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Why isn’t Ohio’s Republican Senate candidate generating more enthusiasm?

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At a pancake breakfast in the southwest Ohio city of Loveland in late September, I waited through 90 minutes of speeches for J.D. Vance. As the much-discussed Senate candidate finally strode down the hallway to the ballroom where he would be speaking, an old-timer next to me turned his head. “J.D. Vance,” he muttered. “So he does exist.”

The breakfast was in a 1980s-vintage event center off a long country road past farm fields and old churches. The carpet was a mix of swirly beige patterns, and there were fluorescent lights lining the 20-foot drop ceiling. Republicans live here, the surroundings said. The event opened with a presentation of the United States flag by an honor guard, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, and a blessing.

As the Senate candidate finally strode to the stage, an old-timer next to me turned his head. “J.D. Vance,” he muttered. “So he does exist.”

There was a pleasant social buzz that was barely dampened by the monotony of hearing 14 speakers say the same two or three things about Joe Biden, the price of gas, and the crazy stuff Democrats are doing with gender transitions and vaccine mandates. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced himself by saying: “I’m Dave Yost. I sue Joe Biden, and I win.” Former Trump press secretary Hogan Gidley was there, identifiable as the most famous person in the room because he was wearing clothes that were at once less formal and more expensive looking than everyone else’s. I made small talk with some of Vance’s staffers, including his press secretary, a very tall, amiable young man named Luke. (Unlike many Republican campaigns in the Trump era, the Vance team stays on professional terms with the press.) The only kind of coffee available was hazelnut.

Then Vance showed up, with just enough time to shake a few hands before giving his stump speech. He mentioned that he’d brought his son along with him. “If anything spontaneously catches fire or gets destroyed, I have a 5-year-old who’s probably involved,” he said. He visibly enjoyed telling an opening anecdote about how his Mamaw had hidden 19 loaded guns in her house as she became less ambulatory in her old age. Said Vance: “She wanted to make sure that no matter where she was, she was within arm’s reach of a loaded handgun so that nobody that she didn’t want coming into her house came into her house.”

He was less animated when discussing more typical Republican-skewing concerns. “Joe Biden and my Democratic opponent have borrowed and spent trillions of dollars we don’t have,” he said, “putting it on the backs of our grandchildren and driving up the cost of goods.” Standard stuff, and mandatory in the current race, but probably not something of deep interest to Vance—he’s said many times that he thinks the fiscal-conservative obsession with cutting taxes and spending is of no interest to the kind of people he grew up around.

A church.

Cincinnati, Ohio
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Mathis-Lilley.

As his speech wound down at the breakfast, I realized I was extremely overdue to get back to my own children. (I was in the area, in part, for a baptism.) As I sprinted for the parking lot, I passed the hallway table where a small boy, who I assumed to be the younger Vance, was passing time with a minder. “Why are you running?” he asked me brightly. It was the question on everyone’s mind, but not about me.

I had spent weeks in various parts of Ohio while visiting in-laws—mine, not J.D. Vance’s—wandering around and asking what was up with J.D. Vance. A baby-faced 38-year-old, Vance had come to prominence as a friendly, Trump-skeptical conservative intellectual and coastally based venture capitalist. Then he moved back home and did a seeming heel turn to secure Trump’s endorsement for his 2022 primary campaign.

But despite being vouched for by the MAGA king in a state that went for Trump over Biden by a nearly 8-point margin—and then narrowly winning the primary—Vance has struggled in the general election race. What was expected to be an easy Republican victory has turned out to be a tight competition with a Democrat, the Youngstown-area Rep. Tim Ryan, who has cast himself as a quasi-independent who agrees with Trump on trade, and who has an easier time claiming Ohio bona fides because he has served as a representative there for 20 years.

The enthusiasm with which Ryan has praised Trump and attacked the national Democratic Party seems to have taken the Ohio GOP by surprise. In press releases, TV commercials, and in person, they seem almost hurt by it, as if they can’t believe he wouldn’t just play fair and tell everyone that he’s a regular old liberal.

