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The J. D. Vance I Knew

David Frum
 

Last week, Politico reported on a strange leak from the J. D. Vance campaign. A super PAC supporting the Ohio Republican—who won the party’s nomination for Senate on May 3—had commissioned opposition research to help Vance defend against his vulnerabilities. The super PAC discovered that a decade ago, the now staunchly pro-Trump Vance had written a half dozen articles for a website run by a future anti-Trumper: me. Politico found the super PAC’s report and posted a link to it.

The site was called FrumForum.com. From 2009 to 2012, it tried to imagine a reformed Republican Party: more economically inclusive, more culturally modern, more environmentally aware. The project proved unsuccessful, to put it mildly. Yet it attracted dozens of young writers who subsequently advanced to important careers and high reputations. One of them was J. D. Vance.

Vance wrote for FrumForum under a pseudonym. So, even as my former contributor’s career has lurched in disturbing directions, I’ve felt honor-bound to maintain confidentiality about the pieces. I also felt that the substance of what he wrote, while revealing, didn’t at the time rise to the level of urgent public interest. Now the record is out there, not by my doing.

In some ways, there are continuities between the FrumForum Vance and candidate Vance. Both are deeply concerned about the deteriorating prospects for working-class white America; both are immigration skeptics. But the differences are more profound. FrumForum Vance scorned culture-warring, valued expertise, endorsed social inclusion, rejected partisan rancor, and supported America’s important role in world security. All that has been left behind by Senate candidate Vance.

One Vance essay for FrumForum praised former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as a truer conservative than Texas Governor Rick Perry. Another attacked ethanol subsidies. A third endorsed cuts to the future growth of Medicare and Social Security. (Vance wrote: “Of all the things I can’t stand about politics, the tendency to emotionalize a difficult topic is probably the worst.”) In the course of writing about the Supreme Court, he conceded his support for race-conscious affirmative action.

A fifth essay defended the U.S. war in Iraq against a video released by WikiLeaks showing an Apache helicopter firing upon and killing at least 10 Iraqis. “War will always be a grisly business,” Vance wrote. “I’m not a peacenik, and I supported the Iraq invasion on the merits, but it’s folly to send troops to do the toughest job and then be shocked by the attitude that some show while doing it.” A sixth expressed Vance’s disdain for the rhetorical populism of the Tea Party era. It defended ultraselective elite universities, and championed government by “the best and the brightest.” He wrote: “I was raised primarily by my grandparents in a dying steel town. They taught me that if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do anything. They were right. This fall I’m headed to Yale Law School, and I’ll join 200 other students—of every color—virtually all of whom scored above the 95th percentile on the LSAT. Our best institutions of higher learning—warts and all—demand excellence from their students.”

I admired this outspoken young writer. More than that, I liked him. I welcomed his rise as a future leader of reformist conservatism—and him as a guest in my home for dinner parties.

Vance has obviously traveled a long way since those days, and I was a spectator to some of that journey.

In the early 2010s, Vance and I talked about a book he might write, outlining how government policy could address poverty and addiction in rural America. When Vance did write a proposal for that book, he opened with a personal introduction. His publisher advised him to discard the policy chapters and expand the introduction into a book-length memoir. The result was the mega–best seller Hillbilly Elegy.

Vance’s superpower in those days was his biographical credibility as he spoke about Trump America to non-Trump America. In talks at forums like the Aspen Institute, in an essay for The Atlantic, across elite tables at venues like the investment bank Allen & Company’s Sun Valley media conference, Vance urged understanding of the people who had voted for Trump, even as he excoriated Trump himself as unfit, bigoted, authoritarian, fraudulent—a deceiver and exploiter of the people Vance spoke for.

Vance’s message was tough, but his tone was measured. In those days, the figure he most modeled himself upon was Barack Obama. Vance made the comparison explicit in an early-January 2017 opinion article for The New York Times, titled “Barack Obama and Me.” Vance pointed out the similarities between their lives: absent father, raised by grandparents, prestigious law degree, literary fame. He described President Obama as “a man whose history looked something like mine but whose future contained something I wanted … I benefited, too, from the example of a man whose public life showed that we need not be defeated by the domestic hardships of youth.”

