The easiest thing to believe about J.D. Vance is that he believes nothing at all. The GOP Senate candidate in Ohio first came into prominence, of course, as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir published just ahead of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Vance’s account of his hardscrabble Appalachian upbringing, together with his stirring ascent into Yale Law School and the D.C. pundit caste, fortuitously got conscripted into What’s the Matter with Kansas? duty. Hillbilly Elegy arrived just in time to serve as an agreeably broad and sentimental evocation of white working-class suffering and individual nobility in the face of adversity.
While the book offered plenty of dismaying accounts of addiction, family dysfunction, and downward mobility, the example of Vance’s own life story served as a reassuring gloss on all the backcountry anomie that appeared to be closing in on him. If the broader thrust of Vance’s musings seemed to add up to a white version of the Moynihan Report, or a Charles Murray tract—a narrative of incorrigible culture-based decline, one that the interventions of a federal welfare state would likely only worsen—Vance’s personal success story seemed calculated, like the windup to an old Puritan jeremiad sermon, to snatch last-minute salvation from the maws of eternal damnation. Vance’s audience of shell-shocked liberals and battered Never Trump conservatives could draw some comfort. If the gothic rural stretches of Trump’s postliberal America could still produce a kindly, and smartly turned out, interlocutor like J.D. Vance, then perhaps all was not lost. Vance himself stoked this comforting bit of social mythology by disavowing Trump throughout the 2016 campaign cycle. In a since-deleted tweet from October 2016, he announced that “Trump makes people I care about afraid. Immigrants, Muslims, etc. Because of this I find him reprehensible. God wants better of us.”
To judge by Vance’s recent MAGA makeover, it appears that God must have changed his mind. Eager to court Trump’s white nationalist base in the Senate primary, Vance took to Fox News to disavow his past criticisms of the former president, saying that “I’d ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016 . . . I regret them [sic]. I regret being wrong about the guy.” He then promptly pivoted into the lib-baiting victimology that any public defender of Trump adopts with Pavlovian regularity, saying that “as you probably appreciate . . . I’ve taken a lot of flak myself over the last few years for standing up for the president’s voters but also standing up for the agenda.” That the flak-gunners in question here might have included both 2016 vintage J.D. Vance and our Supreme Being passed unremarked, of course; the phony Maginot Line of the hard-right culture wars was reverently fortified once more, and J.D. Vance was assuring Fox Nation that he was right there in the bunker beside them.
And lest that self-abasing pundit turn seem too subtle, Vance has also been debuting his own mad Trumpian MAGA stylings on Twitter. Here’s one recent viral sample: “Serious question: I have to go to New York soon and I’m trying to figure out where to stay. I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there. But is it like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?” And in echt-Trumpian fashion, when this foray provoked its expected storm of online outrage, Vance tried to shrug it all off as a joke.
Vance’s conversion to the MAGA cause reads as opportunism and hypocrisy.
This all had the depressingly familiar ring of raw ambition degrading itself before authoritarian power. It looked, in other words, like Vance was cynically adopting the Lindsey Graham playbook of Trumpian success—without knowing, or caring, that the unmistakable lesson of Graham’s own repulsive Trump-osculating career was that the baroque stage of MAGA-mandated self-flagellation was only just beginning the moment you’re elected to the Senate GOP caucus.
Still, it’s worth lingering over the saga of Vance’s rapid descent into the smashmouth phase of right-wing Kulturkampf, if only because of what it reveals about the calling card of his original success: the mobilization of identity-based authenticity as a powerful basis of political authority. Vance became the pet interlocutor for all things white and working-class across the political mainstream because he brandished the unassailable bona fides of his up-from-southwestern-Ohio memoir. For a political establishment inured to viewing the heartland as an exotic, unexplored interior colony, Vance was a prize anthropological informant. Meanwhile, it was vastly reassuring to the same pundit establishment that Vance also sported the credentials of meritocratic striving—a Yale Law Degree, frequent contributions to the National Review, especially during its short-lived Never Trump infatuation: here, clearly, was an emissary from the Trumpian interior who was unlikely to revert to form and go native.
