“’These people are all crooks and perverts,’ she told me. ‘All they want is money.’”– J.D.Vance quoting Mamaw
I have always wanted a nemesis. When I saw him in my mind’s eye, I could make him out. He would be rich and white, a self-aggrandizing elitist with a “rising tides lifts all boats” savior complex. Capable and smart in the ways white men are allowed to be, appealing to the willfully ignorant and the mammon obsessed alike. Craven and cynical like Mitch McConnell. An educated populist who, like Ted Cruz, would have a useful family history that endeared him to the Everyman. But he’d be much more likable than either – a Rand Paul with a better backstory.
One day, in 2016, when I wasn’t paying quite enough attention, a dough-faced venture capitalist popped out from behind Peter Thiel, hiked up his pleated khakis and threw down a mediocre memoir aimed specifically at me, A Hillbilly™. It was in that moment that I realized I’d found my personal nemesis.
With the release of “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance branded himself an advocate for a forgotten demographic, embracing “identity politics” to champion the plight of the poor family – the poor white family. His pitch in the memoir is the story we all know. Poor, small town country bumpkin pulls himself up by his bootstraps and makes good. The embodiment of the American Dream. He acknowledges social ills within a particular political framework that resonate with his target audience: rich, white, reactionaries.
As Vance promoted his book on every cable news show that would have him, he was presented as the translator of the working class for coastal elites, someone who could help them understand the “problems” of The Other America. Labeled a “Born sociologist,” he certainly knew to cite the sociological literature that dog whistled to a very specific subset of conservative elites, while also highlighting academics that confirm the biases held by both he and those for whom he writes.
He came off as wholly unlikeable and yet so comfortable, the living embodiment of the creepy-crawlies. Money, braggadocio and an elite education that’s easily hidden under a carefully curated, brand facade. Sound like anyone you know?
His book was gushed about by, well, everyone. Vance’s memoir was an accessible David and Goliath fantasy with very clear lines of “good” and “evil.” Like all works of art or knowledge, it reveals the nature of the creator. Vance’s bigotry and essentialist thinking were made clear, even if it was just the tip of the white supremacy that drives him. Now, Vance appears to be using his “aw shucks” carpetbagger “hillbilly” bona fides to drum up support for a U.S. Senate run in Ohio.
Vance’s political ambitions are nothing new. For years, his name has been thrown around in discussions about statewide and Congressional seats in Ohio. But when long-time Ohio Republican Rob Portman announced he would not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2022, Vance’s name was once again placed on the short list of potential candidates to watch.
In his previous media appearances, writings and his current attempts on social media to maintain his relevancy, Vance appears to be speaking to the downtrodden inhabitants of Forgotten America. But don’t misunderstand, the emotional connection with rural Americans is part of the grift. He’s speaking from both sides of his mouth. A wink and a nod to the trickle-down believers and the tax-evading billionaires. Hands raised and eyes closed, not to G-D, but as a signal of true devotion to American civil religion: patriotism as worship, whiteness as belonging and the America First doctrine.
White supremacy is baked into the foundation and structure of the United States. How virulent and aggressive a social fact it is mutates with the social mores of time. In the past five years, the role of whiteness in governing, policing, and healthcare has become so apparent that many who denied even the existence of racism and privilege have had to reckon with the mistruths they have been led to believe. In a time when we of this country should be doing deep, introspective work to dismantle racist and classist systems, Vance, and others like him, are grasping onto the bits and shards, desperate to maintain the status quo.
Lots of conservative politicians denounced Donald Trump during his first candidacy. Even Vance thought Mr. Trump would be bad for America. Eventually though, alluvem, including Vance, fell in line. If the quiet part was going to be shouted aloud regardless of the GOP’s admonition, right-wing leaders figured they’d dance with the one that brung ‘em. It was never about agreement. It was always about decorum. Trump had no home training. But, Vance? He has home training.
From the Marine Corps to Silicon Valley, Vance has been inculcated with an understanding of the importance of public presentation. He likes to say he didn’t know the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc or the big spoon and the tiny spoon – and it’s an endearing story. However, the idea that he didn’t know which spoon to use at a formal dinner until his last year at Yale Law is laughable. By the time he had made it to this ‘iconic’ scene, Amy Chou, who gained fame as the Tiger Mom, had already shepherded his memoir to a book deal.
That education got him more than a mentor, more than a book, more than passing the bar exam. His Ivy education got him a clerkship under a federal judge and a couple of million-dollar networking connections. It taught him the difference between the big spoon vs. the little spoon and the big dollars vs. bigger dollars.
He left his own mother struggling in Ohio as he called up Peter Theil for a job and now, six years later, a New York Times best seller, a very lucrative vul-venture capitalist career, and a $25,000,000 Netflix deal later, she still cleans houses to make ends meet. But don’t worry, he’s an advocate for the working class and people who struggle with substance use disorders and access to treatment.
Initially praised for his insight into “hillbilly” culture – especially during an election cycle that national pundits and parachuting journalists struggled to understand – his advocacy and identity have been revealed as Astroturfing – he’s neither a hillbilly nor an advocate for us. He is a white nationalist, his network is full of white nationalists, he regularly endorses white nationalist talking points, and he’s an elitist who fundamentally abhors the people on whose behalf he says he works.
While one hand is showing the people a man who wants to help his home state and use philanthropy to solve social ills, the other is taking money from the Mercer family (as well as his BFF Theil). The Mercers helped to bankroll Mr. Trump’s first and second campaigns, support a white nationalist agenda, and supported and encouraged the January 6th terrorist action not just with money, but with a platform built by hate. Rebekah Mercer is a co-founder of Parler, Robert Mercer an investor in Breitbart News.
His grift is obvious. This is a long con that benefits himself and his friends and throws in the America he thinks should exist as a treat. Only that version of America hasn’t been available for order on the menu in 50 years – and was never accessible to working Appalachians in the first place.
Snake oil salesmen have three fundamental elements to their con: an excellent, well-worn pitch, an earnestness in their stated desire to help their marks, and a dangerous lie about a dangerous product. His pitch is his background, his faux sincerity apparent in his anti-policy talking points and the lie is he will help us. That a white supremacist agenda will help the white working-class. Send him your votes for American Dream completion. J.D. Vance is the televangelist his Mamaw hated.
Alana Anton is a sociologist and PhD candidate at Georgia State University where she studies media influence over public perception of Appalachia and on Appalachian identity. She has been a lecturer of sociology for 10 years and makes the best collards you’ll ever eat. She loves her son, Madison, four pitbulls, life partner Shaine and being gay in the mountains.