All eyes are on the flyover state of Ohio as the fight for the future of Trumpism unfolds.
In January, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman announced he was bowing out of politics for good. His vacancy has set up a rare primary between two candidates offering two different versions of Donald Trump’s amorphous ideology. One believes the former president’s rhetoric should assimilate with bygone Tea Party-era politics and contemporary culture war talking points. The other is running on the populist rollercoaster that slung Trump into the White House.
Rust Belt boy wonder Josh Mandel, who served in the statehouse and was state treasurer for almost a decade, touts a pro-Trump campaign ‘to protect the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America.’ Party leaders and bipartisan GOP senators from outside the state are throwing their support behind him as Mandel attempts to ingratiate himself with the base. Elsewhere, J.D. Vance wants to reimagine conservatism.
To Vance, free trade, immigration, legal and illegal alike, and venture capitalism have destroyed working-class families and communities, crippled manufacturing, and accelerated the state’s worsening opioid crisis. His message abandons the typical, Republican, free-market, low-taxes approach to problems and instead combines liberal economic solutions with brash social conservatism. His campaign is essentially the Trumpism of 2016 but with far more nuance, guided by policy, not rhetoric.
But do voters want that?
Mandel’s strategy has been to openly pander to Trump voters by using catchy ‘own the libs’ phrases and chastising Chinese officials on Twitter. His message lacks detail but pledges absolute loyalty to Trump, the man, not the ideas that made Trump president. Yet this may be precisely what working-class voters want in the communities that Vance claims to represent.
Internal polling from a third party hired by Vance’s super PAC shows Mandel at a solid lead over six other Republicans, including Vance, with 21 percent support from registered Republicans. Vance landed in second with 12 percent, doubling his support from April. Although Vance’s advancement is being sold as a positive from his campaign and supporters, internal public polling almost always favors the hiring candidate and, in this case, still shows Mandel maintaining his lead in a crowded field. The increasing support likely comes from Vance’s regular appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Vance has used this platform to bash Big Tech and social media conglomerates for censoring conservative voices and monopolizing the public square. Although, like Trump in 2016, Vance is bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook investor, Peter Thiel.
In March, Thiel cut a $10 million check to Vance’s super PAC, Protect Ohio Values, drawing the eyes of reporters and consultants alike since the Paypal co-founder has been stingy with political donations ever since Trump’s loss. Thiel has also poured money into the Senate campaign for the COO of his investment firm, Blake Masters, and donated to the now Trump-endorsed Republican challenger to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Joe Kent. If either or all of those candidates win, Thiel’s influence will skyrocket and perhaps incentivize further financial donations to conservative causes. Nonetheless, Thiel’s support attracted intense media scrutiny, which may have contributed to Vance’s rising poll numbers and distrust from those in his party.
Vance made a name for himself by being the ‘liberal media’s favorite white trash-splainer’, as the New Republic put it. His memoir, and subsequent Netflix film, Hillbilly Elegy, detailed his rise from the boondocks of Ohio to the halls of Yale. However, as his star ascended, Vance wasn’t the pro-Trump candidate he is today. During the 2016 election, he voted for former CIA operative and independent candidate Evan McMullin. Not long after Vance announced his candidacy, old tweets critical of Trump began to resurface. In one tweet, Vance called then-candidate Trump ‘reprehensible’ due to his views toward immigrants and Muslims. He has since deleted those tweets and told The Spectator he addressed the issue with Trump in person during a meeting earlier this year at Mar-a-Lago brokered by none other than Thiel.
Business Insider published an extensive review into Vance’s nonprofit and private investment firm. In 2017, Vance launched Our Ohio Renewal, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting Ohio’s opioid epidemic. Tax filings indicate the group spent more money on ‘management services’ and raised only $50,000 during each year of its tenure. The IRS did not require them to disclose its activities and finances because of how little they raised. Vance has not filed a personal disclosure form with the Senate clerk’s office, so any potential conflicts of interest he may hold will be unknown to voters. Vance addressed these concerns and questions during an interview with The Spectator.
Despite these obstacles, Vance can still win; however, he will need to sustain attacks from both sides of the aisle and pray the man whose name adorns the ideology he fights for endorses him. The election will not occur until May, but the first debate is on October 4. If Vance wins, it will set the bar for what it means to be a pro-Trump Republican, now and in the future, while giving way to a new conservative kingmaker in Washington — Peter Thiel.
What follows is a transcript of The Spectator‘s interview with Vance, lightly edited for clarity.
PN: Are you socially conservative?
PN: Are you religious?