This is, of course, why Vance’s conversion to the MAGA cause reads so readily as opportunism, hypocrisy, and worse: he’s cavalierly swapped a sacred cultural birthright for a mess of pottage. And there’s no question that, like aspiring political leaders everywhere, he’s rushed to elevate the new millennial log-cabin myth retailed in Hillbilly Elegy into a bully pulpit (with, of course, a heavy emphasis on the bull). But more than that, Vance’s career trajectory highlights a deeper shift in the terms by which we interpret and embrace authentic remembrance—no small part of the broader white nationalist rejection of multiracial democracy.
We Need White American Children
As he was gearing up to announce his Senate run, Vance appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, where he wasted no time in evoking the right’s standard Golden Age yarn holding that equality and opportunity presided serenely over this fair pluralist land until Robin DiAngelo and her band of corporate diversity trainers turned up on the scene. “I grew up in a country that taught us not to think about each other as members of a racial group; we were taught to think about each other as people,” Vance says, without pausing to reflect that the tacit distinction between a heroic, striving, fair-minded “people” and a shifty, discord-sowing, difference-obsessed “racial group” is not exactly un-racist itself. However, Vance is just getting warmed up—so cue the obligatory right-wing reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “content of our character” line: “What these people are doing by constantly forcing us to focus on the color of our skin is they’re destroying an essential part of American heritage that we can judge people based on the content of their character.” Of course, King’s line, read in actual historical context, was making precisely the opposite point: the entire heritage of chattel slavery and white supremacy in this country militated against non-racial judgments of character—hence the impossible-to-misinterpret future conditional phrasing in his historic 1963 speech. King said that “I dream of a day” when such judgments might be possible here, because they had nothing to do with the experience of being Black in America over the past four centuries.
But deliberate misinterpretation is the calling card of the history-resistant right-wing orthodoxy on race and ethnic belonging, and Vance takes it up with gusto. In his trademark incredulous-preppy mien, Carlson affects not to be able even to imagine how society can function under the leadership of an elite-orchestrated ethos of racial division, as though the actual racial past of this country somehow unfolded on another planet altogether. Again mourning the impending collapse of our Golden Age of colorblind equality, Carlson wonders how it can be restored “if you’re taught by your leaders to hate each other because of your differences? How does that work?”
“Well, at the end of the day it doesn’t work, Tucker,” Vance replies, clearly savoring his role as anti-woke prophet of Orwellian doom. “I think one of the big things that’s happening in our country right now is that we’re constantly divided against each other because that’s the way our leaders want it.” If alarmed Fox viewers were perhaps briefly primed to hear Vance revert to Never Trump form to decry the blatantly authoritarian and racist agenda of our late president, well, they need not have worried. “If you look behind identity politics, it’s almost always about power,” Vance announces in glib defiance of the recent mobilizations of maximal political and executive power on the side of white nationalism. You see, diversity hustlers in the DiAngelo mold can get you fired, or suppress your speech at work, and this is how they . . . kill America! “So the two things that are core, fundamental values and rights in this country—the right to provide for your family [and] the right to participate in the self-government of this country—are both taken away from you if you don’t toe the woke party line.”
As Vance has sought to drive his polled support among Ohio Republicans into the double digits, he’s built out from this WASPish sniping at corporate wokeness into a full-on natalist brand of blood-and-soil Americanism. Not only are sinister liberals quashing livelihoods and speech freedoms—they’re also failing to do their part for the Fatherland by breeding in suitably robust volume. Decrying liberal pundits like Paul Krugman, who recently bemoaned Vance’s Trumpian makeover, as “weird cat ladies” on the grounds of their childlessness, Vance has championed the idea of apportioning extra votes to model procreators based on their output. Speaking at an Ohio conference he also called out childless lawmakers such as Cory Booker and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “Let’s give votes to all the children of America, but let’s give control over those votes to the parents of those children.” Vance’s rationale here, which he laid out in an interview with Charlie Kirk, the college-set version of Tucker Carlson, is the “replacement theory” of the choreographed obsolescence of white America—a far more direct and urgent threat to democratic self-governance than the fatuous HR counsel of Robin DiAngelo. “We need more children because American families, American children, are good for us,” he told Kirk. “They make fathers more invested—there’s all kinds of research on this. They make our economy more dynamic.”
