Being J.D. Vance: Few Understand Better How the Left Lost Rural America

He was a favorite of the elites in both parties thanks to his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Until he wasn't. Former President Donald Trump's endorsement of his Senate primary bid in Ohio changed that. Turning on J.D. Vance, the elites were busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.

A New York Times reviewer called his bestseller a "civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election." Bill Gates blogged about the book's "new insights into the multifaceted cultural and family dynamics that contribute to poverty." New York Times columnist David Brooks described the book as "essential reading for this moment in history."

Hillbilly Elegy caught the attention of director Ron Howard, the man responsible for Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Howard, who spent his early years in rural Oklahoma, moved to Los Angeles when he was 4. America would soon know him as Opie, son of a sheriff in a fictional rural North Carolina town on TV called Mayberry. "I love family stories, but I've never had one before that was a true story that dealt with characters from rural America, and that's my family's background," he said.

Howard's movie version of Vance's book was released by Netflix in November 2020. By May 2022, he was singing from a different songbook. "Howard noted that he was 'surprised by some of the positions [Vance has] taken and statements he's made' after working with him on the film," The Hollywood Reporter noted.

It wasn't just Howard who turned on Vance. Brooks, the elites in the GOP and almost all of the Democratic Party—and their media enablers—did too. But a burning question lingered: Had Vance changed? Or the elites, as well as most of the Democratic Party? A look at elections in Ohio over the past 20 years—and rural America—provides some insights. So does Vance's book and life.

J.D. Vance at Campaign Rally
Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance speaks to supporters of former President Donald Trump attending a campaign rally to benefit Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz on May 6 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

It turns out President Barack Obama won Ohio by 4.6 percent in 2008, winning 22 of the state's 88 counties. Twelve years later, President Donald Trump won the state by 8 points, winning 81 counties. President Joe Biden won only seven. It was also the first election since 1976 in which Ohio voted to the right of Texas.

Long before the appearance of Trump, the Democratic Party was losing rural voters. President Clinton won 1,117 rural counties in 1996, 50 percent of them. In 2008, Barack Obama won 455, or 25 percent. That number plunged in 2020 to 194 rural counties for Biden—a mere 10 percent. That's not a decline; it's an exodus.

What caused it? The messaging of the Democratic Party's stars didn't help. It started in 2008 when Senator Obama said something he really believed about rural and Rust Belt voters. "It's not surprising that they get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," he told donors at a San Francisco fundraiser.

In a New York minute, Senator Hillary Clinton, deep in a primary battle, pounced. "I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America," she said. "His remarks are elitist and out of touch."

Fast-forward to an LGBT gala in New York City in the fall of 2016. Democratic nominee Clinton abandoned her earlier critique of Obama and doubled down on his rhetoric. "You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?" The audience broke into laughter, then applause.

Clinton continued with her gross generalities. "The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up," she said.

Three years later, Vice President Biden had his own moment at a rally in New Hampshire. Talking about the unemployed miners of Appalachia, he said this: "Anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well. Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God's sake!"

Elite pundits reduced these moments to messaging gaffes. But the problem with the Democratic Party isn't messaging. It's listening. And the understanding that can come when one does it.

In an early scene in Howard's film, Vance is sitting at a table with some law firm hiring partners visiting Yale Law School. Born in a part of Ohio ravaged by a shuttered steel plant, unemployment, drugs and family breakdown, Vance was asked to introduce himself. He talked about his life and his service in the Marine Corps, which included a tour in Iraq.

"Is your family coal miners?" a lawyer asked.

"No, my grandfather went north and worked in a steel plant, like a lot of people in Appalachia did," he replied. There was an awkward silence. Vance tried some human interest to ease the discomfort of his dining partners—and his own.

"They were actually hillbilly royalty because my papa was related to the guy who started the Hatfield and McCoy feud," Vance said.

"You must feel like you're from another planet," a hiring partner joked.

"Yeah, I guess," replied Vance.

"I guess, like: Who are all those rednecks?" the partner said, laughing.

"We don't use that term," Vance replied coldly. The dinner quickly headed south.

That scene spoke volumes about the chasm between the elites at the table and the friends and family Vance loved.

"I didn't write this book because I've accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I've achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn't happen to most kids who grow up like me," Vance wrote in the prologue to Hillbilly Elegy. "You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember."

Vance wasn't finished. "Whatever talents I have I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me. That is the real story of my life. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it."

Vance added a bit of his ethnic history. "I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast," he wrote. "Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree."

He ended his prologue with these words: "Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family."

After Yale, Vance moved to San Francisco to become a principal at a Silicon Valley venture capital fund run by billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel. But the tug of home kept calling him. He had left Ohio, but Ohio hadn't left him. So he did what few people do in the prime of their investing careers do: He moved with his wife (Usha is the daughter of an immigrant from India whom he met at Yale) and children to Cincinnati to work on closing geographical gaps regarding access to venture capital.

He was an early critic of Trump, as many in the Republican Party were. But Vance quickly came to understand Trump's appeal to voters in his state.

He learned that rural Ohioans voted for Trump not because he was wealthy or famous but because he was fighting for them. When Trump challenged America's trade policies—especially the way China used unfair trade practices to eviscerate the American steel industry—they loved him for it.

When Trump made illegal immigration a central part of his campaign, Ohioans loved him for that too. And not because they were racists but because Trump dared to challenge the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which loves cheap labor, and the Democratic Party, which cared more about building a voting block than attending to the needs of struggling Ohioans.

When Trump challenged the climate change crowd, Ohioans loved him for that too. Energy jobs are a lifeline to the middle class for Americans without college degrees. Moreover, workers in those industries know American oil, natural gas and coal are the cleanest in the world. If we don't export it, countries like Iran and Venezuela, which make dirtier energy, will export theirs. They also know that when America drills, mines and fracks more, energy prices decline. And few benefit more from low energy prices than rural Americans.

Ohioans also loved Trump because he put their interests ahead of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the Davos crowd.

Finally, rural Americans love their country. They fly American flags in front of their houses, celebrate July Fourth and honor their dead on Memorial Day. No demographic in the nation serves its country in uniform at higher rates.

Like his fellow Ohioans, Vance came to understand not merely Trump's visceral appeal but his appeal on the merits. And on the issues Ohioans cared about.

The fact is, Vance didn't change: He came full circle. After a detour at Yale, Silicon Valley and some Washington, D.C., think tanks—where he was praised for his literary insights—he came home again.

He emerged not merely unscathed but more focused and dedicated to the plight of his people. And willing to do more than just write about them. He entered the political arena to fight for them in the U.S. Senate.

The truth is, the Democratic Party and Republican elites—and Ron Howard too—don't have a problem with Vance. They have a problem with rural Ohioans who support him—and the rural Americans who supported President Trump too.