But it was not outlandish of J.D. Vance to think that he could win this race from the start. (Indeed, he very well may.) When Hillbilly Elegy came out in 2016, it was a gigantic hit, spawning a movie, selling several million copies, and making him a star on the ideas-conference circuit. Its publication was perfectly timed with a surge of national angst about the country’s white working class. (“I’m not arguing that we deserve more sympathy than other folks,” he made sure to note in the book. “This is not a story about why white people have more to complain about than black people or any other group.”)

After Elegy was published, Vance—whose day job was in San Francisco at the time—announced he’d be moving back to Ohio. When he resurfaced last year as a competitor in the state’s overcrowded Republican primary, he was running with a nastier crowd. He appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, did an interview with 2020 election conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza, and did a campaign appearance with Marjorie Taylor Greene. He complained online that eBay had stopped letting users buy Dr. Seuss books that included racist caricatures, suggested that QAnon believers might be right that many celebrities and politicians are pedophiles, and signed a pledge to subpoena Anthony Fauci for “numerous and demonstrable lies.”

Although he’s stopped short of endorsing D’Souza or Greene’s more florid theories about events in 2020, he nonetheless said that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from Trump, said that he had been wrong to believe Trump would be a poor president, and flew to Mar-a-Lago to successfully seek the big man’s endorsement. He suggested in a tweet that some feminists believe “it’s bad for women to become mothers” but “liberating” for them “to work 90 hours a week in a cubicle at the New York Times or Goldman Sachs.” He defended comments he’d made in 2021 about the potential upside, for one’s children, of sticking out an abusive marriage.

Maybe it was really a simple story: Having become unsatisfied with the life of a thought leader, Vance adopted the MAGA personality to pander to a different audience and get his hands on some real power.

It was probably the right strategy for winning the primary in Ohio, at least. I spoke to the Columbus Dispatch’s longtime political columnist, Darrel Rowland, about the state’s recent history not long after he announced that his newspaper job had been cut after 31 years. He reminded me that Ohio had been “the quintessential bellwether state for decades.” (Everyone else from Ohio will also tell you this.) It cast its electoral votes for the winning presidential candidate in every election held between 1900 and 2016 besides two. Those two were 1944, when the state’s lieutenant governor was on the Republican ticket running against FDR, and 1960, when Nixon carried the day.

For years, Ohio was balanced, roughly speaking, between urban and/or union Democrats, suburban chamber of commerce types, and conservative farm voters. This did not necessarily mean that every politician and person in the state was an even-tempered centrist—have fun on Jim Traficant’s Wikipedia page—but it tended to mean that “blue-collar” moderate Dems and avuncular, fiscally oriented Republicans won statewide. Goings-on in the state capital of Columbus usually accorded with the latter group’s interests. There were some hard-right conservatives in the legislature—the so-called Caveman Caucus—but, in Rowland’s telling, they were generally treated with endearment “because they had no power.” He said onetime state representative and senator Jim Jordan, a member of that caucus, was known to reporters as “one of the nice ones.”

This was still the state of affairs in 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Ohio by 3 points, just barely underperforming the national margin. But by 2020, the state was 12 points redder than the country as a whole. The cavemen, and cavewomen, had taken over. Ohio is holding its current elections using gerrymandered maps that the state’s own Supreme Court has ruled are illegal under the terms of a voter-passed referendum, and it passed a law which made all abortion illegal once the Dobbs decision went into effect (though that one is currently blocked in the courts). One state senator asked during a COVID hearing in 2020 whether “the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups,” while a state rep cited the Holocaust as the kind of “divisive concept” that should be taught, in schools, from multiple points of view. Jordan was the House of Representatives’ most vocal promoter of the effort to challenge election results on Jan. 6. Not so nice!

I asked Rowland if he knew how such a hostile takeover happened so quickly, or whether there was anything he looked back on as a portent that he had missed. “I’m just gonna admit up front: I don’t know,” he said. “It’s one of the questions that perplexes me.” He seemed shell-shocked to have realized that individuals this extreme had been circulating in his midst this entire time.

