We come from the same place, and I see Vance for exactly who he really is
JD Vance is at it again.
On Thursday, the author of Hillbilly Elegy made some misogynistic remarks about women and their right to choose. When asked if a woman should be forced to give birth in cases of rape or incest, the long-shot Republican candidate for Senate said that the question is “whether a child should be allowed to live, even though the circumstances of that child’s birth are somehow inconvenient or a problem to the society.”
This is but the latest step in Vance’s reinvention from pied piper of America’s downtrodden white working-class into mini-Trump. Earlier this year, he caused controversy by comparing New York City to the zombie apocalypse portrayed in The Walking Dead. He followed this up by comparing female and gay politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg to “cat ladies” who have no vested interest in the country’s future because they have no children. (Buttigieg now has twin infants, but I am not holding my breath that Vance will retract his homophobia.)
As a son of both the Rust Belt and Appalachia, though, I am not surprised. Everything I needed to know about JD Vance I learned reading his memoir, a sneering and insulting tome about how hicks like me just need to be more like elites like him. Vance reminds me of so many jumped-up egos I’ve met in my time who think their bigoted ways are the definition of what it means to be Appalachian.
Yet folks like Vance and the family he comes from — by his own description violent, foul-mouthed, and antisocial — have always been the exception rather than the rule here in the mountains. I saw through what Vance was feeding the media long ago, because I know a bully and a sellout when I see one. After all, we come from the same place.
I grew up between the same two worlds as JD Vance. My family is from the hollows of East Kentucky — about 30 minutes from Jackson, where Vance’s family is from — which is where I spent summers as a child and graduated from high school. But I was born and raised in Dayton, again only about 30 minutes from Vance’s home in Middletown.
As such, I know the problems facing Ohio. It is a mostly urban state, which makes Vance’s condescension towards city folk, LGBT folk, and women even more alarming. It should give every Buckeye cause for concern.
In my memory, Dayton was always a working-class city. Unpretentious, with modest brick and vinyl-sided homes, it was a good place to grow up. I lived in Overlook, just across the city limits, in Riverside. A subdivision of duplexes, it was originally built as emergency housing for nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base back during the Second World War. Afterward, it was privatized and turned into a mutual housing cooperative.
The 1950s and 1960s saw an influx of Appalachian migrants to work in the nearby factories, two of whom were my paternal grandparents. They raised my father in the same duplex in which he raised me and my brother and my sister, growing up with the same neighbors who all seemed to come from “down home” — East Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, or West Virginia. We were a tight-knit community and to this day, my family is still close to several of the other families we knew there in Overlook.
That is not the Overlook, or the Dayton, I know today. The last time I went back, I was stunned at how dilapidated my old neighborhood had become. Homes were abandoned and falling apart. Potholes peppered the streets like Swiss cheese. Even the local Kroger, which I have been shopping at my entire life, felt like a war zone, overcrowded with gaunt faces and disheveled clothing.
It was shocking to see, but also unsurprising. Montgomery County, where I grew up and where Dayton is located, is the opioid capital of the country. Last year, Dayton saw a 52 percent increase in dangerous gunfire and a 25 percent increase in in aggravated assaults. According to the local paper, the Dayton Daily News, Ohio saw more job losses in May than any other state, and was the only state where unemployment increased. This is deepening the inequality and poverty faced by many in the Dayton area, where median household income has decreased by $9,000 over the past two decades.
The crisis facing Ohio’s cities is not limited to Dayton, either. In Cleveland, 2020 saw the city’s worst homicide rate in recent history. Violet crime is nearly 20 points higher in Cincinnati than it is in New York City. Meanwhile, good working jobs — like the factory jobs that lured my family and Vance’s family out of the hollows and into the cities — have disappeared, leaving an economically depressed state a shell of its former glory.
This makes Vance sneering at New York all the more galling. If he feels that way about the city where he made his millions, how does he feel about the cities he seeks to represent? These cities are full of poor and working-class Ohioans who desperately need someone to speak for them. And while JD Vance does a convincing version of working-class minstrelsy, playing himself as some kind of hero of the hillbillies, he clearly would rather lecture the poor than help them.
The culture war issues Vance — and Trumpians like him — foment are distractions from the fact that they have no agenda to help America’s working-class. Vance harps on about “cat ladies” and the “inconvenience” of rape because he has no policy, and indeed no desire, to help people like me. He has benefited from a system which exploits the working-class, making millions as a venture capitalist and someone who writes poverty porn for the metropolitan middle-classes while completely ignoring the structural inequalities which continue to plague people in both our home states.
My sister still lives in Overlook. My nieces attend the same elementary school I did. I want someone to help them, someone to make sure that they have even more opportunities than I had as a child in the 1990s. I want someone who respects their right to bodily self-determination. I want someone who respects gay people like me. I want someone who takes our plight seriously, not someone who blames us for our own circumstances or who compares us to mindless zombies.
Because it isn’t New York, but Dayton, that looks post-apocalyptic now. Looking around that Kroger, I couldn’t believe how bad things had gotten. Unlike Vance, though, I didn’t think to take a pot-shot at it. I thought, Wow, I wish someone would help these people.
Clearly, JD Vance is not the man to do that. He is a self-serving charlatan, someone who has lost touch with his roots but has somehow ridden them to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and who has styled himself as the leader of a people who never asked him to speak for us. Ohio voters should not be fooled by this chicanery.
JD Vance is not a hillbilly. He’s a hoaxer.