J. D. Vance is thirty-seven years old. Less than thirteen years ago, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State. Less than six years ago, as a recent graduate of Yale Law School, he published a best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which conveyed a theory of why many rural white Americans felt left behind, and positioned himself as a conservative critic of Donald Trump, some of whose voters, Vance once said, were racist. People with big reputations for spotting talent were drawn to Vance: Amy Chua, one of his Yale Law professors, urged him to write a memoir and connected him with an agent; Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, helped underwrite Vance’s investment fund, Narya Capital, and then his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Slowly, as Vance became a regular on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and on Steve Bannon’s podcast, and as his Twitter feed became more pointed in its denunciations of élites, it became clear that he had made a specific choice: to commit to a Trump-style “America First” political program, invoking a broad corruption in American institutions, questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and criticizing Western support of the defense of Ukraine. A little more than two weeks ago, as Vance’s campaign languished in third place in Ohio’s Republican primary, Trump committed to Vance, endorsing him as “the most likely to take out the weak, but dangerous, Democrat opponent.” On Tuesday night, Vance won the primary comfortably, with more than thirty per cent of the vote—compared with around twenty-four per cent for his nearest challenger—and will be a strong favorite to be elected in November to the U.S. Senate, where he would become one of its youngest and most controversial members.
Ever since Trump’s endorsement, the Ohio primary has been understood as a referendum on the former President’s political clout. Among Republicans, was he still a formidable enough figure to win races for anyone he favored? Could his favor make political careers, or break them? The Ohio race was particularly insane: a half-dozen candidates reportedly spent at least sixty-six million dollars, and many of them tried to ape Trump’s style and seek his endorsement. A multimillionaire named Mike Gibbons (“a sloppy plutocrat,” as one of his rival’s advisers described him to me) spent his way to the top of the field, and then was confronted at a candidate forum by a younger rival, the former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, who seemed to call Gibbons a “pussy” in an attempt to goad him into a fight. Jane Timken, the former chair of the state Republican Party, hired advisers close to Trump, including Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski, who then appeared as her endorsers on the campaign trail, in what seemed a literal bid for the former President’s endorsement.
“Vance’s Victory Shows Power of Trump’s Endorsement,” a Times headline said, in that lovely, truncated newspaper syntax. But, though that is surely true, the Ohio primary was too absurd, too specific, and too raucous to predict whether Trump’s endorsement will have the same pull in other primaries. (For a while on Tuesday night, it seemed that the result might be an upset win for Matt Dolan, a straitlaced millionaire state senator who was the lone candidate to denounce Trump for his challenges to the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and whose position in the polls rose rapidly in the final week. Ultimately, Dolan finished third.) But it might be reasonable to see this election as a point of confirmation that Vance’s cohort in the Republican Party, a talented group of young political operators, are now firmly with Trumpism, not against it.
When I travelled to western Ohio last month to see Vance campaign, he was languishing in the polls and seemed a little rough around the edges—bearded and focussed, a little too academic and serious, still struggling to explain his early opposition to Trump. But his denunciations of élite corruption seemed sincere, not shtick, and there were glimmers of real political intelligence. When David Weigel, of the Washington Post, asked why he opposed liberal calls for the federal government to forgive student-loan debt, Vance replied by describing a system in which universities would admit students that they knew could never complete a degree program, and then “would give them fake scholarships to make the debt burden seem not as high as the sticker price.” Wiping away student debt by Presidential decree, Vance argued, was “in some ways a bailout for the people who are causing the problem.” It is very characteristic of 2022 that Vance argued that position yet chose to make the final appearances of his primary campaign together with the incendiary conservative representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, and Matt Gaetz, of Florida—a QAnon conspiracist and a target of a Justice Department investigation into sex trafficking, respectively.
Some such figures will likely wind up as nothing more than social-media phenomena, or exiles on the fringe. But not all of them, and likely not Vance. The only sitting U.S. senator to endorse him was Josh Hawley, with whom Vance shares a patron (Thiel), an élite intellectual pedigree, and a specific focus on the perniciousness of Big Tech. If Vance goes on to defeat the Democrat Tim Ryan this November, as seems likely, he and Hawley will be the two youngest Republican members of the U.S. Senate. Here’s a bet: We’ll be hearing from them long after Trump is gone.