Richie's Pawn Central.

Middletown, Ohio
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Mathis-Lilley.

There are high-level explanations for what happened. One is the depopulation of cities and towns across the state: Even small pockets of urban density in Ohio, towns with names like Portsmouth and Lorain, still skew Democratic, but those pockets have been shrinking for years. In July, the Census Bureau released detailed information about migration patterns in state-by-state “commuting zones” among individuals born between 1984 and 1992, a subset that happens to include J.D. Vance. Fourteen of the 17 zones in Ohio lost population.

The other explanation frequently given is the rise of the tea party, whose “populist” anger about welfare queens and immigrants and political correctness was cashed in on, electorally, by Donald Trump, who swung the votes of white union members (and those from families that used to belong to unions) toward the Republican Party by campaigning on euphemism-free talk-radio griping. Nine heavily white counties in Ohio flipped from Obama to Trump.

Put simply, a lot of people in Ohio got angrier—or were able to connect their anger to their votes in a new way—at the same time that the electoral math was starting to disincentivize moderation. Vance’s book observed the beginning of this phenomenon—and for all that it posited that there exists a white, working-class epidemic of personal laziness and self-indulgence, it’s probably not entirely fair to say, as a recent piece by Sam Adler-Bell in the New Republic did, that Vance’s career was built by ridiculing his people for the delight of coastal elites. A certain amount of his attention has always gone toward defending some of their tendencies.

In the book, for example, Vance describes the spread of birtherism and other conspiracy theories about Obama as an essentially coherent reaction to factors that “have nothing to do with skin color,” such as distrust of the news media and the absence of collective economic opportunity. After joining the Marines, flying through Ohio State, and graduating from Yale Law School, Vance worked for right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who infamously wrote that he does not “believe freedom and democracy are compatible” in an essay that identified “welfare beneficiaries” and—I am not making this up—“women” as intractable obstacles to enlightened (i.e., business-friendly) public policy.

He is not a stranger to misanthropy, in other words, or the rationalization of extreme beliefs. But those impulses are more pronounced, and less tempered by the spirit of generosity, in his Senate campaign. His book describes Obama as a “brilliant” figure who “overcame adversity in his own right,” and says conspiracy theories are ultimately a destructive response to the absence of community. His website platform, by contrast, asserts that Democratic leaders believe America is “an evil and racist country,” blows a dog whistle toward individuals who “chose to take a knee as radicals ransacked our cities,” and makes six pejorative mentions of the “Chinese.”

This rhetoric has currency in Republican politics, but it hasn’t been sufficient for Vance to achieve a normal level of popularity for a Republican in this election cycle. Over the summer, a number of polls showed him flat-out trailing Ryan—who would, if he were to beat Vance, become the first Democrat besides longtime Sen. Sherrod Brown to win a statewide legislative or executive race in Ohio since 2010. Vance’s fundraising was poor, and he was making relatively few campaign appearances—except, in one eyebrow-raising July move, at a conference in Israel. “Tim Ryan is talking about kitchen-table issues, and J.D. Vance is out there going to fucking CPAC in Israel,” a strategist told the Daily Beast. Another added, “Republicans are like, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ This isn’t some fucking book tour, dude.”

Vance’s pace of campaigning is now appropriately frantic, and it’s possible to justify or at least explain his low-key summer. Tim Ryan didn’t have a competitive primary, and came out of it with a lot of intraparty goodwill and money to spend on television ads; Vance didn’t have much cash left and was dealing with a divided GOP base. But the poll numbers were what they were.

It was the worst of all worlds: Vance had sold out, but no one was buying.

Over Labor Day weekend, I attended a downtown-revitalization street fair in Middletown, where Vance lived (more or less—it wasn’t a stable childhood) until he went to law school. It’s a city of 50,000 with a classic heartland Main Street, two rows of old stone and concrete buildings lining a wide avenue. A cheerful business-district sign urges passersby to visit establishments named “Merkel’s,” “Grandpa Joe’s,” and “Brett’s Butts.”

