Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: The Trumpism-without-Trump candidate

J.D. Vance thinks the MAGA movement is about more than the man

“Ohio is Trump country.” That was the message on a banner being trailed by a plane above the crowd at a rally held by the former president in the buckeye state a few weeks ago.

I was there and reported for The Critic on a spectacle which suggested a dark turn for the Trump movement. Also there were the candidates vying for a vacant Senate seat in a Republican primary ahead of next year’s midterm elections. So far, the race seems to confirm the message in the sky: that Donald Trump’s takeover of the Ohio GOP is complete. He is yet to endorse anyone, and clearly relishes making the candidates work for his support. The frontrunners spout the core tenets of the MAGA belief system and were willing to be subjected to a demeaning clap-o-meter straw poll emceed by the former president at his recent rally.

This week, J.D. Vance’s heavily trailed entry into the race appeared to offer further evidence of Trump’s stranglehold. Within hours of announcing his run, America’s most famous hillbilly turned venture capitalist found himself bogged down in questions about his previous repudiations of Trump.

Armed with his bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about his childhood in Ohio, Vance become a sought after voice in the early Trump years and spent much of the time explaining rural white disillusionment — and support for Trump — to a bewildered elite. But he was never a supporter himself. In fact, he was a Never Trump Republican in 2016. “I can’t stomach him,” Vance then said to one radio host. In since deleted tweets Vance called the then presidential candidate “reprehensible” and said he would be voting for the independent Evan McMullin.

Fast-forward to 2021 and Vance is asking for forgiveness. “Like a lot of people, I criticised Trump back in 2016,” he told Fox News on Monday. “And I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I’ve been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy.”

Vance’s about turn on Trump isn’t especially convincing. In a perhaps too honest interview with Time magazine this week, he described Trump as “the leader of the movement”, adding: “If I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I just need to suck it up and support him.”

This kind of half-hearted support is part of what makes Vance’s candidacy an interesting test case. Vance is keen to talk about a Trumpian policy agenda: economic populism paired with cultural conservatism, hostility to big tech and free markets, support for higher taxes on the rich and protectionist trade policies. He seems a lot less interested in the more trivial or conspiratorial hot-button issues that dominate Trumpworld in 2021.

His main rivals are in many ways his mirror image: conventional Republican politicians with conventional Republican views but trying their hardest to talk the MAGA talk and bend over backwards to demonstrate their fealty to the former president. Jane Timken, a former party state chair, claims to be “the only true pro-Trump, America First candidate”. Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer and state representative, is one of the country’s many unconvincing Trump tribute acts: a lib-owning social-media-addled blusterer for whom Trumpism is a mood not a set of policies.

And so the Ohio primary will be a clue as to whether the transformation of the GOP under Trump has primarily been stylistic or substantive. Vance’s bet is that behind the Trumpian bravado there remains something serious: a neglected electorate with an appetite for a radical departure from the orthodoxies that have dominated the American right for decades. Whether they know it or not, his rivals represent the theory that Trumpism amounts to personal loyalty, a trollish style and not much else.

The question is not whether Trumpism has a future after Trump, but what that future will look like. Will it be sheer celebrity, tribalism, vulgarity and trivialisation or will it be a more serious contribution to the debate on a range of open-ended era-defining questions on everything from China to big tech? Given that choice, you don’t need to agree with Vance on very much (and I don’t) to appreciate that his version of Trumpism is a lot less toxic than the alternative.

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