Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Radicalization of J.D. Vance

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood, Washington Post

As he runs for the Senate, the ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author has gone from media darling to establishment pariah. Is his new, fiery, right-wing persona an act? Or is something more interesting going on?

Let’s start with the beard. J.D. Vance didn’t used to have one. The Vance who in 2016 achieved incandescent literary fame with his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” was all baby fat and rounded edges. The Vance I’m watching now, from the back of a coffee shop in the depressed steel town of Steubenville, Ohio, has covered up his softer side. In small-format events like this one, addressing a couple dozen primary voters, he spends about 15 minutes attacking corporate and governmental elites for failing the country, then answers questions and mingles for maybe another 45 minutes. Vance, 37, is comfortable in the folksy idiom of GOP campaigning (e.g., “she loved the Lord, she loved the f-word — that’s what Mamaw was”) but he tends to gloss over his famously traumatic childhood, immortalized on screen in Ron Howard’s 2020 film adaptation of his book. In Steubenville, he paces the room with a Big Gulp-sized foam cup in his hand, an Everyman touch that accentuates his new aesthetic.

I’m not the only one thinking about J.D. Vance’s beard. Recently, I asked one of his law school friends to tell me about his personality. “He’s lovely,” the friend said, describing Vance’s smile and laugh. Then he paused. He wanted to talk about Vance’s facial hair. Even as a slightly older law student — Vance had served four years in the Marines before enrolling at Ohio State as an undergraduate — he came across as guileless, boyish. No longer. “He looks different,” the friend said. “He’s going for a kind of severe masculinism thing. He looks like Donald Trump Jr.” Toward the end of our conversation, which was mostly about the way the culture shock of Yale Law School informed Vance’s politics, I asked the friend if he wanted to discuss anything else. He returned to the beard. “That’s honestly occupied an outsized amount of my attention,” he said.

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