The event was being put on by a group called Downtown Middletown Inc., and there was a DJ—who is also Downtown Middleton Inc.’s executive director—playing ’70s film soundtrack cuts from a little cupola in a grass lot who I was told was also the organizer of the event.

An outdoor stage.

The DJ booth at a Labor Day event put on by Downtown Middletown, Inc.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Mathis-Lilley.

The organization exists to address the city’s economic struggles, but neither of the two women staffing its tent knew that a city native who wrote a bestselling book about that subject was running for Senate. They seemed only vaguely familiar with who Vance was at all, and may have just been being polite. One of them, Sylvia, urged me to participate in a door-prize giveaway drawing, in which I was delighted to win a peach-colored T-shirt that commemorated something called “The Women’s Wine and Chocolate Walk.” The other said, “When is the Senate race?”

Also unaware that someone from Middletown was running for Senate were two women minding the racks of clothing outside a boutique across the street, as were the proprietor of the adjacent stained-glass gallery, Linda, and her husband and co-owner, Jay. The four of them huddled and called over another friend, who was a librarian, because they thought she would know. (She did.)

On another sunny day, I drove through Cincinnati and met many others who did not know J.D. Vance was running for Senate, or who he was at all. They included three baristas at the coffee shop around the corner from his giant house in Cincinnati, a bartender (who resembled Freddie Mercury) at a restaurant underneath a coworking space where Vance’s fund has a registered address, and three young people eating lunch in a food-truck plaza across from the downtown skyscraper where Vance’s fund is also registered. A man and woman about my age (low 40s) in the plaza did know about Vance and what he was running for, but said they were from out of state. “He’s a moron,” said the woman.

A fancy driveway seen out the window of a car.

The guard post outside of a subdivision where former Speaker of the House John Boehner lives, in Butler County, Ohio.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Mathis-Lilley.

Well, OK. It’s notoriously hard to get Americans (especially young ones) interested in midterms. But a top-down pursuit of Vanceheads was also unsuccessful. Most of Middletown is in Butler County, which is famously Republican—former Speaker of the House John Boehner lives there—so I asked the Butler County Republican Party organization if it could connect me with any major Vance supporters in its ranks. I wanted to speak to someone who was enthusiastic about him, even during the early days of his campaign, I told them. They declined to furnish such a person. My former colleague Rachael Larimore, a longtime resident of suburban Cincinnati who works for the conservative publication the Dispatch, said she did not know anyone who fit that description either.

A fact that is potentially related to the palpable absence of Vance Fever: The places he has lived as an adult are occupied by the people he has made his new political career out of describing as weirdo scumbags. East Walnut Hills, the neighborhood where his family lives in Cincinnati, is dotted with Victorian houses that have been renovated in pastel colors and are often adorned with Pride flags; the coffee shop I stopped at there sold nut-free granola out of consideration for allergies and advertised that its organic ingredients are delivered in electric vehicles. (The neighborhood business association’s website celebrates the area’s “diverse,” “eclectic,” and “inclusive” spirit.) Joe Biden won Vance’s precinct in 2020 at 453 votes to 197.

Two hours away, across the street from his old apartment in Columbus, there was a house decorated with a modern liberal trifecta—the flag of Ukraine, a rainbow flag, and a Black Lives Matter poster. (The homes were in German Village, a classically “walkable” neighborhood that is Ohio’s ground zero for restaurants that serve $14 cocktails and, like, molasses-glazed Brussels sprouts.) Near the coworking space where his company had been registered, over the bar, there is a trans-inclusive club called Bloom that advertises drag performances. (Vance asserted on a February podcast with Steve Bannon that the U.S. military is allied with Ukraine because Vladimir Putin doesn’t support transgender rights.) On the wrought-iron fence outside Vance’s impressive house and lawn, there is a sign that says, “Drive like your kids live here.”

Later, when I attended the pancake breakfast, I had this exchange with the two friendly blond women in their 50s working the check-in table for the state Republican organization, the Central Committee.