And immigrants, while perhaps nice enough as capital-P People, just aren’t going to cut it. “There’s just no comparison between the positive effects of children and the positive effects of an immigrant. . . . You can’t have so many people coming into the country at a time when our own families aren’t replicating themselves.”
The deeper sources of Vance’s exuberantly natalist nationalism come into especially high relief if we contrast his outlook with the origin point of our civic theology of multicultural comity: Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot, which all but invented the dominant imagery and ideal of creedal assimilation. (Indeed, it continues serving this purpose in the assimilationist musings of writers such as Thomas Chatterton Williams, seeking to reclaim a vision of pan-ethnic belonging in our Age of the Woke.) The Melting Pot was addressed to a Trumpian turn in the national politics of the early twentieth century, as the country convulsed with distinctly MAGA-style debates over curbs on immigration and the notion that blood-and-soil WASP identitarians of the age were pleased to call “100 Percent Americanism.”
Deliberate misinterpretation is the calling card of the history-resistant right-wing orthodoxy.
Zangwill’s play was the sort of broad-stroke melodrama common to immigrant literature of the time: David Quixano, a Russian Jewish immigrant in Manhattan, is a talented musician scraping by as a music teacher while composing a grand “American Symphony,” capturing the ingenious amalgamating spirit of New World liberty and democracy. He joins forces with Vera Revendal, a settlement-house worker descended from Russian nobility; she arranges influential patrons and a celebrity conductor to sponsor David and his work. But David is traumatized by memories of a savage village pogrom of which he was one of the only survivors as a boy; a bullet from a Russian soldier also injured his left shoulder, which makes it difficult to earn a living on his chosen instrument, the violin. At length, David learns that Vera’s own father—a decorated military officer and baron—was the barbarous “butcher” who oversaw the destruction of his family and village, and breaks off their engagement. But when his American Symphony finally has its debut performance—not at some decadent aristocratic concert hall but on the roof of the settlement house where Vera works—David has a saving epiphany, and the happy couple is redeemed, together with the bold experiment of New World democracy. “East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross,” David exults.
How the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labor and look forward!
But just as arresting as David’s closing transports of cross-cultural alchemy are his unbidden post-traumatic recollections of the pogrom. As he confronts Vera and her father with the truth of his past, he breaks down and dismisses her pleas of love, and her pledge to share his faith with him, in the biblical tradition of Ruth: “Easy words to you. You never saw that red flood bearing the mangled breasts of women and the splattered brains of babes and sucklings.”
David’s raw remembrance of the trauma setting him on the path to New World exile is what keeps The Melting Pot from serving as the sentimental gloss on diversity that the titular phrase has become over the past century. Zangwill insists that the process of assimilation is painful and does long-term damage to the New American’s inherited sense of identity. Allegiance to the American experience is here an act of strategic forgetting, in which the dark past is consigned to the seething cauldron of the Melting Pot, in the purblind faith that something fuller and more enduring will emerge, as the cultural birthright to the true Americans to come. As David himself says, “Those who love us must suffer, and we must suffer in their suffering. It is live things, not dead metals, that are being melted in the Crucible.”
Of course, The Melting Pot did not settle the raging debates over immigration and American identity so much as it recast them: the price of true assimilation, the play insisted, was a kind of self-induced amnesia—a principled refusal to let the hatreds and unjust traumas of the Old World past overrun the country or the psyches of its newly arrived immigrants, no matter how deep and disfiguring the scars of that past might be. And ever since The Melting Pot redefined the psychic terms of American belonging, critics have debated whether this was a delusional demand—too high a price to pay for what could seem like merely a walk-on role in the All-Engulfing American Experiment.
