Hillbilly Elegy author has radically changed his tone and positions since his empathetic book exploded in popularity among liberals
JD Vance, the author whose memoir Hillbilly Elegy was hailed by many Democrats for supposedly helping them understand the working-class white voters who backed Donald Trump in 2016, is running for a US Senate seat in Ohio – and he is now apologising for old tweets from years past in which he described the then-candidate Mr Trump as undeserving of support.
Mr Vance, a Yale Law School graduate with a lucrative career in venture capital, is running as a rabble-rousing pro-Trump populist, using the slogan “conservative outsider”. He is putting effort into trolling Democrats, jumping on right-wing culture war causes and lashing out at more moderate rivals in an already crowded Republican primary.
But as first spotted by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, he is also working hard to clean up evidence that he was once a staunch anti-Trumper.
In one of the deleted messages, from October 2016, Mr Vance wrote: “Trump makes people I care about afraid. Immigrants, Muslims, etc. Because of this I find him reprehensible. God wants better of us.”
On the day that the infamous Access Hollywood tape emerged showing Mr Trump describing how he felt entitled to grab women “by the p****y” because of his fame, Mr Vance disavowed the then-candidate again: “Fellow Christians, everyone is watching us when we apologise for this man. Lord help us.”
And in one particularly ironic tweet, he said this: “In 4 years, I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathised with Trump’s voters who fought him most aggressively.”
These tweets harken back to a time when Mr Vance, who is now positioning himself as a hardline culture warrior, was writing that it was possible and important for anti-Trump liberals to understand and be generous toward Trump voters if they were ever to understand his success – which Mr Vance considered an aberration.
Now, he is apologising for what he said about the ex-president he now forcefully supports.
“Like a lot of people, I criticised Trump back in 2016,” he said on 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. I think he was a good president, I think he made a lot of good decisions for people, and I think he took a lot of flak.
“I think … the most important thing, is not what you said five years ago, but whether you’re willing to stand up and take the heat and take the hits for actually defending the interests of the American people.”
Mr Vance first came to full national attention after Mr Trump won the 2016 election, when many commentators and establishment liberals turned to Hillbilly Elegy for an explanation of why blue-collar and rural whites had backed the new president despite all his flaws, and despite his being part of the caste of ultra-wealthy American whom the left accuses of prioritising their own interests at the direct expense of the working class.
When called upon to explain this in interviews after Mr Trump’s victory, Mr Vance noted that his book did not in fact mention the new president, but offered multiple explanations for Mr Trump’s appeal. Key among them, he said, was that he crafted a narrative that white voters could relate to – one that metropolitan liberals fundamentally failed to empathise with, instead mistaking the Trump platform for pure revanchist racism.
As Mr Vance put it to Vox’s Ezra Klein in February 2017, in the worldview Mr Trump crafted for his campaign, “the other wasn’t black Americans living in the inner cities, it wasn’t brown Americans immigrating from Mexico – it was the elites. It was the Clintons of the world. It was the Jeb Bushes of the world”.
And when it came to the most objectionable parts of the Trump campaign platform, for example his outright racism and threats directed at undocumented Mexican immigrants, Mr Vance explained that many Trump voters were in fact negotiating with his pronouncements to identify something more acceptable and orthodox in his words that they could support.
“You see his voters reinterpreting it in a way that, whether they’re right or they’re wrong, I think that there’s something actually quite admirable about the way they perceive what he’s going to do and how it motivates their voting,” he said.
In the interviews he gave after Mr Trump’s victories, Mr Vance referred to Trump voters as “they” – and as per his deleted tweets, Mr Vance strongly rejected Mr Trump at the time. But now, as several Republican candidates jostle to fill the seat being vacated by the relatively moderate Republican Senator Rob Portman, Mr Vance has converged with the hardline orthodoxy that holds sway in the party and among its base voters.
In recent weeks, for instance, Mr Vance has used his Twitter feed and numerous interviews with right-wing outlets to pour scorn on critical race theory, a specific academic field that many on the right are now using as a generic term for any attempt to acknowledge and address systemic racism, bias or inequity.
But more fundamentally than his embrace of particular ideological positions is the shift in his language and tone. Around the time of the 2016 election and its aftermath, Mr Vance presented himself as a religious man disgusted by Mr Trump’s lack of empathy for and attacks on specific groups of people – but today, he is striking an even harsher note himself.