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What J.D. Vance Believes

June 17, 2024  |  1,982 words  |  Politics, Philosophy  

You may recognize this as the title of a recent interview Ross Douthat published on June 13 in The New York Times, conducted with the first-term Senator from Ohio and best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy.  Then again, you may not.

I always try to read whatever Mr. Douthat writes, even if some of his in-depth analyses is occasionally above my pay grade.  And I was taken with Hillbilly Elegy when it came out in 2016 but have not paid attention to Mr. Vance’s journey since then, other than to wonder from afar about his dramatic change of heart, going from calling Donald Trump “America’s Hitler” to his recent championing of that boisterous and unhinged politician.

Douthat and Vance are roughly the same age and have known each other since before Mr. Vance made that big splash in 2016.  In fact, I just saw the two described as “old friends.”  I think that level of comfort and familiarity shows in the exchange that has been recorded and published.

You can find the interview at www.rossdouthat.com.  Just to whet your appetite I will quote from the introduction:

“The Vance of eight years ago was read with appreciation and gratitude by Trump opponents looking for a window into populism.  The Vance of today is despised and feared by many of the same kind of people.  His transformation is one of the most striking political stories of the Trump era, and one that’s likely to influence Republican politics even after Trump is gone.”

Reading this longish piece left me with a favorable impression of J.D. Vance.  Not because I agree with everything he had to say on a wide range of subjects, because I do not.  But he strikes me as a young man of integrity who has the common good as his motivating principle.  In other words, after reading this interview Mr. Vance appears to be more than just another blowhard politician shooting his mouth off trying to rile up the base in a blind grab for power.  

But judging by the reaction this interview generated, not everyone agrees with me.  The very next day (June 14) Jonathan Chait writing for New York magazine started his comments off with this:

Few political phenomena are more overdetermined than J.D. Vance’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s coup attempt.  Vance has carried off a cynical but highly successful mid-career switch from venture capitalist to professional pseudo-populist that requires catering to the beliefs of his constituency; he has fallen in with far-right authoritarian intellectuals who long for the destruction of the republic; and he is angling for a spot on Trump’s ticket.”

But was Vance “endorsing” the coup attempt in the interview?  Douthat describes Mr. Vance’s remarks on this subject as a “combative (and to my mind, fundamentally unsupported and unpersuasive) defense of Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election.”     

Andrew Sullivan on his The Weekly Dish blog focuses on this same aspect of the interview – the Jan 6 coup attempt – saying:

“Excusing political violence, supporting a deranged fantasist, and delegitimizing free and fair elections is the price he (Vance) is prepared to pay for power.”

I agree with Ross Douthat that J.D. Vance is not persuasive in his defense of Donald Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election.  But unlike Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sullivan, I do not think Vance is being cynical or calculated about it.

It is worth noting the “2020 election and Jan 6” was the fourth of four interview topics that Mr. Douthat queried Mr. Vance on.  There was a whole lot of back-and-forth before the two got to that particular fork in the road.

Indeed, even Andrew Sillivan begins his June 14 response to the interview by acknowledging:

“In Ross Douthat’s engrossing sit-down with his old friend and now Senator J.D. Vance, there is, to begin with, a nuanced discussion of how Trump has upended American politics toward the populist right, which Vance supports for a variety of decent (and, to my mind, largely persuasive) reasons.”

Allow me to quote from this beginning part of the longish interview…  

One:  After ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Douthat:  So I thought it would be interesting for you to imagine yourself talking to a big “Hillbilly Elegy” fan from 2016, and talk him through how your perspective has changed.

Vance:  Let me give you one story: In 2018, I was invited to an event hosted by the Business Roundtable, an organization of C.E.O.s.  I was seated next to the C.E.O. of one of the largest hotel chains in the world at dinner.  He was almost a caricature of a business executive, complaining about how he was forced to pay his workers higher wages.

He said: “The labor market is super tight.  What Trump has done at the border has completely forced me to change the way I interact with my employees.”  And then he pivoted to me: “Well, you understand this as well as anybody.  These people just need to get off their asses, come to work and do their job.  And now, because we can’t hire immigrants, or as many immigrants, we’ve got to hire these people at higher wages.”

The fact that this guy saw me as sympathetic to his problem, and not the problem of the workers, made me realize that I’m on a train that has its own momentum and I have to get off this train, or I’m going to wake up in 10 years and really hate everything that I’ve become.  And so I decided to get off that train, and I felt like the only way that I could do that was, in some ways, alienating and offending people who liked my book.

Douthat:  Did your perspective on, let’s say, elite liberals change more in that time, or did your perspective on anti-Trump, business-class Republicans change more?

