J. D. Vance Makes His VP Pitch

Updated at 2:18 p.m. ET on June 18, 2024

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A lot can change in eight years. In the summer of 2016, J. D. Vance, writing in this magazine, characterized Donald Trump as “cultural heroin.” On Sunday morning in Michigan, Vance made his pitch to be Trump’s next vice president—by showing his fealty to the former president and sounding as much like him as possible.

Vance is reportedly on a Trump-VP shortlist that includes Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota. But Vance was the only one from this list who spoke at this past weekend’s People’s Convention, a sort of warm-up to the Republican National Convention hosted by the conservative 501(c)(4) Turning Point Action. Vance won the Turning Point vice-presidential straw poll with 43 percent of the vote; Scott finished in a distant second with 15.4 percent.

Addressing a few thousand people in the final keynote, Vance warned voters that Democrats are “trying to turn our home into a shithole.” He called for going after military generals who disobeyed Trump. He borrowed a few of the former president’s trusted bits, repeating, for instance, the anti-environmentalist line that windmills “kill all the birds.” Vance even enjoyed a sampling of the lowest of hanging fruit: “I mean, inflation is so bad that I heard that Hunter Biden can no longer afford crack cocaine, ladies and gentlemen!”

To an outsider, Vance’s obvious echoes of Trump might seem cringeworthy, but that type of flattery apparently works—so long as you don’t try to out-Trump Trump. Andrew Kolvet, a Turning Point spokesperson, told me that Vance is proving to be one of the Trump campaign’s most effective and articulate surrogates—specifically in speaking to Rust Belt voters. As someone who grew up in poverty and then went to Yale Law School before becoming an Ohio senator, “he’s kind of a class traitor like Trump,” Kolvet said. He went on: “He’s one of those guys that you can put on CNN, MSNBC, and he can chop it up with really adversarial interviewers and come out getting the better end of the deal.”

He can also “chop it up” in a more theatrical setting. On Sunday morning, like other People’s Convention speakers, he waltzed to the lectern through swirling spotlights, booming bass, and pyrotechnic columns of billowing smoke. Vance looked like a professional wrestler entering the ring and, at times, kind of sounded like one, too. His Father’s Day plans? To take down “a giant steak.”

Falling in line with other Trump acolytes, Vance proclaimed that the former president’s many indictments are politically motivated. “They can’t win the debate, and so they’re going to harass and try to jail their political opponents,” Vance said. “Donald Trump trying to challenge an election through constitutional means—that is the opposite of a constitutional crisis,” he told the crowd, reiterating something he had recently said to Ross Douthat, of The New York Times. “A constitutional crisis is when generals refuse to obey the orders of the commander in chief. Let’s go after those generals who refuse to obey those orders! Not against Donald Trump and his supporters!”

To the extent that Vance’s onstage performance had a message beyond loyalty to Trump, it was a nationalist one: “We are for an American nation that is built by American people, that employs American workers,” he said early on. But he went much further than that, such as when he blamed illegal immigrants for America’s rising housing costs. The solution, he said, is to “deport every single illegal alien who came to this country under Joe Biden’s regime.” Yesterday on X, he doubled down: “Not having 20 million illegal aliens who need to be housed (often at public expense) will absolutely make housing more affordable for American citizens.” At the People’s Convention, Vance confusingly referred to his own family as immigrants from Appalachian Kentucky to Ohio.

Millions came to know Vance’s life story through his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. The Vance who wrote that book came across as cerebral, someone who had a more nuanced view of the world than Trump and the rest of the MAGA movement. Vance, who will turn 40 this August, told the audience that, when he was 25 years old, all of the political energy was on the left. “Right now all of the energy is on the right,” he said. In a sense, he’s correct. Travel the country, and you’ll grasp that the lack of enthusiasm around Biden, especially among young people, is real. Many who plan to vote Democratic this year say they’re doing so as a stopgap against Trump and fascism, not necessarily for a second term of the Biden administration.

The crowd was most engaged when Vance spoke about Trump—but nothing like they had been the night before, when Trump took the stage and offered his followers the real thing. Speaking to an estimated 8,000 people, Trump was livelier and more animated than I’ve seen him during this campaign cycle. He was operating in stand-up-comedian mode, complaining about how poor shower water pressure affects his “beautiful head of hair.” Of course, his jokes were lacquer over his larger message, which was as authoritarian and bigoted as ever. Trump repeated his talking point that other countries are emptying out their prisons, insane asylums, and mental institutions to the “dumping ground” of the United States. Instead of “Build the wall,” he now often invokes a promise to carry out the largest deportation operation in American history. He repeated that word—history—ad nauseam Saturday night. “We had the best border in history. Now we have the worst border in the history of the world,” Trump said. The Green New Deal was a scam—“one of the greatest scams in history.” He also noted that he was the “only person in history” to see his poll numbers rise after being indicted.

Extremism passing as benevolent patriotism was the animating theme of the three-day event. Even Alex Jones was welcomed onstage for a surprise appearance. “We’re bringing down the New World Order!” Jones shouted in his trademark growl. “If this republic falls, the entire world falls to the UN and the globalists and their hellish plan to literally take everything you’ve got, including your children, away from you,” he warned. Virtually all of the speakers embraced some form of conspiracism. Donald Trump Jr. announced, “If you’re in this room right now, you’re probably on the FBI list.” More than a few presenters defended insurrectionists. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said she was “proud” that she had objected to certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. “Anyone that wants to continue to shame us for January 6 can go to hell,” Greene said. (She also scoffed at “some country called Ukraine that we can’t even find on a map.”)

Trumpism, clearly, is just as carnival-like as ever. Even though this conference wasn’t technically a Trump rally, it may as well have been. The former president wasn’t just the People’s Convention’s Saturday-night attraction, he was an all-consuming force around which the weekend revolved. You could buy “MAGA Nation Blend” or “Let’s Go Brandon FJB” coffee beans for $45.47. (A “Stand with Israel” bag was a relative bargain at $36.) A jet-black I’M VOTING CONVICTED FELON 2024 T-shirt would set you back $35. Attendees swarmed Steve Bannon, Trumpworld’s most influential media figure, for selfies and autographs like he was Harry Styles. One attendee even had Bannon sign his giant laminated poster of the Constitution. When Trump was onstage, he was worshiped. When he wasn’t around, people were eager to talk about how wonderful he was.

Vance is shrewd enough to understand the power of this dynamic. In response to an audience question about his future—including a potential VP slot—Vance couldn’t have been clearer: “We need to have people who are supporting Trump, not trying to stab him in the back,” he said. “It’s very, very simple.”

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