Statesman or Shitposter? J.D. Vance Makes His Entrance in Washington


J.D. Vance has a running song. “I listen to it every time I run,” the new junior senator from Ohio says. “I ran this morning so now it’s stuck in my head.” We’re standing outside his office; his aide is holding the door open, seemingly desperate to get the senator back into the safety of a reporter-less room. Usually Vance is good about this dynamic. It took four days to break through the senator’s “no hallway interviews” discipline, ultimately with a question on catalytic converter theft breaking the ice. By the next day he was talking, even about the 1990s rock song “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers, which Jakob Dylan, the band’s lead singer once said is ultimately about “the death of ideas.”

Vance was sworn into a quiet Senate—one in stark contrast to the newly minted, chaotic, Republican House. He moved into the office next door to John Fetterman’s. The two share identical temporary spaces; small and tucked away down a service corridor in the basement of a Senate building. Both freshman senators avoided hallway interviews with the Capitol press during their first weeks in the Senate—Fetterman because his auditory function is impaired by the stroke he suffered on the campaign trail; Vance because he was simply unwilling to engage, at first. 

Rather, Vance’s presence in his early weeks were defined mostly by his Fox News appearances, of which there have been many, and his incendiary interrogations during committee hearings—like the time he asked Gigi Sohn, the consumer advocate Joe Biden has now nominated three times to serve on the FCC, if she would approve of someone who made the statement: “President Obama is a raggedy Black supremacist president and his cowardly enablers would rather kill everybody than stop killing white people.”

“Do you think a person who said that should be appointed or confirmed to the FCC?” he charged her with. 

Sohn made Vance repeat the question. Vance repeated the cringeworthy statement about Obama. “You retweeted the exact same thing, only with President Trump instead of President Obama and the races reversed,” Vance declared. 

This is the kind of white grievance heroism Vance became particularly adept at on the campaign trail, enough to transform from the country’s—even Hollywood’s!—anti–Donald Trump Hillbilly Elegy darling, to Trump’s star choice in Ohio’s Senate contest. This is the man who ran a campaign ad titled “Are you a racist?” decrying Biden’s immigration agenda for allowing “Democrat voters” to pour over the borders. Whether it is all an act or Vance really has been radicalized, as Simon van Zuylen-Wood posed in the The Washington Post, his entrance into the Senate indicates that the shitposting (the posing with a gun ready to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon) and bearded, red meat stylism isn’t going anywhere. 

Then a train came off the track in East Palestine, Ohio. 

It took Vance’s office nearly 10 days to issue an official statement about the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine (about a week longer than it took for his office to publish a letter in response to the gas-stove hysteria), a tragedy that has consumed much of the junior senator’s time ever since. He visited Ohio with Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. who had clearly seen a political window to capitalize on the tragedy by passing out MAGA hats and water bottles with his name on it.

But Vance has also put on another hat in the Senate. He’s working with Sherrod Brown on a bipartisan rail-safety bill—a new development as of mid-February, when Brown said he had yet to hear from Vance on any topic let alone the toxic waste spewing into Ohio’s air (“I don’t give people advice unless they ask for it,” Brown said on Valentine’s Day about whether he’d passed anything along to the junior senator). Vance’s most recent Fox News appearance with Bill Hemmer delivered a common-sense explanation: There should be more regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials, and rail companies that fail to keep the communities they travel through safe should be held accountable.

“That’s pretty good, man—a big bill in two weeks, what do you expect?” Brown said of his new working relationship with Vance. “Took me longer than that with Portman. Portman and I did all kinds of stuff together and I’m hopeful this is a signal that J.D. and I can work together a whole lot.”

Thus begins the next phase in Vance’s evolution from Ohio hillbilly, to Yale Law grad to venture capitalist, to best-selling author and Appalachia whisperer for elites, to junior senator from Ohio replacing Rob Portman. 

Portman retired from the Senate earlier this year respected on both sides of the political aisle for his ability to regularly work with Democrats on everything from infrastructure to codifying marriage equality; he left because he was frustrated with polarization, which, he admitted, Trump did not help. Vance is notably a different Republican than Portman. He fits among those dubbed the “New Right”; Peter Thiel–funded, he’s a cultural conservative, seemingly economically populist who rails against both big corporations and immigrants. And he’s not afraid of indulging the GOP’s most right-wing base.

Vance’s toggle between discerning conservative to a MAGA fire-breather isn’t a sure thing politically—even in Ohio. Groups aligned with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell invested $28 million in his race last year; Vance beat Democrat Tim Ryan by six points in a solidly red state that Ohio GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine won by 25 points. In 2016, Portman outperformed Trump when he walloped former governor Ted Strickland in his second and final reelection campaign. 

Still, the senator appears to be walking that line. “I certainly came in expecting the political environment to be so partisan, that it would be harder to get anything done,” Vance told Politico’s Burgess Everett. “In reality, so long as you’re not being a total jerk about it, I think it’s possible to do things.” He has cosponsored a bill with Democratic senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, to create a criminal penalty of up to five years in jail for people convicted of stealing catalytic converters out of cars. “It was a good opportunity to do something that affects not just our state but the broader Midwest,” sighed Vance in the hallway interview with Vanity Fair that broke the dam, as it were, on the senator’s willingness to engage off-the-cuff with the Capitol press.


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