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J.D. Vance's Twitter trolling of New York City is Trump populism at its most cynical

Feeling the pressure of a tight primary, Vance felt compelled this past weekend to dredge up one of the most hackneyed cliches in the conservative playbook.
Image: JD Vance, the venture capitalist and author of \"Hillbilly Elegy\", during a rally on July 1, 2021, in Middletown, Ohio
J.D. Vance during a rally on July 1 in Middletown, Ohio, where he announced he is joining the crowded Republican race for the Ohio U.S. Senate seat being left by Rob Portman.Jeffrey Dean / AP

J.D. Vance, author of the briefly relevant memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” is now running for the Republican nomination for the Ohio Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. It’s a tough race, and Vance is starting well behind in the polls.

Feeling the pressure, Vance felt compelled this past weekend to dredge up one of the most hackneyed cliches in the conservative playbook: asking his 135,000 Twitter followers if the “disgusting and violent” New York City was “like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?”

Aside from clarifying that Vance won’t be able to make it as a comedian if his senatorial bid fails, the tweet proves there’s absolutely nothing new about Vance and other “populist” supporters of former President Donald Trump. These faux populists are just attempting to sell upper-class-friendly policies with the same superficially working-class rhetoric Republicans have been using for decades.

Like virtually everything about his public persona, Vance’s feigned terror over the prospect of visiting the unfamiliar hellhole of Manhattan is amusing because it is almost surreally phony. A wealthy venture capitalist who made his fortune working for Peter Thiel — a metaphorical (and, Thiel hopes, literal) vampire — in Silicon Valley after getting his law degree from an ultra-exclusive school 80 miles from New York, Vance is assuredly familiar with the Big Apple. And as many wags on Twitter pointed out, crime rates in his current home base of Cincinnati are far higher.

Vance’s feigned terror over the prospect of visiting the unfamiliar hellhole of Manhattan is amusing because it is almost surreally phony.

Vance, in other words, has more contempt for the intelligence of the typical Ohio Republican voter than even the snootiest Upper West Side elitist. While such aggressive pandering toward Trump voters on Twitter is new, his disdain for members of the Appalachian working class who have not shared his good fortune has always been evident.

While “Hillbilly Elegy” got a lot of attention in light of Trump’s upset win in 2016, its policy prescriptions were the same, hoary blame-the-victim tropes that have long characterized Republican policy toward poor people. As Sarah Jones observed in The New Republic, Vance’s analysis was mostly just Reaganite myths about “welfare queens” simply “repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” While Vance was trying to establish his brand as a working-class whisperer, his solutions for "problems" like immigration, critical race theory and Big Tech would please libertarian plutocrats like Thiel, who has donated $10 million in support of Vance’s Senate bid.

In this, Vance is very much like the former president whose support he is so palpably desperate to attain. In 2016, when Vance had a book to sell to the mainstream media, he portrayed himself as a never-Trump Republican, criticizing Trump’s extensive personal misconduct and racist cruelty. Trying to explain his convenient transformation from critic to supporter just in time to run for office, Vance told Time’s Molly Ball that while he had initially thought Trump “was not going to be able to really make progress on the issues I cared about,” he now understood that “if I actually care about [the white working class] and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him.”

But, of course, despite his sporadic evocations of economic populism on the campaign trial — as Trump was a more orthodox supporter of Reaganomics than Reagan himself — pretty much the only significant legislation he signed before the Covid-19 pandemic hit was a tax cut almost comically skewed toward the rich and corporations. The other main item on his legislative agenda was a nearly successful attempt to take health care away from tens of millions of people to help pay for yet another tax cut that would disproportionately help the wealthy.

Trump’s executive agenda involved the extensive regulation of business, and his judicial appointments were vetted to be as pro-corporate as possible. Even President George W. Bush’s vacuous “compassionate” conservatism offered a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Except for passing Covid-19 relief bills to try to repair the damage of a pandemic Trump himself exacerbated, Trump’s administration was a big economic zero for the working class. That Vance looked at four years of Trumpism and saw a kindred spirit should tell you everything you know about his “populism.”

This also goes for the other politician Vance cited as a role model in his interview with Time, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley. Hawley’s superficial anti-corporate rhetoric has fooled even some liberals into believing there’s substance behind it. But when the rubber hits the road, the Missouri lawmaker is just a generic Republican serving the wealthy, supporting Trump’s upper-class cuts, arguing that theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional and supporting Trump’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. His criticism of corporate America might sound sharp, but when it comes time to vote, he’s a pussycat.

There’s absolutely nothing new in the fake populism being offered by Republicans like Vance and Hawley. It’s just the same old routine Republicans have been running for decades: invoke an ever-shifting array of minor culture war controversies — immigration, China, some things often erroneously described as “critical race theory,” a few Dr. Seuss books nobody reads anymore — to disguise economic policies committed to upward wealth distribution. Unless Ohio voters can monetize jokes about New York City, they will find no material relief from a Sen. J.D. Vance. He’s become a Trump ally because they’re running the same con.