I have a piece in NBC News pointing out that cynical pols like J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley using superficially “populist” rhetoric to justify policies that would make American inequality even more brutal isn’t a fascinating departure from Reaganism, it is Reaganism:
J.D. Vance, author of the briefly relevant memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” is now running for the Republican nomination for the Ohio Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. It’s a tough race, and Vance is starting well behind in the polls.
Feeling the pressure, Vance felt compelled this past weekend to dredge up one of the most hackneyed cliches in the conservative playbook: asking his 135,000 Twitter followers if the “disgusting and violent” New York City was “like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?”
Aside from clarifying that Vance won’t be able to make it as a comedian if his senatorial bid fails, the tweet proves there’s absolutely nothing new about Vance and other “populist” supporters of former President Donald Trump. These faux populists are just attempting to sell upper-class-friendly policies with the same superficially working-class rhetoric Republicans have been using for decades.
Like virtually everything about his public persona, Vance’s feigned terror over the prospect of visiting the unfamiliar hellhole of Manhattan is amusing because it is almost surreally phony. A wealthy venture capitalist who made his fortune working for Peter Thiel — a metaphorical (and, Thiel hopes, literal) vampire — in Silicon Valley after getting his law degree from an ultra-exclusive school 80 miles from New York, Vance is assuredly familiar with the Big Apple. And as many wags on Twitter pointed out, crime rates in his current home base of Cincinnati are far higher.
Vance, in other words, has more contempt for the intelligence of the typical Ohio Republican voter than even the snootiest Upper West Side elitist. While such aggressive pandering toward Trump voters on Twitter is new, his disdain for members of the Appalachian working class who have not shared his good fortune has always been evident.
While “Hillbilly Elegy” got a lot of attention in light of Trump’s upset win in 2016, its policy prescriptions were the same, hoary blame-the-victim tropes that have long characterized Republican policy toward poor people. As Sarah Jones observed in The New Republic, Vance’s analysis was mostly just Reaganite myths about “welfare queens” simply “repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” While Vance was trying to establish his brand as a working-class whisperer, his solutions for “problems” like immigration, critical race theory and Big Tech would please libertarian plutocrats like Thiel, who has donated $10 million in support of Vance’s Senate bid.
This also goes for the other politician Vance cited as a role model in his interview with Time, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley. Hawley’s superficial anti-corporate rhetoric has fooled even some liberals into believing there’s substance behind it. But when the rubber hits the road, the Missouri lawmaker is just a generic Republican serving the wealthy, supporting Trump’s upper-class cuts, arguing that theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional and supporting Trump’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. His criticism of corporate America might sound sharp, but when it comes time to vote, he’s a pussycat.
The credulous reviews Hillbilly Elegy initially received was one of the more embarrassing media episodes of the Trump era.