Can I ask you guys a couple questions about J.D. Vance?

Oh, no, sorry. We’re from Central Committee, but we’re new.

I’d just like to talk to someone about what people like about him.

Oh, what people like about him … [sympathetic noise]. That’d be really good.

This event was promoted with the tagline “We need to run up the score in Clermont County and send JD Vance to Washington DC!”

If none of Vance’s ostensible supporters were going to explain what he was doing, I had to look elsewhere. And what cracked the case for me was something I probably should have done right away: reading Hillbilly Elegy. The extent of Vance’s promotional juggernaut, the poor reviews for the movie version, what I thought was his subsequent exposure as an opportunist, the disappointment of having read other nonfiction bestsellers that turned out to be paint-by-numbers commodity content—it all added up to the assumption that Elegy was just a disposable component of the J.D. Vance Advancement Plan. When I got the thing out and started power-skimming it for the business of writing this article, I was alarmed to find that it was quite good. So then I actually read it.

It’s a compelling story with two arcs. One is the large-scale operatic tragedy of the migrants, including Vance’s grandparents, who radiated outward from Appalachia to industrial towns and cities in the Midwest and elsewhere throughout the 1950s. They got work at, for example, the Armco steel mill in Middletown, and often resettled their Appalachian social networks in such towns in a chain-migration pattern. (Armco gave hiring preference to the family members of employees.)

The second arc is about Vance and his mother and sister. His mom is a smart woman—he writes that he was never prouder than when he could tell her he finished a book—and a registered nurse. But she leaves home early, in part because of her father’s drinking, carousing, and vicious fighting with her mother, and never settles in a functional relationship. She and Vance’s father break up soon after he’s born, and they become so estranged that Vance’s father legally cedes his right to have a relationship with his son. “I remember the early September day in kindergarten when Mom and Lindsay picked me up from school and told me that I’d never see my dad again,” Vance writes. “He was giving me up for adoption, they said. It was the saddest I had ever felt.”

Men come and go; the family moves around. Vance’s mother gets in trouble with the police, gets hooked on painkillers, threatens to kill him when he’s 12, and loses her nursing license. Vance keeps himself sane by staying close to Mamaw, who keeps her home in Middletown functional as the area declines, and her husband, Papaw, who has now cleaned up his act and lives down the road. Mamaw keeps the peace in part by threatening to kill anyone who doesn’t follow her rules, and it is widely believed that she is capable of doing so because she shot a man who was trying to steal her family’s cow in Kentucky when she was “around twelve.” Eventually, in high school, Vance just moves in with the old woman, and does enough to graduate. From there on out it’s relatively smooth sailing, but Mamaw dies when he’s in the Marines. I teared up a bit.

The root of American society’s current predicament vis-à-vis J.D. Vance, I think, is mostly in the part of the book that comes after this—the denouement of Yale Law and the highly coveted jobs that he and his wife, Usha, whom he meets at Yale, seek out after they graduate. Vance is put off by both the hypercompetitiveness of the aspiring corporate law world and the way advancement within it depends on social signals that don’t have anything to do with intellectual capability—having a fashionably trim suit, making small talk with partners, knowing which order to use silverware in at a fancy meal, and so forth. He takes a Yale person to Cracker Barrel and they’re appalled, purportedly, by how unhealthy the food is.

It makes him angry—as angry as he’d been at the self-destructive losers in his hometown who half-assed their jobs and got high and blamed their problems on other people. (At one point in the book, he describes feeling resentment “directed both toward the wealthy and my own kind.”) He thinks that there are still plenty of people in Middletown who could achieve at this level if there weren’t so many practical, but essentially trivial, barriers to doing so.

A sandwich.

The fried bologna sandwich at Billy Yanks Restaurant and Bourbon Bar in Hamilton, Ohio.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ben Mathis-Lilley.

