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We’ve Seen Enough of J.D. Vance

You can't let charity cloud analysis.
by Jim Swift
July 27, 2021
Venture capitalist and author JD Vance (2nd from R) shakes hands with Tim Cook (R), chief executive officer of Apple, on the third day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 13, 2017 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Every July, some of the world's most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, technology and political spheres converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive weeklong conference. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Mona Charen wrote a column entitled “J.D. Vance Joins the Jackals.” It was ahead of its time, and it drew some criticism because Vance was months away from declaring that he was actually running for the Senate in Ohio.

Ramesh Ponnuru pushed back against Charen, gently, in a column entitled “Charity as an Intellectual Virtue,” suggesting that critics of Vance could read his actions and statements in a more charitable light. This is from his conclusion:

My point in considering these two incidents together is not to say that we should be more charitable to one another just because it would be nice (although that is certainly advice I could stand to dwell on). It’s not even that different types of conservative should be charitable to one another for the sake of the causes they hold in common. It’s that often, and in these particular cases, charitable assumptions about other people can aid understanding—whether it’s understanding of why a lot of conservatives support Trump, or of the obstacles between pro-lifers and our objectives.

In the general sense, Ponnuru is unquestionably right. First, there are very few situations in life that are not improved by being more charitable. And second, as a pragmatic matter, being charitable can help you understand the world around you.

Of course, if being charitable were easy, then everyone would do it. Charity can be a tough virtue to live and the well of charity is most often filled by time and friendship. It’s much easier to take a charitable view of someone being a knucklehead if they’ve been your best friend since kindergarten.

But even virtues can be vices if taken to an extreme. And the risk of charity is that, if carried too far, it can become delusion. At some point, charity becomes constrained by reality.

So let’s talk some more about J.D. Vance. But let’s start with Josh Mandel.

Josh Mandel was my first boss in politics back in 1999, and I was a booster of his for many years, until recently. If you had asked me in 2012 when he first ran for the U.S. Senate if he had good character, I would have told you yes. As he started turning into an internet troll I probably viewed him more charitably than others. After all, I knew the guy. I knew what the engine was like under the hood.

But after a while, even the most charitable explanations for what Mandel was doing just didn’t work. At some point, you are what you do.

Politics is built on relationships and friendships. And in the same way I knew Mandel from my time coming up in the world, J.D. Vance made a lot of friends on his way up, too.

And now, those friends are being forced to reckon with how the J.D. Vance they knew (or thought they did) is related to the J.D. Vance they’re seeing now. To my mind, there are three possible scenarios:

(1) Vance is a good guy pretending to be a bad guy, because it’s what his career demands at the moment.

(2) Vance was always a bad guy, who just pretended to be good when it was useful in the before times.

(3) Vance legitimately changed—he believed all of the stuff he said four years ago. And now he believes all of the opposite stuff that he’s saying now.

You can be charitable in trying to analyze why Vance has changed. But in terms of evaluating the change he has made, I think we’re at the point where we risk having charity turn to delusion.

This is what Charen wrote back in March:

Scroll through his Twitter feed and you will find retweets of Tucker Carlson, alarmist alerts about immigration, links to Vance’s appearances on the podcasts of Seb Gorka, Dinesh D’Souza, and the like, and even retweets of Mike Cernovich. On February 16, he tweeted “I still can’t believe the 45th president of the United States has no access to social media, and the left—alleged opponents of corporate power—is just totally fine with it.” There’s a lot along those lines. But the tweet that really made my heart sink was this one from February 12: “Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children.”

Since then, we’ve had so many more data points that it’s impossible not to see the trend. Vance has been:

  • Positively citing a sourceless QAnon / Pizzagate promoter, Jack Posobiec, in defending Tucker Carlson’s claim the NSA was spying on him to destroy his show. 
  • Similarly, citing Posobiec again suggesting that Visa is going to ban people from using Visa cards to buy ammunition.
  • Celebrating the fifth anniversary of “American Greatness” with a retweet of Darren Beattie, who was fired from the Trump White House for his associations with white nationalists, celebrating a site rife with racial controversy and a tendency for catering to white nationalists. (Beattie runs the alt-right site Revolver.news.)
  • Sharing an article suggesting that TSA employees are “the least valuable, least trustworthy, lowest-functioning Americans on this side of the prison system” from Revolver.News, where Beattie was likely the author.
  • Comparing a case of an insurrectionist who was party to a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol to overthrow an election to Black Lives Matter protesters who did nothing remotely similar—and asking sincerely if this was “American Justice?”
  • Suggesting that the Anti-Defamation League (read: the Jews) was going to start further deplatforming conservatives by “denying access to the financial system.”

And that’s just the last two weeks.

I would submit that we’ve seen enough of J.D. Vance.

We should be charitable in trying to understand why he is this way. But we can’t be delusional in analyzing what he actually is.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.