Vance:  Oh, both.  I think it’s very hard to say which group of people I felt more strongly about.  I literally grew up in a family where my grandmother was negotiating with the Meals on Wheels person to give her more food so that both of us could have something to eat.  And I was (then finding myself) going to the Sun Valley billionaires boot camp.  My life had completely transformed.

The people on the left, I would say, whose politics I am open to  – it’s the Bernie Bros.  But generally, center-left liberals who are doing very well, and center-right conservatives who are doing very well, have an incredible blind spot about how much their success is built on a system that is not serving people who they should be serving.

Douthat:  So you reach a point where you feel like you don’t want to be on the same side as, let’s says, the non-Sanders voting fans of you book.  How do you go from there to being actively pro-Trump?

Vance:  I was confronted with the reality that part of the reason the anti-Trump conservatives hated Trump was that he represented a threat to a way of doing things in this country that has been very good for them.

Douthat:  Is there anything you’ve said that you regret, in the course (of the last 8 years)?

Vance:  There are a ton of things I can point to where I can say, “I wish I struck this balance (between offering something very different on foreign policy, on trade, on immigration, while also being sensitive and socially aware) a little bit differently.”  

Two:  Can Economic Populism Work?

Douthat: Do you think, generally, that there is a comprehensive populist economic agenda?

Vance:  Well, I have one.  The main thrust of the post-war American order of globalization has involved relying more on more on cheaper labor.  The trade issue and the immigration issue are two sides of the same coin:  The trade issue is cheaper labor overseas; the immigration issue is cheaper labor at home, which applies upward pressure on a whole host of services, from hospital services to housing and so forth.

The populist vision, at least as it exists in my head, is an inversion of that: applying as much upward pressure on wages and as much downward pressure on the services that people use as possible.  We’ve had far too little innovation over the last 40 years, and far too much labor substitution.  This is why I think the economics profession is fundamentally wrong about both immigration and about tariffs.  Yes, tariffs can apply upward pricing pressure on various things though I think it’s massively overstated – but when you are forced to do more with your domestic labor force, you have all of these positive dynamic effects.

It’s a classic formulation:  You raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour, and you will sometimes hear libertarians say this a is a bad thing.  “Well, isn’t McDonald’s just going to replace some of the workers with kiosks?”  That’s a good thing, because then the workers who are still there are going to make higher wages; the kiosks will perform useful function; and that’s the kind of rising tide that actually lifts all boats.  What is not good is you replace the McDonald’s worker from Middletown, Ohio, who makes $17 and hour with an immigrant who makes $15 an hour.  And that is, I think, the main thrust of elite liberalism, whether people acknowledge it or not.

*

There is much more to this exchange between Douthat and Vance, and I encourage you to find it and read it in its entirety.  Having done so myself, I cannot understand how Jonathan Chait of New York magazine can possibly justify describing J.D. Vance as a “pseudo-populist” who “has carried off a cynical but highly successful career switch from being a venture capitalist” who now merely “caters to the beliefs of his constituency.” Or how Andrew Sullivan of The Weekly Dish can suggest young Mr. Vance has abandoned logic in exchange for political power.

Why must we always demonize a political opponent?  Even a politician with whom we disagree most of the time is capable of a reasonable position now and then.  But it’s as if once we’ve condemned someone, we must maintain our resolve and continue to do so in every instance.  Another behavioral tick is how a political opponent can’t just be ‘wrong’ on a given issue, they also have to be a bad person.  

Why does our version of political theater insist we always turn people we disagree with into a nasty, sarcastic punch line?  

Mr. Vance comments on the nature of character assassination in politics in the first of half of the Douthat interview, when he says: “The thing I kept thinking about liberalism in 2019 and 2020 is that these guys have all read Carl Schmitt – there’s no law, there’s just power.  And the goal here is to get back in power.”

The rabid attacks that each side inflicts upon the other unfortunately seem to be focused on just that – vanquishing the enemy and retaining or getting back into power.  Instead of trying to parse out the best policy proscription, or on achieving a compromise most can live with. 

I find J.D. Vance to be a fascinating figure, for the very reason Andrew Sullivan mentions at the end of his piece.  Vance is in the process of “juggling the legitimate insights of Trumpism with the lying, livid lunacy of Trump himself…”  I will be watching to see how Vance navigates all this, moving forward.

Conclusion:  The people who loath the idea of a second Trump Presidency just scroll past what J.D. Vance has to say about economic populism, eviscerating him because of his support for Trump’s candidacy.  But Mr. Vance’s views on economics can form the basis of valid policy positions, with or without Trump.  And even after Trump is gone.  It doesn’t really matter who gets that flag to the top of the hill.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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