Perhaps this kind of anger is what drew him toward Trump’s movement, in the end: It’s not so much that he supports Donald Trump as that he doesn’t like the way certain people talk about Trump’s supporters. As the Washington Post’s Simon van Zuylen-Wood wrote in a February piece, Vance was annoyed by 2016 election postmortems that attributed Trump’s success with blue-collar white voters to racism rather than to their economic predicament. Vance’s Yale friend Jamil Jivani, who is mentioned in the book, told van Zuylen-Wood that “the last straw”—the offense that fully convinced Vance to reject the ruling elites—was that snotty critics gave the Ron Howard–Glenn Close Elegy adaptation, which has a good audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, bad reviews.

It seems doubtful that the most recent chapter in his life is a mere advancement tactic rather than his latest effort to figure out who, exactly, he wants to be.

Vance writes in Elegy that his anger—his temper—is the biggest problem in his relationship with his wife, a subject that is also addressed in an essay he wrote in 2020 for a publication called the Lamp about becoming Catholic. “I realized that there was a part of me—the best part—that took its cues from Catholicism,” he wrote. “It was the part of me that demanded that I treat my son with patience, and made me feel terrible when I failed. That demanded that I moderate my temper with everyone, but especially my family.”

The word incisive is overused in reference to intelligence, but that’s what kind Vance’s is: He opens things up, gets inside them, and figures out what makes them work—or more often than not, concludes that they don’t. He has a temper, you might say, as a writer and critic.

There’s an especially interesting section in Elegy in which he reconnects with his father and begins visiting him on weekends in large part because he likes being a part of his father’s fundamentalist church. But just as quickly as he finishes explaining what the church meant to him, he unpacks its problems: “The downside of his theology was that it promoted a certain segregation from the outside world,” he writes. “I was a curious kid, and the deeper I immersed myself in evangelical theology, the more I felt compelled to mistrust many sectors of society.” Observes Vance, “I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have.”

Vance is quick to understand, but also quick to reject. It makes him an interesting thinker but also a perpetually agitated one—someone likely to, for example, write off a country’s worth of liberal Democrats permanently because of the behavior of a few snobs at Yale Law School. (What, he couldn’t find anyone else in a college town who liked high-fat breakfast food?)

In Elegy and his Lamp essay, Vance tracks himself moving through a multitude of ideological and cultural phases: burnout Black Sabbath fan, born-again Christian, proud patriotic Marine, disillusioned atheist humanities student, eager law student, disillusioned law student and fiscal libertarian, disillusioned fiscal libertarian and Catholic convert, etc. Many of these phases are tied to his attraction to the ideas or personality of a specific individual, among them his dad, Christopher Hitchens, Amy Chua, and Peter Thiel. He has, in part, tied his own adoption of succeeding personalities to the succession of “father figures” who rotate through his life:

With Steve, a midlife-crisis sufferer with an earring to prove it, I pretended earrings were cool—so much so that he thought it appropriate to pierce my ear, too. With Chip, an alcoholic police officer who saw my earring as a sign of “girlieness,” I had thick skin and loved police cars. With Ken, an odd man who proposed to Mom three days into their relationship, I was a kind brother to his two children.”

In this context, it seems doubtful that the most recent chapter in his life is a mere advancement tactic rather than his latest effort to figure out who, exactly, he wants to be.

It likewise may not be excessively speculative as a matter of psychoanalysis to guess why the importance of a cohesive family unit, and the destructiveness of divorce, has been the one priority of his that’s remained consistent from the start—from his middle-school Pentecostal period up through his July attack on the “childless left” and women who work at demanding white-collar jobs. Vance says he’s running for Senate because he remembers a time when “Ohioans could live content, middle-class lives on single incomes.”

Even the most tangible elements of Vance’s platform, like corporate tax increases and tariffs on Chinese-made goods, would not make this arrangement possible for most people, and the idolization of a tranquil, single-income household format is—well, it’s the kind of campaign rhetoric a nerdy Catholic intellectual would come up with, and a bit out of pace with the rowdy impulses of the Republican base’s ascendant activists. It would also seem like a strange setup to be applauding when you and your wife are both active professional overachievers. (Usha works for a top law firm that lists her as being based out of San Francisco and D.C.). But it makes sense if the thing you’d wish for, if you just had one wish, was a dad who stays married to his child’s mother and a mom who is home to read books with her little boy.

