Six short years ago, J.D. Vance penned a piece in the Atlantic comparing Donald Trump to opioids. “Trump’s promises are the needle in America’s collective vein,” he wrote. “Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.” In the six years since writing those words, it’s Vance, not Trump’s voters, whose mind has changed. Since announcing his run for Senate, Vance has become what he used to chastise: the worst kind of whiny, angry, instinctively hostile, dismissive, dog-whistling troll.

Vance...

Six short years ago, J.D. Vance penned a piece in the Atlantic comparing Donald Trump to opioids. “Trump’s promises are the needle in America’s collective vein,” he wrote. “Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.” In the six years since writing those words, it’s Vance, not Trump’s voters, whose mind has changed. Since announcing his run for Senate, Vance has become what he used to chastise: the worst kind of whiny, angry, instinctively hostile, dismissive, dog-whistling troll.

Vance first burst onto the scene as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir which told the story of an often-forgotten cross-section of the American public. I loved Hillbilly Elegy. In our race-obsessed zeitgeist, “white privilege” has become a catchall for dismissing the idea that white people have any real problems of their own. Nothing is worth addressing, bemoaning, pitying or trying to solve within the white world, regardless of class, because none of the experiences of someone with white privilege could possibly compare to the experience of being a person of color in this country.

Vance dispelled that myth. He introduced his readers to a population of white Americans they had never encountered, let alone spent much time imagining. His writing was vivid and his story inspiring. It was a classic underdog tale, and you felt yourself rooting for Vance and the people who supported him.

His breakout book makes his current turn all the more disappointing. Hillbilly Elegy gave people the cover they needed to acknowledge that the experience of the white American isn’t monolithic, and that white people too can suffer and experience generational hardship. For the author who koshered that sentiment to now partner with unabashed race-baiters like Marjorie Taylor Greene utterly discredits his work and what it accomplished.

What’s deeply upsetting is that we know Vance knows better. We’ve seen the other Vance, the thoughtful, articulate, nuanced, reasonable and deeply inspiring Vance. We are left with two options. Either this new creature is the product of genuine evolution — and Vance has undergone drastic changes — leaving us to wonder what happened and to fear this mutation in our friends and family.

Or, perhaps more frighteningly, it’s an act. Perhaps this cartoonish behavior from Vance is a façade. Perhaps he gets home and laughs at his followers and potential voters. Perhaps he has become something he hates out of a perverse dedication to realpolitik. Vance is an astute enough actor to read the tea leaves. Republicans like myself have gone out of fashion. We are squishes, RINOs who are politically homeless and electorally hopeless.

We cannot judge the inner motivation and the private mind. We can only react to what we see and hear. And what we are seeing and hearing from J.D. Vance is deeply, utterly, soul-crushingly distressing. Not just because of the loss of Vance as a wise and moral thinker; he was interesting and bright and thoughtful but Churchill he was not. What’s distressing is what this portends for Republicans all over the country.

We are removed from the Trump presidency, removed from the Trump loss, removed from the January 6 riot. But things haven’t returned to normal, and Vance’s turn suggests they won’t. Vance was never hostile to the Trump voter. Instead, he used to function as a sort of translator for the coastally confused. To liberals who saw every Trump voter as a racist or a misogynist who wanted to hurt all women and minorities, Vance gave an explanation.

He described Trump voters’ motivations and tried to get at the heart of what inspired their votes. He aimed to understand, and to help others understand, how economic distress has reshaped many of the old political divides of the nation. His written commentary, most notably that Atlantic piece in which he compared Trumpism to the opioid epidemic, made clear his real sympathy for the base. He understood what had driven them to Trump and he understood that Trump would never deliver on the things they needed most.

Vance has taken that sympathy and warped it into something much more sinister. Vance is now the needle in the arm that he once bemoaned so articulately. He too is promising quick fixes, resting on easy touchstones and blaming liberals. He is acting as though everyone with a different political outlook is evil and out to destroy Americans and partnering with the most unsavory characters in a despicable race to the bottom. If that gets him the win, we all lose.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.