JD Vance, the poor boy turned US Marine turned best-selling author turned venture capitalist turned politician, won the Senate Republican Primary in Ohio last night. In his victory speech, Vance, who Donald Trump endorsed, said:
‘They wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s America First agenda …. It ain’t the death of the America First agenda.'
No it isn’t. But it might also spell the beginning of the end of Donald Trump as the de facto leader of the American Right. Because in JD Vance, and in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the increasingly confident ‘America First’ movement has two intelligent leaders who understand the pull of their nation’s political currents in the 2020s. It used to be said that the Republican party had become the party of Trump. But now, perhaps, the party of Trump is becoming Republican again. The Orange Insurgency is ending. The Grand Old Party is born again as something new.
Vance found fame through Hillbilly Elegy, his best-selling memoir about growing up the son of a drug addict mother among the Appalachian working class. His story struck a chord with an America that was trying to get its head around the election of Donald Trump. The flying-over or laptop class suddenly stopped and wondered: perhaps all these desperately poor white people in America feel rightly neglected? Well-off liberals read the sad book or watched the (rather disappointing) film, maybe shed a tear and moved on.
But some influential conservatives spotted Vance’s political ambition and backed it. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and the great patron of what is now called the New Right, has given him millions. The Mercer family, arguably the leading funders of Trumpism, also backed him. And America’s most watched conservative TV host, Tucker Carlson, regularly has him on his show.
Factions of the Trump movement distrust Vance because he used to commit the heresy of saying disobliging things about Donald Trump. But Trump decided to back his senate run, wholeheartedly, after Vance visited him at Trump’s Florida residence, Mar a Lago. Vance needed that. 'I have absolutely got to thank the 45th president of the United States,' as he said last night.
But it’s not always easy to be an ambitious right-winger in the age of the Donald. Like DeSantis, Vance has occasionally over-egged the Trumpy pudding and sounded a bit phoney. He isn’t the most natural troll. He lacks the Donald’s memetic wizardry. He can sound a bit too serious for our hyper-ironic digital age.
But Vance’s seriousness is also his strength. A political movement that thrives on wacky conspiracy talk and one man’s babblings cannot hope to build a sustainable democratic majority. Vance could, as I have written before, lead to a more grown-up Trumpism.
His politics doesn’t revolve around his ego. He is resolutely committed to defending America’s working classes and dismantling what other luminaries of the New Right call ‘the regime’ — the cosy claque of politicos, hacks and lobbyists who run Washington, DC. He is hawkish on immigration and trade with China, a pro-life Christian and a fierce opponent of American military adventurism.
Vance’s sincerity horrifies his opponents, naturally. But horrifying opponents is what politics in the polarised 21st century is all about.
Will he run for the White House in 2024? Or is that too soon? Did he strike a deal with Trump at Mar a Lago? Vance no doubt has a long road to travel before he can seriously be considered a presidential candidate. To become Senator for Ohio, he must first beat Congressman Tim Ryan, who won the Democratic nomination yesterday, in November. If he does that, though, he could fast emerge as the most credible leader of America’s new right.