After eight months that felt like eighty years, the Ohio Republican Senate primary has at last come to a close. It ended as it began, as a kind of highbrow-cum-low political farce, Aristophanes’ take on post-Trump America. Think a pileup of clown cars on the highway — and then cut to a grinning Donald Trump in a rescue helicopter, swooping down tauntingly only to pull back up again.
From the start, the race was an exercise in how far good men would go in order to nab an endorsement from The Donald. And while obscene, the endless attention seeking did have a certain thrill to it. Would JD Vance deny that Vladimir Putin exists? Would Josh Mandel murder an epidemiologist on live TV? Tune in next week to find out, only on The Real Housecucks of Ohio.
It was Mandel who ultimately took the blue ribbon in self-abasement. A former state treasurer and veteran of the Iraq war, he might have brought some gravitas to the race. Instead he went the route of destroying a Covid mask with a lighter (thus triumphantly proving that N95s don’t protect against house fires). He also kept sending tweets like this: “You can’t spell ‘panDEMic’ without ‘Dem.’ Is this a coincidence?”
You also can’t spell “Josh” without “sh,” which brings us to Ohio’s debacle of a primary debate back in March. Mike Gibbons, the required-by-law self-funding millionaire in every 2022 political race, got the ball rolling by attacking Mandel’s lack of private-sector experience. “Two tours in Iraq!” Mandel retorted. “Don’t tell me I haven’t worked!” From there, someone called someone else a “pussy,” and the two men were inches apart, shouting in each other’s faces. It was JD Vance who ultimately won the exchange, telling them both to knock it off.
It was also Vance who ran the most interesting and substantive campaign of the bunch, even allowing for his own set of loose lips. “I gotta be honest with you,” he told Steve Bannon back in February, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” adding that he was more focused on domestic pains like the opioid crisis. There’s a valid point in there, but surely Vance could have made it without surrendering the Donbass. More recently, Vance surmised that Joe Biden was trying to murder Trump voters with fentanyl.
Vance’s method seems to be to take the martial language of culture war and crank up the volume until the windows shatter. But at least he has a vision beyond firing a midget out of a cannon at a CDC office in order to own the libs on health policy or whatever it is that Mandel is up to today. And while Trump also loves pyrotechnics, it was Vance who ultimately won his endorsement. Still, there were fresh mortifications in store. “We’ve endorsed, JP right? JD Mandel?” Trump said at a recent rally.
Yet it worked, didn’t it? On Tuesday night, Vance thumped Mandel and won the primary by an eight-point margin. He’ll have to fend off Democrat Tim Ryan in November, but if he can, he stands to become one of the more interesting ducks in the U.S. Senate. Hailing from a broken home in Appalachia, he’s since gone on to attend Yale Law School, work as a venture capitalist, and write a bestselling memoir. Like many populists, he is thus removed from the plebs he claims to tribune, though unlike many populists, he’s still intimately familiar with the world they inhabit.
Still, the question must be asked: how did a wealthy moneyman end up talking like this? How did a man who once called Trump an “idiot” and allegedly compared him to Hitler end up dancing for his approval?
One reason, I think, is that, at least to a point, Vance believes what he’s saying. Whatever you think of him, the gotcha approach taken by some of his critics doesn’t do him justice. You once said THIS, but now you say THIS! Cue triumphant music, credits roll, etc. But changing your mind is part of being an adult. And in Vance’s case, he appears to have despaired of elite culture, embraced the rising populist movement, and converted to Catholicism. Anyone familiar with the current right-of-center climate knows this is not an untraveled path.
At the more intellectual and Catholic end of that path lies a formulation that I believe Patrick Deneen came up with: “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.” What this means, put more vulgarly, is that conservatives ought to submit to the often brutal realities of politics in order to win power, then use that power to pursue a greater and more idealistic good. My guess is that Vance, an intellectual fellow-traveler of Deneen’s, is familiar with this. Why all the pro-Trump indignities? Maybe another reason is that Vance was gritting his teeth and saying what he had to in order to make a difference later on.
Expect a Senator Vance to be more in the mold of Josh Hawley than Josh Mandel, bucking GOP orthodoxy in favor of a tough economic populism and social conservatism (the likely junking of Roe v. Wade will only make his campaign all the more interesting). Vance will tell you this is what working-class voters want, and he has a case. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that he and his fellow Ohio candidates began by relentlessly insulting the intelligence of those same voters. And maybe that’s the most populist point of all: the people deserved better.
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