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J.D. Vance’s Strange Turn to 1876

June 25, 2024  |  800 words  |  Politics, Philosophy  

The critics’ ‘book’ on J.D. Vance is now set:  He is an unprincipled climber willing to say anything to get ahead.  The tar and feathering of Mr. Vance is largely the result of his strange about-face on Donald Trump: from calling him “America’s Hitler” back when no one was taking his political aspirations seriously, to defending Mr. Trump’s curious conduct after the 2020 election.

The June 13 interview Vance did with Ross Douthat in The New York Times referenced this defense in some detail, and various commentators were quick to pounce, citing it as fresh evidence that J.D. Vance is nothing more than a cynical pseudo-populist, an amoral sycophant, and an authoritarian weirdo.       

Unlike those critics, though, I think it is possible to find Mr. Vance’s defense of Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election to be “fundamentally unsupported and unpersuasive,” as his old friend Ross Douthat put it, without dismissing everything else J.D. Vance has to say as a newly-minted member of the U.S. Senate.

Writing in The New Times two days after the interview was published, Opinion Columnist Jamelle Boule manages to do just that – find fault with Mr. Vance’s perspective on the controversy over the 2020 election results, without descending into complete character assassination.  

Columnist Boule starts his piece by reminding us what Vance told Douthat in the June 13 interview:  Donald Trump’s effort to “Stop the Steal” was an attempt to deal with real discrepancies in the 2020 presidential race, and satisfy those voters angry about the conduct of the election.  In defending the former president and his allies, Vance took issue with the “political class” for taking this “very legitimate grievance over our most fundamental democratic act as a people, and completely suppressing concerns about it.”

But unlike the angry mob of Trump/Vance detractors, Jamelle Boule does not indulge in a broad, sweeping condemnation of J.D. Vance’s motives.  Instead, he drills down on a basic flaw in Vance’s logic, and provides the novice politician – and all of us – with a valuable history lesson.

As Mr. Boule reminds us, in the July 13 interview with Ross Douthat, “Vance briefly analogized Trump’s attempt to contest the election to that of the disputed election of 1876, describing the latter as an example of what should have been done in 2020.” 

Boule then spends four paragraphs detailing exactly what went down after the 1876 presidential election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes.  He concludes by telling his readers: 

“The crisis of 1876 is one of the most interesting – and frankly convoluted – episodes in American political  history.  But it is strange for Senator Vance to cite it as an example of what should have been done in 2020.  The big and most important difference is that there was actual fraud and violence and intimidation in the 1876 presidential cycle.”

“… If Trump voters had been attacked, intimidated, and defrauded, then there might be reason to make the comparison with 1876 and demand serious investigation into the integrity of the vote.  But as we know from actual litigation carried out over two months, there was no fraud to speak of.  The 2020 presidential election was arguably the most secure – and among the most scrutinized – in American history.”

“What Vance calls the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Jan 6 rioters were actually sour grapes.  They lost, they did not like it, and they were determined to change the outcome by any means necessary.  There is no reason any of us should respect their tantrum.”

Notice how Jamelle Boule respectfully refutes J.D. Vance argument on this one specific point without having to paint him as a cynical pseudo-populist, an amoral sycophant, or authoritarian weirdo.

Thank you, Mr. Boule, for providing us all with a valuable lesson in our nation’s contentious presidential election history.  And I am hopeful no one will appreciate this information more than J.D. Vance, because he strikes me as a principled young man who has only recently chosen public service as a career, and is still getting his feet under him, so to speak.  

On a more broadly philosophical note, I think people should be allowed to work things out and get better as they go, even if that means they take the occasional questionable stand along the way, due to a lack of knowledge or limited understanding.  This holds double for anyone in public life, in my opinion, since their ‘working out’ process happens on a much larger stage.  

None of us is a finished product, after all.  The key is being prepared to recalibrate a position once additional information comes to light.  Growing up I was taught it is good to openly admit mistakes with a measure of humility, and then most importantly of all, make a concerted effort to learn from them.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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