Hillbilly Like Me
Still, the play affords a striking contrast to the rites of belonging that Vance lays out for his Scotch-Irish clan of internal hillbilly exiles more than a century later. Of course, Vance isn’t tasked with processing anything as traumatic as a village-destroying pogrom. But as he notes, his family and cultural heritage abounds with trauma and unresolved conflict:
Conflict and family breakdown seem like the destiny I can’t possibly escape. In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight old demons, they are as much as an inheritance as my blue eyes and brown hair.
For all his upward striving, and in spite of his dogged quest for a stabile family life in the bleak nether reaches of hillbilly country, Vance concludes that “my self-image was bitterness masquerading as arrogance.” It is only by attempting to truly understand and sympathize with his often-absent addict mother that he feels himself approaching a measure of inner peace. But the moral here, like the other asides about retrograde behavioral lapses that make up the broader policy brief in Hillbilly Elegy, is longer on culture-war scolding than compassion. Allowing that his mom is “no villain,” Vance then archly sums up her bequest to him and his siblings: “She tried to find happiness in love and work, but she listened too much to the wrong voices in her head. But Mom deserves much of the blame. No person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail free card.”
The Melting Pot redefined the psychic terms of American belonging.
This is the sort of broadly sensible, difference-trimming appraisal that’s made Vance the poster boy of stoic heartland suffering and ambition, at least for our political and cultural establishment: yes, like the other hillbilly laggards struggling with generations of family dysfunction alongside the remote, unaccountable forces of regional inequality, Vance’s mother has been dealt a bad hand in life, but so be it—at the end of the day, she’s heeded the wrong voices, and must be held to account for the long series of poor life choices she’s made and inflicted on her children. The problem here is that both things can be, and usually are, true—people make disastrous life choices on a foreshortened calculus of self-interest when longer-term prospects for improvement no longer feel likely or relevant. Still, the outsize nature of the socioeconomic convulsions displacing Vance’s hillbilly tribe from their precarious hold on middle-class prosperity make the preachment of greater discipline at the level of individual character something of a dead letter, if not indeed a cruel joke.
If Zangwill’s play models selective forgetting, Hillbilly Elegy is above all a work of selective remembrance: a proposal to strip the experience of individual adversity of most of its social origins and to mint two-dimensional, didactic fables of self-improvement in their place. So, for instance, when Vance takes a high school job as a checkout clerk for a local grocer, he’s repulsed by welfare recipients who use food stamps to buy groceries that they later swap for cash. “They’d regularly go through the checkout lines speaking on their cellphones,” he fumes at this undeserving lot. “I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.”
Not surprisingly, when Vance comes into contact with much bigger redistributive schemes gamed to benefit private sector actors, his envious moral scolding drops away entirely. After working as an aide to an Ohio state senator, he proudly reports that his boss was one of the few lawmakers who voted against a bill to crack down on payday lending—the predatory high-interest loans targeting poor and underbanked borrowers, which all too often mire them in ruinous long-term debt. For Vance, though, the proposed crackdown was a failure of cultural and class sensitivity: “The senators and policy staff debating the bill had little appreciation for the role of payday lenders in the shadow economy that people like me occupied.” He then recounts one financial close call in which he had neglected to pick up his weekly paycheck in time to cover an overdraft on his rent—and gratefully recounts how an emergency three-day payday loan allowed him to ride out the crisis. The moral is a typically tidy, individualist one: “The legislators debating the merits of payday lending didn’t mention situations like that. The lesson? Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me without really understanding people like me.”
Vance doesn’t pause to reflect that, in scrambling for a pricey short-term infusion of cash from payday lenders, he’s making his own sort of moral choice: abetting the very forces that have hollowed out his deindustrialized homeland for the sake of his personal convenience. His own reasoning here and the practice of swapping out groceries obtained via food stamps exist on the same continuum: both arose from assessments of short-term financial emergencies in a universe of straitened resources and limited opportunity, and both can contribute to longer-term harms that don’t loom very large amid the overlapping urgencies of financial crisis management.
