Local Politics: Hillbilly inevitability

With financial backing from the likes of Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance appears all but certain to run for the senate seat being vacated by Rob Portman. These financial ties and the author’s increasingly hard-right leanings deserve greater scrutiny.

Craig Calcaterra
J.D. Vance addresses a crowd in 2019.

We recently learned that venture capitalist and Facebook board member Peter Thiel is backing a $10 million super PAC aimed at making Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance the next United States Senator from the great State of Ohio. Vance hasn't announced his candidacy yet, but most believe it's only a matter of time.

On one level, a Vance candidacy makes some sort of sense for Republicans. While he's inexperienced politically, there's at least a lane for someone with a sensible, old-fashioned, aw-shucks conservative persona the sort of which Vance has cultivated since his book release. The image as a guy who talks sense to normal people, liberals included, about what so-called Real America really thinks and really believes. A guy who explained to coastal elites why so many of his fellow hillbillies supported Donald Trump, which he did not, he's quick to remind you, and who in the past has spoken out against right-wing conspiracy theories.

Given that there are already two hardcore Trumpers vying for the GOP nomination in Josh Mandel and Jane Timken, one would've assumed that Vance's persona as the common sense conservative alternative to Trumpists would be his brand as a candidate, as well. A persona such as that would make it much easier for him to appeal to the center and, possibly, to some Democrats once the general election comes, should he make it that far. Yet there's mounting evidence that Vance seems intent on not walking that center-ish path.

The most obvious evidence of that involves those contributing to the PAC that will fund his candidacy, including Thiel but specifically the Mercer Family Foundation, which has pumped more than $70 million into Republican causes over the past several years, including Donald Trump's two campaigns. Rebekah Mercer, the Foundation's director, is a longtime patron of former Trump adviser and alt-right celebrity Steve Bannon. She also co-founded and funded the social media website Parler, which neo-Nazis, QAnon-types, Proud Boys and other undesirables have called home since they were banned from Facebook and Twitter. It's worth noting that Vance, in his capacity as a venture capitalist and consultant, advised Mercer with specific reference to Parler as it was coming under fire for being a fascist playground.

Beyond that association, a quick look at Vance's social media postings over the last several months reveal a guy who is turning away from his alleged non-Trumpy centrism and is assuming positions typically associated with Making American Great Again.

Vance has retweeted the risible Tucker Carlson and alt-right figure, “pizzagate” promoter and date rape apologist Mike Cernovich. Vance also tweeted — and subsequently deleted — that he was "a nationalist who worries about America's low fertility." That incident was viewed by critics as a nod to the white supremacist "great replacement" conspiracy theory which, no, is not exactly a concept in which aw-shucks centrists traffic. Vance has likewise made the rounds on alt-right podcasts hosted by the likes of Seb Gorka and Dinesh D'Souza. And, in February, he mentioned infamous abusers Jeffrey Epstein and John Weaver in a tweet which some interpreted as a wink and a nod to QAnon cultists who make up a non-trivial portion of the far right electorate.

None of these things would be of any moment if they came from the likes of Mandel, Timken or other Republicans, an increasing number of whom have gravitated to that very ugly end of the political spectrum. Vance, however, made his fame and fortune as the alleged antidote to that. He was the guy who attempted to comfort America by telling them that the Trumpist horde was a confused lot looking for easy answers after their lack of a sufficient Protestant Work Ethic failed them. Now he's actively courting the horde and will soon be using millions of dollars from the underwriter of the far right's hate and conspiracy-filled social media network of choice in an effort to become our next senator.

The question I have is whether those covering the race will challenge Vance with respect to who is funding his campaign and the likes of those for whom he has consulted, who he has promoted, and whose views he is espousing? Or will they continue to portray him as the amiable hillbilly from Middletown who just wants everyone to hear his story?