Long ago, before J. D. Vance started doing his best to sound like every other MAGA candidate in the country, he had an ear for a metaphor.
Reflecting on how heroin and prescription opioids had ravaged his home state of Ohio, Vance worried that a certain Republican candidate for president would have a similar effect. “[Donald] Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it,” he wrote in The Atlantic in July 2016.
Instead, it’s Vance who has had a realization: He’s decided that Trump’s cultural heroin is too powerful to resist, so he might as well become a dealer. In the crudest electoral terms, Vance’s epiphany proved right. After winning the former president’s endorsement last month, Vance overcame a ham-fisted campaign and rose from the middle of the pack to triumph in Tuesday’s GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in Ohio.
The Republican lean of both the Buckeye State and the midterm elections mean he’s in a strong position to defeat the Democrat Tim Ryan and become a senator next January. Expect a race as full of ostentatious displays of masculinity and earthiness as a Yale Law–educated venture capitalist and a yogi can summon.
Vance’s late surge is the latest demonstration of Trump’s enduring hold over the Republican Party. Vance defeated a field that included Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer who also desperately sought Trump’s backing, and Matt Dolan, who tested whether a counter-Trump message could prevail. (It couldn’t.) Trump’s decision to endorse Vance—insofar as he remembered it, referring to “J. D. Mandel” at a weekend rally—demonstrates once again that he has a sense of humor, if a warped one. Neither Mandel nor Vance was an original Trump backer, but Mandel jumped on the bandwagon sooner and never lambasted Trump the way Vance did, and he led the race for months. He would have been the obvious choice for an endorsement.
But where’s the fun in that? Forcing the man who once called him “cultural heroin” and “America’s Hitler” to debase himself with lavish displays of fealty—and then carrying him to victory—is both more entertaining and a greater show of force. Trump delights in humiliating former critics, but not since Mitt Romney winced over his frog-leg dinner has Trump delivered such an exquisite flex.
If Vance’s Trump-fueled victory tells us little new about Trump, what does it say about Vance? The standard view among progressives and never-Trump conservatives is that Vance’s choices are purely craven. When he wanted to sell books to cosmopolitans, he marketed himself as a bold truth-teller; when he wanted to win a Senate seat, he boldly discarded his old ideas.
But it’s worth considering the alternative. As the conservative pundit Christopher Caldwell noted this past weekend, Vance’s and Trump’s diagnoses of what had gone wrong were never that far apart; where they differed was in their prescriptions.
The charitable interpretation of Vance’s pivot is that Trump’s unexpected success in 2016 demonstrated that, contrary to Vance’s prior assumptions, there was a way to talk about the issues they both cared about and win elections—and after all, the best way to solve the problems is to hold power. Vance has tried, sloppily, to convey this: “If I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him.” (He can cast aspersions on The Atlantic all he wants, but he was much more articulate when he was writing here.)
But the best rejoinder to this interpretation comes from Vance himself. Even if the men agreed on the problems facing America, Trump’s term in office showed—just as Vance predicted—that he was unable to address them. “What Trump offers is an easy escape from the pain. To every complex problem, he promises a simple solution,” Vance wrote. “He never offers details for how these plans will work, because he can’t.”
Trump didn’t produce the manufacturing bounce-back he promised. He didn’t build the wall, and it didn’t stop overdoses. His economic policies mostly favored the wealthy, not the working class. And he botched the response to a pandemic that has disproportionately killed people in places that voted for him. He then ended his term by fomenting a violent insurrection. It was a catastrophe.
On the campaign trail, however, Vance has adopted Trump’s stump style. He has blamed Mark Zuckerberg for Trump’s loss in 2020, flirted with election-fraud conspiracy theories, charged into culture-war attacks on Alec Baldwin and LeBron James, and found a steadfast ally in Marjorie Taylor Greene. None of this will help left-behind Ohioans, as he knows. They may or may not realize it; many may be cynical about their futures but happy to just have someone sticking it to their cultural enemies. That may be understandable, but it’s the sort of nihilist scapegoating that 2016-era Vance would probably have rejected.
“Trump’s promises are the needle in America’s collective vein,” Vance wrote back then. Today, he’s happy to help you get a fix.