. J.D. Vance is an authoritarian. Granted, this charge is difficult to prove without first handing him power, but the authoritarian nature of his beliefs is established as clearly as it can be without a pile of corpses.
What he believes remains fuzzy in the public consciousness because of the unique nature of Vance’s career. He is a member of the intellectual elite who occupies an interesting niche as spokesman for the rural white working class and policy entrepreneur for a new form of conservatism. This identity has attracted a parade of journalists and critics attempting to draw out his worldview.
And yet, despite the constant and generally friendly efforts of his interlocutors to clarify his thinking, Vance’s ideas about economic and social policy are confined to broad slogans. He can speak in scenes and generalities, but he is no closer to defining a program than he was when he burst onto the scene with Hillbilly Elegy.
What is increasingly clear about Vance is his thinking about power. Vance has aligned himself with the “post-liberal” right and its longing for an iron fist to smash their enemies. Vance has asserted the 2020 election was stolen and lionized those charged with storming the Capitol on January 6 as political prisoners.
A generally sympathetic profile by James Pogue quotes Vance longing for the destruction of the republic:
“We are in a late republican period,” Vance said later, evoking the common New Right view of America as Rome awaiting its Caesar. “If we’re going to push back against it, we’re going to have to get pretty wild, and pretty far out there, and go in directions that a lot of conservatives right now are uncomfortable with.”
Vance’s vision for how this will occur is at least somewhat specific. Donald Trump would win reelection, fill the government with loyalists, violate federal law, be rebuked by the Supreme Court, and then ignore the Court:
“I think Trump is going to run again in 2024,” he said. “I think that what Trump should do, if I was giving him one piece of advice: Fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people.”
“And when the courts stop you,” he went on, “stand before the country, and say —” he quoted Andrew Jackson, giving a challenge to the entire constitutional order — “the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.”
Bear in mind that, at this very moment, the Republican Party is united in outrage against the threat to norms posed by a leak of a draft ruling. They are likening this act of small defiance against the Court’s authority to the insurrection, even though it would not actually prevent the ruling from taking effect. Yet here they have a candidate for office openly longing to ignore the Court’s authority — he is imagining a scenario where Trump has abused his power clearly enough that at least one Republican-appointed justice calls the act illegal — and none of them have raised even a peep of complaint.
Vance’s efforts to explain his thinking lean heavily on the terms “corruption” and “scumbags,” which he employs liberally to describe his political adversaries in a broad variety of contexts. “We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags” was Vance’s account for why he was delighted to be endorsed by Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Corruption” is Vance’s explanation for why he decided to support Trump, after initially opposing him, and then embrace his (false) claims that the election was stolen:
“What changed my mind about Donald Trump more than anything is that I saw the corruption in our institutions.”
“A lot of what this campaign is about — and a lot of my own thinking about politics is about — is that our institutions are corrupt,” he said to the crowd of about 50. “We have to replace the people who run them. Some of those institutions we have to destroy.”
By any neutral definition of corruption, Trump engaged in corruption on a historic and unprecedented scale, literally using his office for self-enrichment. For that matter, Vance’s unique reliance on a single billionaire to finance his campaign, to whose interests he is completely beholden, is a shockingly unethical arrangement. Vance invokes corruption in the same way Trump does. There is no set of actions that defines it, and no reforms that can correct it. It is an intrinsic definitional trait held by his opponents, who are an enemy class that must be vanquished by any means, legal or not.
Ironically, just as he benefits from his history of pseudo-intellectualism, Vance benefits from the presumption that he can’t actually believe what he says, because the reversal has been so naked. A less clever, but probably more accurate, interpretation is that authoritarians are often cynics who simply want power and will do or say whatever they need in order to get it.