JV: Yes, I am a practicing Catholic.
PN: What is your stance on gay marriage?
JV: Well, look, I’m not going to publicly criticize the position of my church, which is that marriage is between a man and a woman. I also think obviously, legally in the United States, Obergefell v. Hodges basically decided that in a way that doesn’t make it a political decision anymore; it makes it a judicial decision.
PN: Peter Thiel is openly gay with a husband and adopted child. Do you believe gay couples should be allowed to adopt children?
JV: I believe that, legally, they have the right to adopt children, at least in most states that I’m aware of. And that’s not something that I’m looking to campaign against.
PN: Do you support gay couples being allowed to adopt?
JV: I’m fine with gay couples being allowed to adopt, but I think ideally children should be raised in a traditional family with a mom and dad. I know that’s not always possible sometimes. And so no, I’m not looking to take away the right of gay couples to adopt.
PN: What do you have to offer that Josh Mandel doesn’t? He supported Trump in 2016; you didn’t. You’re both vying for the same group of supporters in Ohio. Why shouldn’t voters go to the guy who supported Trump in 2016?
JV: It’s one thing to have not supported Trump in 2016 and another thing to have been an active supporter of the president and his agenda over the past few years. So I think the argument that I’d make to voters is pretty straightforward. I’ve said, yeah, I changed my mind on President Trump, but I’ve been very open about that. But when it really mattered when there was a big fight in this country over the last few years, I was actually out there taking arrows in the back, defending the president’s agenda, and standing up for some of the things that I think the president was fighting for. There’s nobody in the race that is actually going to put American citizens first and stand up for some of the things that Trump was fighting for.
PN: You met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year. What was that meeting like? What did you guys talk about?
JV: We talked about a lot of stuff. We talked about the election in 2020, foreign policy, trade, and China. We talked about just things that Trump cares about. It was a very long meeting.
PN: Did your past tweets criticizing him and the fact that you didn’t support him in 2016 come up?
JV: We talked very briefly about my tweets in 2016, and then we moved on. I think the president is very aware that I was a critic of his, and he’s also very clearly aware that I’ve been defending him publicly over the last several years. We’ve didn’t spent much time talking about that.
PN: Did you apologize?
JV: Uh, I don’t think so. I didn’t go in there trying to say sorry. I went in there just to explain to the president where I stood on the issues and where I stood on him personally. And that’s what I did.
PN: You’ve for many years talked about helping Ohio, especially with the opioid epidemic. Your nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal, didn’t raise much money and most of the expenses it did have went to management services. What families in Ohio affected by the opioid epidemic did your group help?
JV: We helped a lot of folks. The main thing we spent money on was doing work at the Ohio statehouse advocating for a better approach to kinship care in state law. Because one of the things I worry about is that basically the people within the extended family who are taking care of the orphans of the opioid epidemic are not getting the same support as government-licensed foster care. And so we worked on a lot on solving that problem. The thing we spent the most resources out on is that we actually brought some healthcare providers into Southeastern Ohio to fill some of the treatment gaps in mental health.
I think that helped a lot of families. I don’t have all of their names, and I think it would probably be a violation of HIPAA if I did. But I feel very confident that we helped some people in Ohio. Is it a massive nonprofit? No. Did we spend a lot of money? No. Did we raise a lot of money? No. And, most of the money, or at least a lot of the money, was my personal money that went into it.
PN: For years, you’ve run your private investment firm, Narya Capital. You have not filed any financial information that would give voters a sense of any conflict of interest you may have. Why haven’t you done that?
JV: Well, because I declared after any of the other candidates in the race, and I think that the deadline for us to actually file our financial disclosure hasn’t actually happened yet. And when it happens, I will do it.
PN: Do you have any conflicts of interest?
JV: I don’t think I have any conflicts of interest, but I’d be lying to you if I said I thought that seriously about it. ‘Cause most of the companies that we invest in are very tiny, very small, and are typically not doing business with the state of Ohio.
PN: You have had a long career path. You are an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, you’ve been an author, you’ve been involved with Silicon Valley, you were NeverTrump, and now you’re a self-described America First candidate. You’ve had all these political transformations throughout your adult life. How can voters trust that you won’t have another political transformation in four or five, six years?
JV: I reject the premise of the question. I haven’t had many political transformations over my life. I’ve always been an immigration hawk. I’ve always been a trade hawk. I’ve always been worried that our trade policies are not actually benefiting the long-term interests of the American worker. I changed my mind about Trump, but I’ve been very honest about that. I’m sure that I’ll change my mind on things in the future, but I think people ought to change their minds when the facts change, and I think my principles are pretty solid and pretty clear, and I haven’t wavered from them.
