The Phoenix

Hypocrisy ahead: Which J.D. Vance will we meet next?


“Are you a racist?” asks the young bearded man in the TV ad. “Do you hate Mexicans?”

“The media calls us racists for wanting to build Trump’s wall,” he says, sounding to my politicall­y attuned ears a lot like The Donald himself.

His tone softens a bit as he continues: “This issue is personal. I nearly lost my mother to the poison coming across our border ...”

He closes like a classic demagogue, pitting “us” against “them.”

“I’m J.D. Vance and I approve this message because whatever THEY call us, WE will put America first.”

Sad. Compared to the J.D. that I used to know, this new version sounds like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has arrived. As longtime readers may recall, I met Vance, now 37, in 2016, when I learned that we both had grown up in Middletown, Ohio, although more than 30 years apart.

In the interim, the booming factory town, where I earned enough at the local steel mill to pay for my college tuition, became a casualty of Rust Belt decline and a ferocious opioid plague.

Much of this animates the pages of his bestsellin­g 2016 memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Those who are surprised that he sounds so conservati­ve now missed plenty of hints in the social problems recounted in his book.

He properly praises the Appalachia­n values of his Kentuckyro­oted family, including loyalty, tenacity and love of country. Driven in particular by his colorfully resourcefu­l, resilient and no-nonsense grandmothe­r, he stayed on the right path to the Marines, Ohio State University, Yale Law School and a career as a venture capitalist.

All of this came despite such social hurdles as violence, verbal abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction in the family and community.

Good for him. In many ways, I saw similariti­es to my working class family life on the Black side of town, except I was blessed to have quietly sober, ambitious and religious parents, as well as a booming postwar economy with expanding economic and academic opportunit­ies, helped along for my generation by the hardwon civil rights reforms of the 1960s.

Vance’s story has been criticized, including by some fellow Appalachia­ns, for putting more blame on hillbilly culture and social rot than economic insecurity.

Vance relies heavily on anecdotes, like customers who bought steak with their food stamps when he was a grocery store cashier, who, like my family, couldn’t afford such luxury. He also disdains the resentment expressed by a guy who quit his job, yet complained of the “Obama economy.”

When we met after Trump’s 2016 victory, Vance complained about Trump for, among other sins, pandering to the self-defeating resentment­s of mostly white middle class and working class voters.

We had too many self-defeating attitudes in the Black community too. We agreed that America’s politics need to focus more on what we share in common across racial lines, not just our difference­s. It’s a nice dream that I still believe in.

But, as a candidate for the Ohio Senate seat now occupied by pragmatic Republican Rob Portman, a new J.D. emerged.

The guy who once called Trump “reprehensi­ble” and “cultural heroin,” among other hits, went full Trump.

Now with Trump’s blessing, he faces the Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, 48, a resolutely pro-union, tough-on-trade populist from another economical­ly troubled district that stretches from Youngstown to Akron.

Ryan ran unsuccessf­ully for president in 2020, when candidates to his left seemed to dominate the stage until Joe Biden’s campaign belatedly caught fire.

Although Republican­s look strong in this off-year election, Democrats are expected to focus heavily on suburban voters amid a possible backlash against the Supreme Court’s possible overturnin­g of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights.

I like Vance but, as a steadfast critic of Trump and Trumpism, I hope he loses.

I hope he understand­s. It’s not personal. It’s politics.

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