Before the 2016 election, Vance’s future political path looked straightforward. He would await the expected Trump defeat, then emerge as a next-generation Republican savior: a candidate who could speak from his origins in Appalachia to the suburbs of Columbus, all while preserving his connections to his donors in Silicon Valley.

Trump’s Electoral College victory complicated the calculation. Some Democrats wooed Vance to change parties. Obama’s campaign guru David Axelrod had Vance as a guest on his popular podcast the month after Vance’s Times article was published.

More plausible was a path for Vance as leader of the internal Republican opposition to Trump. About a week after the inauguration, in 2017, Vance invited me and a dozen other anti-Trump conservatives to a quiet meeting in a downtown Washington, D.C., conference room to discuss ways forward from the Trump predicament. That meeting was off the record, but Vance subsequently emailed participants to alert us that he himself had spoken to a reporter about it.

Among the topics we considered: Could any good come from the Trump administration? How outspoken should we be in opposition? The meeting did not reach conclusions, but it did not need to. The unspoken but widely understood agenda looked further into the future: We were present at the creation of a “Vance for President” campaign that might go into operation sometime in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

I imagine that many of the participants in that meeting still hold such hopes. Vance’s subsequent choices, however, have ensnared his plans. In a reversal of the usual political trajectory, Vance’s writing and speaking have edged angrier and uglier as he has gained success and prominence.

In July 2021, Vance inveighed against the “childless left” who have made no “physical commitment to the future of this country.” In November, he attacked fellow Ohioan LeBron James for criticizing Kyle Rittenhouse’s demeanor at his homicide trial: “Lebron is one of the most vile public figures in our country. Total coward.”

In a September podcast, he urged that Trump, upon his hypothetical restoration to office in 2024, purge the government of federal employees who aren’t loyal to him and defy the courts if the purge was held illegal.

When he got the endorsement recently of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who notoriously floated a conspiracy theory about California’s wildfires being started by space lasers associated with “Rothschild Inc.,” he tweeted: “Honored to have Marjorie’s endorsement. We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags.”

The former supporter of the Iraq War has turned into one of the nation’s preeminent scorners of Ukraine’s fight for independence, declaring: “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” At the end of last month, Vance even suggested that President Joe Biden was plotting intentionally to flood the U.S. with deadly fentanyl: “It does look intentional. It’s like Biden wants to punish people who didn’t vote for him.”

In April of this year, Vance tweeted: “Barack Obama is articulate but has never made a memorable speech. The reason is that his views are utterly conventional. He’s unable of saying anything outside of the elite consensus. He’s a walking, talking Atlantic magazine subscription.” What prompted that highly personal outburst against Vance’s former role model and the magazine to which he himself had contributed his sharpest anti-Trump criticisms? A video clip of Obama speaking negatively of Steve Bannon and Vladimir Putin.

Many who knew the early Vance ponder the question: What happened to him?

I don’t overthink that question; the answer seems obvious enough. I ponder something else.

The anti-populist conservative Vance persona of 2010–17 was well designed to please the individuals and constituencies that held power over his future at that juncture in his career. The angry-white-male persona of 2017–22 was as perfectly aimed at the Thiel-Trump-Tucker nexus as the earlier iteration had been to the Allen-Aspen-Atlantic one.

With a Senate nomination secured, Vance now has new constituencies to please. Ohio today is not the swing state it used to be, yet it’s still home to many non-Trumpy constituencies, including tens of thousands of voters of Ukrainian descent. If elected to the Senate, Vance may rekindle still-higher ambitions, ambitions that cannot be realized by the narrowly based support that got him not quite a third of the vote in last week’s Ohio Republican primary. I very much doubt that the “Vance for President” dream has died—not in him, and not in his backers.

So the question I ponder is not: What happened to the J.D. I knew? It is: Who will J.D. become next?

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