PN: Why did you change your mind on Trump?
JV: I thought he did a good job for the people that I cared about. And importantly, I also saw the left went completely crazy. And I realized there were a lot of advantages in Trump’s approach to governance.
PN: What about Trump’s governance did you like and dislike? What would you have done differently than him?
JV: Well, I think a lot of the problems of the Trump administration were frankly problems of a lot of Republicans in Congress not supporting him. The most obvious and most glaring example of this is in trade policy, where I think Trump was actively fighting members of his own party. Obviously, all of the investigations didn’t help the Trump administration. And I think, unfortunately, a lot of those investigations were politically motivated, but they did do their damage in distracting, at least the media narrative, from what Trump was doing. On the successful part, I mean, I do think despite the Republican intransigence, Trump did a lot of good on trade. He radically transformed the conversation around China such that even the Biden administration is rhetorically following the lead on some of Trump’s policies.
In foreign policy, he was a radical success. Why was he a radical success? Because he didn’t listen to the Pentagon bureaucracy and start another stupid war, which takes a lot of courage and a lot of fortitude. And then immigration, I think we actually had a pretty secure southern border for the last few years. And now we don’t. And I think it was really due to Trump having the political willpower to do what clearly Biden is unwilling to do, which has prevented people from coming across the Southern border illegally.
PN: You mentioned that Trump didn’t start a new war. He wasn’t a hawk when it came to military intervention abroad. Couldn’t your compliment also apply to Joe Biden with Afghanistan?
JV: Well, Joe Biden has been in office for six months. I would not say that I have a ton of confidence in his foreign policy based on what we’ve seen over the past month. If he had followed the plan that was in place before he became president, I don’t think we would have nearly the same disaster. He’s made two critical strategic errors that I think frankly got 13 Marines and soldiers killed. First, he changed the date with no real military reason for our withdrawal, and two, he abandoned the airfield in Bagram before we got all of our people out; both were pretty catastrophic decisions.
It’s not a foreign policy decision, as much as it’s an immigration decision, but what he did with the Afghan refugees, letting in at this point a hundred thousand unvetted refugees, I think suggests that he’s not especially interested in putting the interests of his own citizens first, which of course is the first responsibility of the president. So no, I’m not optimistic.
PN: You once said Republicans who side with the tech industry should issue a disclaimer that says ‘Big Tech pays my salary’. Is it not a bit odd that you’ve railed against Republicans who take money from tech giants, yet you’ve received millions from Peter Thiel, who sits on Facebook’s board?
JV: I don’t think it’s odd at all because Peter Thiel is the single biggest critic of Big Tech from within the industry that exists. And he’s lost a lot of friends and a lot of business relationships because he’s dared to state what is obvious, which is the big tech is too powerful. So, no, I don’t think it’s odd at all. I think it would be odd if I were taking a ton of money from Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. But I think the fact that the single biggest critic of Silicon valley in the world is supporting my campaign is pretty consistent with the substance that I’m running on.
PN: You’re a free trade restrictionist, but your campaign is centered on helping the Ohio working class. One of the benefits of free trade is that consumer prices have dramatically decreased over the last few decades. Specifically, when it comes to things like clothes and food. Wouldn’t the policies you’re advocating for cost the working class in Ohio more money for these goods?
JV: Well, there are a couple of ways to look at it. Certainly, in the short term, trade restrictions do raise consumer prices on certain goods, but I also think they lead to higher-quality consumer goods, which over the long term, saves people money. People might get cheaper clothes at Walmart, but are those clothes at the same quality as they were 30 or 40 years ago? And I think many people, especially from my home state and across large sections of their country, have ended up paying a little less for consumer goods at the price of losing manufacturing jobs. I don’t think that is a trade worth making, even if you ignore the problems with having a cheap chintzy consumer economy.
I think America should be more self-sufficient, and an economy is more self-sufficient where things are made. If Americans paid 20 percent less for pharmaceutical ingredients over the short term, that is a good thing. If they paid 20% less for pharmaceutical ingredients at the cost of actually not having access to some of those pharmaceutical ingredients during a pandemic, as the Chinese communist party threatened us last year, are they actually winning? My argument is no; they’re not.
PN: What’s your stance on H-1B visas? Do you want to suspend them entirely?
JV: Yes, I think they are abused by Silicon Valley and other large multinational corporations to undercut the wages of American workers. There are some really negative stories about how they’ve been used to the detriment of both immigrants and American workers.
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