Two photos of a white man

Hillbilly or the Hamptons? Not even J.D. Vance seems to know.

Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance has made his name as a “hillbilly” turned venture capitalist. He met with Trump back in March and is now one of the many Ohio Republicans trying to get Trump’s blessing in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. Even with all of his money and connections, Vance faces an uphill battle due to his previous anti-Trump positions, his connection to Silicon Valley elites, and the distrust he garners from real working-class Appalachians.

Vance’s best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy (and subsequent Netflix film of the same name) described his life’s journey – from growing up in Middletown, Ohio, while occasionally visiting family in Kentucky then joining the Marines and attending Yale. He went on to become a venture capitalist and, naturally, a poster boy for the American Dream.

After his book became a success, Vance became a CNN contributor where he explained to confused liberals why Trump won the 2016 election, although he didn’t support Trump himself. He marketed himself as the spokesperson translating Trump supporters’ anti-establishment anger to media and financial elites.

Since announcing his campaign, Vance has completely flipped on his opposition to Trump. Vance went from denouncing the former president’s xenophobia to rebranding it for his own campaign. Tweets were deleted, and he’s still apologizing for speaking against Trump.

Vance claims his views changed as he saw how “successful” Trump was as president. As Vance put it, he was “red-pilled.” Vance’s populist campaign blames both immigrants and the “elites and the ruling class” for “robbing” Americans, claiming “the old way of doing things ain’t working.”

Many Appalachians like Benji Pyles, a food and retail union organizer in West Virginia, resent Vance’s Appalachian branding. “Vance lies about his Appalachian upbringing because it allows him to weaponize a type of ‘poverty porn’,” Pyles said, “to bolster his ‘populist’ right-wing agenda.”

But Pyles, who comes from a steelworker family, warns that Vance should be taken seriously. He points out that his rhetoric carries a very real weight, observing that “Vance has even praised proto-fascist (Viktor) Orbán of Hungary.” However, the media doesn’t appear to be taking Vance very seriously at all.

After taking a jet out to the Hamptons for a fundraiser, Vance’s trip was published and mocked online. This was also the case after he deleted his tweets critical of Trump, with media personalities predicting it would backfire.

It sometimes seems as though Vance even purposely does things he knows will be made fun of by the media. In a rally he quoted radical abolitionist John Brown in support of his campaign, he blamed Democrats for not passing infrastructure while Republicans blocked it, and the list seems to grow every day. Each contradiction is blown up online with responses on social media and articles written about them.

Vance’s flip and the contradiction of his claiming to be an outsider while being an insider is the same contradiction that led to Trump’s success. The more articles that were posted on mainstream media highlighting Trump’s corruption, the more support his anti-establishment cause gained. If Trump’s success is any indicator for future politics, then this kind of negative media coverage could conceivably work to Vance’s benefit. Calling him a clown and moralizing the character of Vance’s politics could give him the anti-establishment edge he needs to counteract his Yale graduate/venture capitalist personality.

The “elites” who might’ve preferred Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016, who laughed at the idea of Trump’s victory, have proven that they can benefit just as profitably (or more) under a right-wing populist. With record-breaking tax breaks and deregulation, the only thing that went against ruling class interests might’ve been the trade war and the increased social tensions from Trump’s right-wing policies.

The working-class voters who are more fragmented and divided politically are now facing a ruling class that can shift fluidly with right-wing deviations. In many ways, J.D. Vance is an individual embodiment of this ruling class shift. As a venture capitalist who was anti-Trump, Vance opportunistically jumped into politics under the Trump banner once Trump proved to stay in line with the ruling class. It’s not that the elites are now fully backing Trump, but rather that they can shift with the tide while the working class suffers under both.

While Vance might not win, media and political commentators should not be so quick to laugh at his campaign as they did with Trump’s. Appalachian resident Dan Taylor, an activist from Kentucky who also resents Vance’s Appalachian marketing, told me that Vance is “more highly-educated than Trump and seemingly has more suburban middle-class sensibilities.” Vance’s contradictions, like Trump’s, can boost his chances of winning, if not now then possibly in the future. Taylor observed that “his reactionary views are certainly always to be taken as a threat.”

This article first appeared in People’s World.