On some level, Vance seems to understand that he has more criticisms of America in 2022 than ideas about how to fix it. “What social progressives have accomplished over the last couple of decades is to deprive our country of any real shared—any real shared anything, right?” Vance complained to the Post’s van Zuylen-Wood. “We don’t have a shared sense of our own history. We don’t have a shared sense of our own great monuments and figures. We do not have a shared religion.” When the reporter pressed him on how he’d achieve those things, he gave the best and funniest answer of this or, perhaps, any election cycle: “Ah, I mean, honestly,” he replied, “I don’t know.”

J.D. Vance’s life choices involve at least a subconscious acknowledgement that liberals have figured some things out.

One might argue that those social progressives Vance complains about have, in fact, found their own answer to that question by clustering together in neighborhoods, like East Walnut Hills and German Village, that are heavy on public spaces—by pursuing a way of life that is explicitly framed by its advocates, even, as an effort to recapture some of what was lost during the period of alienating deindustrialization that preoccupies Vance. A literal attempt to reconnect to a shared history. (The typical “New American” restaurant or gastropub one finds in these neighborhoods is really just a Cracker Barrel with a liquor license and marked-up prices. Recall that the godfather of modern food culture advises one not to eat anything their Mamaw’s mother wouldn’t recognize.)

Vance and other conservative intellectuals tend to have convinced themselves that the liberal “ruling elite” discusses values like tolerance and inclusion only as a matter of “virtue signaling.” Perhaps this is true of some sociopaths on Twitter, rich members of Congress, and corporate executives. But for many millions of people in much of urban and suburban America, they are simply actual values, a faith that the way to have a shared community in a world of difference is to simply … share one’s community.

J.D. Vance’s choices about where to live involve at least a subconscious acknowledgement that some of the liberals have figured some of the things out. After all, Hillbilly Elegy was published in 2016. His essay on the appeal of simple Catholic communitarianism was published in 2020. Why, then, is he still living, in 2022, around the corner from rainbow flags and sustainably delivered coffee?

Perhaps it’s just that Vance is a wealthy person who likes having a sprawling house and eating fancy food in an expensive neighborhood. He may despise elite privilege, but he certainly has it. Being well-connected is what allowed him to jump to the front of the line to win the Republican nomination, but in many ways it’s the problem dogging him now, to the extent that he’s sweating through a Senate race in a Republican state during the presidency of a Democrat whose approval rating is 10 points underwater.

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The organizer of the pancake breakfast event in Clermont County was Michael Logue. He was, finally, someone who was willing to speak to me about why he liked and supported Vance. The two have a lot in common: They’re about the same age, they’re both from small-town southwest Ohio, and they both returned to Ohio to go to college (Ohio University, in Logue’s case) after serving in the Marines. “Being in the Marine Corps, you see good and bad leadership at different points,” Logue told me. Vance, he said, struck him as someone who had learned to model the good kind during his stint, as well as someone who had the intelligence to discuss complicated issues using principles the average voter would understand. He described the primary debates as a series of other candidates describing their positions as “What J.D. said.” The two men had met at a brewery in July 2021 and discussed their common concerns about the geopolitical threat presented by China, and Logue has been a supporter since. (Logue works in military procurement now and is very concerned about the national security and supply chain threat presented by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which he brought up three times in the 20 or so total minutes we talked at the breakfast and on the phone.)

Despite the similarities in their backgrounds, though, Vance is running for Senate on the heels of a Netflix movie while Logue is a township trustee. Vance got to cut to the front of the line, partly because of merit, partly because that’s the way things work. The flip side of that, though, is that the people he says he is running on behalf of regard him without much enthusiasm, if they know who he is at all. He isn’t one of them anymore. And if we’re to take his comments about professional women and urban liberals seriously, he doesn’t really like where he is now, either. It’s a sad story, and someone like J.D. Vance would be good at telling it.

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