The MAGA circus was back in town on Tuesday night, my town of Cincinnati, this time in the person of past and more recent Ohioan J.D. Vance, looking to secure the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate from Ohio.
No image could, perhaps, better capture the evening than an early shot, around 6 to 7 p.m., of the stage at the Duke Energy Center, where the victory celebration—or so they hoped—was getting set to kick off.
A dozen and a half Vance-ites, mostly clad in jeans and short-sleeve Ts in the populist spirit of Vance’s message, were chatting in front of the then-empty stage adorned by a large Vance sign in the middle, flanked on either end by American flags and two large-screen TVs with Tucker Carlson’s oversize visage taking up most of the screen. MAGA chef’s kiss.
There was reason for optimism in the room. Vance, who at one point barely registered in the polls, had received a huge boost due to an endorsement from the capo di tutti capi of MAGA himself, former President Donald Trump.
Sure, Vance had in the past referred to Trump as “cultural heroin,” when the former was taking in brunches with billionaires in the city that has to qualify as at least the seventh (eighth?) circle of MAGA hell, San Francisco. And writing about how working-class Ohioans he grew up with, before leaving for Yale and the venture-capitalism Valhalla of Silicon Valley, California, had to toughen up, stop being victimized by conmen and OxyContin, not to mention oft-bankrupt real estate developers pushing fraudulent universities, as but one example.
Yet Vance had come back from all that. He had transformed himself from writing odes in The Atlantic to the brunches and wine country of San Francisco: “A few Saturdays ago, my wife and I spent the morning volunteering at a community garden in our San Francisco neighborhood. After a few hours of casual labor, we and the other volunteers dispersed to our respective destinations: tasty brunches, day trips to wine country, art-gallery tours. It was a perfectly normal day, by San Francisco standards.”
Or, slightly different, you could say, from an afternoon out at my local Skyline diner slurping down a coney with chili, cheese, and sliced onions while rooting for Bengals QB Joe Burrow as if Cincinnati’s entire future hangs in the balance. Vance has transitioned from Pelosi-district art-gallery hopper to hard-hitting MAGA partisan, more than ready to feed his former neighbors the very same cultural opioids of lost virility and victimhood that have made Trump such a hit in locales such as Middletown, Ohio, where Vance grew up, which he chronicled in his bestselling memoir turned movie, Hillbilly Elegy.
But Vance hadn’t moved back to Ohio hat in hand—unless you’re including a large San Francisco Giants cap stuffed with $10 million from his former and current patron, tech billionaire Peter Thiel.
OK, Thiel didn’t just hand him the money, but before Vance stepped foot back in Ohio, a super PAC was set up by the mercurial billionaire to support Vance’s run. And recently, up to $3 million more in pro-Vance spending has been traced to Thiel.
Yet Thiel provided something far more valuable. His friendship with Trump and the bright (tangerine-tinged?) light from the heavens that was 45’s forgiveness for Vance’s past anti-Trump broadsides, like “My God, what an idiot” and “I’m a Never-Trump guy.” Vance even did the unthinkable of implying he might hold his nose and vote for Hillary in 2016. In MAGA world, that’s like calling Trump poor.
But Thiel scored Trump’s endorsement for Vance, and Don Jr. even campaigned with him. The rest of the rogue’s gallery also joined Vance on the trail, including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, just off of saying the Catholic Church was beholden to Satan (does a Satan-controlled church have the wherewithal to dodge Jewish lasers?). Vance also toured Ohio with Representative Matt Gaetz, currently under federal investigation for trafficking underage women.
This, to put it mildly, is a far cry from the conservatism we once knew here, which defined past Ohio Republicans. The conservatism of the Tafts, John W. Bricker, and George Voinovich: traditionalist, cautious to a fault, modest, suspicious of big government programs or entanglements abroad.
Back onstage at the Duke Energy Center, none of the fringe figures Vance has lately been palling around with were present. It was just J.D., and his wife a bit off to the side, triumphantly speaking as he pulled away from his competition. This included the original front-runner, State Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Vance only won with 32 percent, with both Mandel and the more traditional conservative, Matt Dolan—who rejected Trump’s lie about the 2020 election—each almost winning a quarter of the vote. Dolan’s voters, in particular, won’t be a gimme for Vance in November.
But as he patrolled the stage with a growing confidence—still, however, speaking to a relatively sparse crowd—Vance was worried about none of this. He remade the result of the primary into an overwhelming “America First” statement, much as he’s remade his entire persona from Northern California multimillionaire venture capitalist to regular guy living in Ohio, caring about the concerns of those having a hard time paying the bills.
And he stuck with the script: “I absolutely have to thank the forty-fifth, the president of the United States, Donald Trump.” A nice rhetorical sleight to a MAGA land of make-believe, in which the man who is not currently president still resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Vance is all in now. He has bought into the Big Lie and brought forward a bevy of outright authoritarian statements, such as purging liberals from the federal government. He is not the J.D. Vance whose book your mother told you to read.
Meanwhile, Representative Tim Ryan, whose background includes winning Youngstown voters trending toward Trump in the past and appearing like he’d fit right in at a biker rally, awaits. In fact, Ryan started his broadside on some of these very themes with an ad right out of the gate.
Buckle up, Buckeye State, because this is gonna be a helluva race.