(RNS) — J.D. Vance is in a bind. He wants Donald Trump’s endorsement in a Republican U.S. Senate primary. But he also cares about his soul.
By now, this dilemma is so familiar among GOP politicians as to be boring. But Vance’s personal history and career trajectory, as well as the timing of his run, have made his Faustian bargain so cringeworthy as to be instructive.
Vance started out innocently enough. A poor country boy from an unstable family made it to Yale Law School and got rich as a venture capitalist in San Francisco. At the ripe age of 31, he wrote a best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
I make it a point not to read memoirs by 31-year-olds, particularly fellow white men who think their lives and observations are special. But in 2017 the self-aggrandizing Vance became a nearly unavoidable media object after The New York Times published his self-congratulatory op-ed about why he was moving back to Ohio.
Even then, everyone said it was so he could run for Senate. In my naïveté, I believed Vance was too decent a person to run under the banner of Trumpism.
Until recently, I never considered Vance pathetic or bad for public discourse. To me, he was one more cog in the right-wing think-tank and quasi-intellectual universe monetizing his place in a religious and political framework that was beclowning itself to fall prostrate before Donald Trump. Just another day at the office.
After being received into the Catholic Church in 2019, Vance said, “My views on public policy and what the optimal state should look like are pretty aligned with Catholic social teaching.”
Either Vance knows nothing about Catholic social teaching or he is being highly disingenuous.
Most Catholic converts on the right go through a phase of pretending their political views derive from church teaching before eventually conceding the plain truth that they love Catholic teaching on sex and marriage but despise it on most everything else. (Conversely, Catholic converts on the left, who agree with most Catholic social teaching, usually admit upfront that they simply think the church is wrong about marriage and sex.)
When Vance announced earlier this summer for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Rob Portman, he deleted tweets in which he called Trump “reprehensible” and ones that said he was voting in 2016 for independent candidate Evan McMullin.
Plenty of other ambitious men with Vance’s proximity to cultural elites, his religious flexibility and his lust for attention and power have survived and thrived in today’s GOP by railing against the very institutions that made them rich and famous. Trump adopted this model himself.
But Vance has more substance than the former president. Like Dr. Faustus, Vance had some worthy aims and interesting ideas he wished to explore with the power he seeks. He might, for instance, work with Sens. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee on conservative policy solutions for child poverty and enhanced incentives for marriage and child-rearing for Americans across social classes.
But before he can work on pro-natalist policy, Vance finds it useful to go on Fox News to utter absurdities about how “We are effectively run in this country, via the Democrats and our corporate oligarchs, by a bunch of childless cat ladies who are miserable with their own lives and the choices that they’ve made and so they want to make the rest of the country miserable, too.”
In what has become an almost daily barrage of obnoxiousness, Vance recently decided to go online to say: “The white working class loved Donald Trump. As punishment, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will kill as many of their children as they can.”
Vance could make a worthwhile contribution as someone who has thought and written about the often unseen ways that intergenerational poverty and trauma and displacement from faith communities impact the experience of individual citizens, especially those who do not get the access to the social and financial pipelines that launched Vance to wealth and fame.
But instead of reflecting meaningfully on this disparity, Vance, like Trump (Penn) and GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law), Tom Cotton (Harvard College, Harvard Law) and Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale Law), became another well-dressed coastal Ivy Leaguer drumming up heartland hatred of elite institutions.
Of course, Vance’s book decried this hate as a character flaw of the Scots-Irish who littered Appalachia with their ignorance, scorn, rage and bad habits.
But in a recent article in The American Conservative, Vance doubled down on the us-versus-them rhetoric, telling interviewer James Pogue, “I think our people hate the right people.”
Thus with bombast, hatred, lies and delusions does Vance seek the GOP Senate nomination in his native Ohio.
He will probably lose — not because lies and bombast aren’t sufficient, but because while Vance can hate and lie now and in the future, he has shown himself just honorable enough in the past to be disqualified from receiving Trump’s endorsement. Maybe more to the point, his primary opponent Josh Mandel is simply more shameless. The man Vance once was will not allow sufficient self-debasement to qualify for Trump’s endorsement.
It would have been better for Vance to run as a Trump skeptic reviving the Reformocon agenda of 2013-2015. Popular with Christian conservatives until Trump swamped it with a far more pernicious nativist-populist program, the Reformocons championed a robust center-right communitarianism that actually could claim a few meaningful connections to Catholic social teaching.
Instead, Vance leaves us with the portrait of a man who, in spite of his best efforts, cannot fully sell his soul.
Watching Vance is like imagining Faust in his study, willing but unable to degrade himself enough to satisfy the demon Mephistopheles.
For all his hypocrisy on Trump and his determination to kiss the ring, Vance has already tasted the bargain. But he is smart and decent enough to know what it will cost him in this world — and in the next.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)