Yet in the case of payday lending, Vance has repudiated the entire question of the industry’s corrosive social fallout, and indeed inverted its logic. The notion that payday loans are a critical lifeline for poor and underbanked populations is of course a key talking point for lobbyists and apologists as they’ve fended off state and federal curbs on the industry. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what he finds so morally risible about the people gaming welfare benefits is the simple fact that they’re drawing income support from the government; take the government out of the picture, and the moralizing ceases.
Indeed, throughout his memoir, any time Vance picks up even the remote scent of a market-defying cultural trespass, he pounces. The book’s best-known passage is a stemwinding sermon targeting the modern hillbilly’s many trademark vices of lapsed self-restraint. “We spend our way into the poorhouse,” he laments, echoing Rick Santelli’s epic rant on the Chicago trading floor that launched the Tea Party movement.
Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our own stupidity—there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.
It goes on like this for four pages, castigating the hillbilly social order for everything from poor study habits to slovenly diets to resistance to exercise.
This litany isn’t without some analytic value. Again, both things can be true; members of the downwardly mobile white working class can be both domestically dysfunctional and subject to tectonic socioeconomic forces laying waste to their life chances. But its sheer forensic detail speaks volumes about just what Vance’s memoir is in the business of remembering: individual choices and behaviors are ultimately what make up the sorry saga of Rust Belt decline, while the market-driven ravages of the regional economy are merely taken for granted, when they’re acknowledged at all. Yet the market order ultimately delimits the range of choices available to most of the populations deemed losers in its postliberal backwaters. You don’t have the opioid epidemic that’s scourged Appalachia and the Rust Belt—and tormented Vance’s mom—without the predations of the pharmaceutical industry. You don’t have class-based health maladies such as “Mountain Dew mouth” that Vance decries at such length without a grotesquely unequal system of provision for health and dental care. And under a utility-style model of postal banking, payday lenders would be out of business—while poor and underbanked populations would have an actual credit lifeline that would not bleed them dry with compound interest payments north of 400 percent.
If either Senate candidate J.D. Vance or the Trumpified Republican Party had any genuine desire to advance the interests of the white working class, issues like these would be front and center in their agenda. Instead, both have embarked on the endless regress of Trump-centered culture warfare, while steering resolutely in the opposite direction in all matters of substantive policy. The shock, in other words, isn’t that J.D. Vance has abruptly reversed course on Trump in service of his own raw political ambition. Rather, the shock is that it’s taken him—and the rest of us—all this time to realize that the didactic set pieces in his reputation-making memoir could lead him anywhere else.
For all its melodrama and sentimentality, The Melting Pot memorialized the moneyed conservative world in a far more robust and accurate manner. Early on in the play, David meets with his would-be American patron: a wastrel WASP heir to a corn and oil fortune who is promptly scandalized by David’s socialist sympathies and Jewish identity. David replies proudly that he is
a Jew who knows that your Pilgrim Fathers came straight out of his Old Testament, and that our Jew-immigrants are a greater factor in the glory of this great commonwealth than some of you sons of the soil. It is you, freak-fashionables, who are undoing the work of Washington and Lincoln, vulgarizing your high heritage, and turning the last and noblest hope of humanity into a caricature.
Building to a righteous fury, he declares—“with prophetic passion” per the stage direction—that “there shall come a fire round the Crucible that shall melt you and your breed like wax in a blowpipe.” In the world of Trump and Hillbilly Elegy alike, all the polarities of David’s indictment have been reversed: the caricature now poses as the high heritage; the sons of the soil are mythologized as super citizens; Jews and other historic groups of immigrants are routinely subjected to suspicion and bigotry—and targeted in mass shootings that look an awful lot like homegrown pogroms. Bitterness masquerading as arrogance reigns supreme, and ill fares the land.