The Media Today

The Vance-Carlson-Trump nexus

May 4, 2022
Republican Senate candidate JD Vance walks onto stage during an election night watch party, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

“Cultural heroin.” In July 2016, J.D. Vance used those words, in an Atlantic op-ed, to explain, and ultimately dismiss, the appeal of Donald Trump in “broken communities” across America. It was a weighty charge coming from a man whose just-published memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, had discussed the scourge of opioids in the Ohio town where he grew up; his own mother was addicted to prescription narcotics and, later, used heroin. Fast-forward six years, and the same Donald Trump endorsed the same J.D. Vance to be the Republican candidate for US Senate in Ohio, though he struggled to remember his name. (“We’ve endorsed J.P., right? J.D. Mandel,” Trump said at a rally on Sunday, confusing Vance with his opponent Josh Mandel.) The primary was yesterday, and Vance won it by a clear margin. Predictably, given the media obsession over Trump’s endorsements, major outlets glued “Trump backed” to Vance’s name in their headlines.

Vance is not a journalist—he’s usually described as an author and venture capitalist—but he has been a media figure since 2016, when his book landed in the grateful laps of liberal journalists befuddled by Trump’s burgeoning hold on white working-class Republican voters. In a review for the New York Times, Jennifer Senior called the book “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion”; writing in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria called it a “lovely book” containing “more insight than a dozen polls.” (Some natives of Appalachia, which features prominently in the book given Vance’s family roots there, vigorously disagreed, casting Vance as a phony and his diagnosis of “learned helplessness” in hillbilly culture as sloppy.) Vance himself toured TV studios and penned Trump-translation op-eds, not only for The Atlantic, but for the Times and others. He chided the mainstream media for failing to hear the concerns of many Trump voters, but his criticism seemed mostly to be driven by the fear that writing them off as uniformly racist would suck them into the maw of “Breitbart and the worst impulses of the conservative media,” with its increasingly conspiratorial bent. That would lead to “a permanently angry white underclass,” he told Slate, “and I obviously don’t want that to happen.”

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Vance has since stepped from the media world into the political one, executing a hard pro-Trump pivot and cultivating a trollish social media persona to match while playing down the personal-responsibility emphases of Hillbilly Elegy and amping up attacks on the perceived dark forces threatening American workers. “Are you a racist? Do you hate Mexicans?” he asked last month, in an instantly infamous campaign ad. The media, he continued, “censor us, but it doesn’t change the truth: Joe Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans.” Much media coverage of Vance’s Senate bid has explored, or deplored, this change of tack, so much so that Simon van Zuylen–Wood referred, in an insightful January profile of Vance for the Post’s magazine, to an “emerging canon of ‘what happened to J.D. Vance’ commentary.” (If Vance has changed, then so too, I would argue, has a liberal punditsphere that promoted his insights in 2016 but since lost interest—for better or worse or, plausibly, both—in anthropologizing Trump fans.)

Not that van Zuylen–Wood agreed with the Vance-pivot framing. “Vance’s new political identity isn’t so much a façade or a reversal as an expression of an alienated worldview that is, in fact, consistent with his life story,” he wrote, calling Vance “one of the leading political avatars of an emergent populist-intellectual persuasion that tacks right on culture and left on economics” and is known, among other things, as “national conservatism.” Other journalists have engaged with Vance’s current message on similarly philosophical terms, as well as with a constellation of books and journals (Vance, per van Zuylen–Wood, reads the “comically dense” American Affairs) that fall under the broader banner of the “New Right.” Its ideas, the Post columnist Greg Sargent wrote recently, have “important long-term implications for the future of our politics.”

The aforementioned constellation also reaches into cable news, and one hugely influential show in particular. In March, Jason Zengerle, of the New York Times Magazine, described Vance and Blake Masters, a GOP Senate candidate in Arizona, as “Tucker Carlson politicians,” defining Carlson—“the rare Fox News host whose words carry weight with conservative intellectuals”—as a standard-bearer for national conservatism, and arguing that both Vance and Masters have worked to translate the language of his nightly monologues into viable campaigns for office. Vance has been a regular guest on Carlson’s show, while Carlson has explicitly backed Vance and was apparently key in landing him Trump’s endorsement, with Rolling Stone reporting that Carlson phoned Trump to assure him that Vance is now in his corner. Last night, Vance thanked Carlson in his victory speech.

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In his piece, Zengerle articulated what I see as the key tension hanging over discussions of ideological gradations on the modern right. “Depending on your point of view,” he wrote, “NatCons are either attempting to add intellectual heft to Trumpism or trying to reverse-engineer an intellectual doctrine to match Trump’s lizard-brain populism.” If the mainstream press has compiled a canon of “what happened to him?” pieces about Vance, it has done so to an even greater extent with Carlson, who has his own background in elite coastal journalism circles. (CJR published one by Lyz Lenz in 2018, which you should go read.) The genre arguably reached its apex last weekend as Nicholas Confessore, of the Times, published a definitive three-part series laying out, in laudably forthright language (for the Times), how Carlson built perhaps the “most racist show in the history of cable news” and became the “pre-eminent champion of Americans who feel most threatened by the rising power of Black and brown citizens.” An accompanying content analysis of his show demonstrated how Carlson has pushed “extremist ideas and conspiracy theories” into viewers’ homes, including allusions to the heinous “great replacement” theory that liberal elites are trying to engineer demographic change. Democrats, Carlson said, are importing “more obedient voters from the third world.” In his recent ad, Vance referred to “more Democrat voters pouring into this country” over the Mexican border.

The links between right-wing media and politics, and the different ideological factions animating these increasingly interlinked worlds, are well worth trying to pin down. I wrote recently that the press boiling the current GOP primaries down to Trump’s endorsement power is an overly simplistic and potentially misleading framing, and the Vance-Carlson nexus is, in some ways, a further reminder that there is greater complexity lurking beneath the horse-race headlines. None that I saw about Vance’s victory described him as “Carlson backed,” despite the latter’s direct bearing on Trump’s endorsement and clear broader responsibility for the present political climate.

Still, since the earliest days of Trump, sections of the press have tended to over-intellectualize fundamentally simple aspects of his appeal—not least his racism and authoritarianism—that form an increasingly common bedrock for Republican politics. If swaths of the press hailed Vance as a thought leader, of sorts, in 2016, it perhaps makes more sense to situate him as a thought follower now; as Confessore demonstrated adroitly, Carlson is in the vanguard these days, and the core of his message is not very complicated. Breitbart may have lost relevance, but the worst impulses of conservative media seem stronger than ever, and Vance has sucked himself in.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.