How Hollywood and the media fueled JD Vance’s political rise

New York smart set members gathered on a warm Thursday evening in early summer 2016 at richly upholstered Two Yale Law School professors’ apartment in the elegant Ansonia building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to toast to a Marine Corps veteran, venture capitalist and first-time author named JD Vance.

They were celebrating Mr. Vance’s new memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which chronicled his blue-collar upbringing in southwestern Ohio and a rise that led him to Yale, where his mentors included Amy Chua, one of the guests. of the party. Mr. Vance seemed modest, shy and a bit of a fish out of water among guests from the world of publishing and journalism, half a dozen attendees later recalled. “It was almost stupid how disarmed people were by this,” said one of them, novelist Joshua Cohen.

“Hillbilly Elegy”, released while Donald J. Trump was overcoming the long odds of winning the presidency, became a phenomenon and Mr. Vance, a conservative who reassured Charlie Rose that fall that he was “a guy who never Trump” and “never liked him,” and later said he voted for a third-party candidate that year – he became widely sought after for his views on what he has. pushed Trump supporters of the white working class, particularly in the Rust Belt. The book, which had a modest initial circulation of 10,000 copies, went on to sell more than three million, according to its publisher, HarperCollins. It has been transformed a 2020 feature film of Hollywood A-listers including director Ron Howard and actresses Amy Adams and Glenn Close. But JD Vance’s story didn’t end there.

The former “never boy Trump” went on to hug Mr. Trump last year and eagerly accepted his endorsement in the Republican primary for an open seat in the US Senate in Ohio which has won earlier this month. Mr. Vance, who once called Mr. Trump “reprehensible”, thanked Mr. Trump “for giving us an example of what this country could be like.”

Trump’s approval proved pivotal in the race, along with financial backing from conservative Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and favorable coverage by Tucker Carlson on Fox News. But Mr. Vance’s political rise was also made possible by the world of publishing, the media and Hollywood, fields long seen as liberal bastions, which had welcomed him as a credible geographer of a strip of America whose the coastal elites knew little, believing they shared their objections to Mr. Trump.

“The reason why ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ was such an octane-rich book was that academics, professors, cultural referees – liberals – hailed it as an explanation of a forgotten part of America,” said Douglas Brinkley, professor of story at Rice University who once introduced Mr. .Vance to an event. “They wouldn’t have hit Vance with a 10-foot pole if they thought he was part of this xenophobic and bigoted Trump zeitgeist.”

Mr. Howard, who claimed to have tried to downplay the political implications of “Hillbilly Elegy” in directing the film, describing it as a family drama, declined to comment on this article. but he told The Hollywood Reporter that he was “surprised at some of the positions” that Mr. Vance took and the “statements he made”. He hasn’t spoken to Mr. Vance since the movie came out, he said.

Many of the publishing and Hollywood entities that helped fuel Mr. Vance’s rise, including HarperCollins, who published his book; Mr. Howard and his co-producer, Brian Grazer; and Netflix, which funded and distributed the film, declined to comment on its reinvention of Trumpist lashing out at the elite and campaigning with polarizing far-right figures, including Georgia reps Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz of Florida.

“Hillbilly Elegy” was published by a subsidiary of News Corp., which is controlled by the conservative Murdoch family, but through a flagship brand that publishes widely attractive books. Initially it did not mention Mr. Trump. In an afterword added to the paperback edition, Mr. Vance wrote that, despite his reservations about Trump, “there were parts of his candidacy that really spoke to me”, citing his “contempt for the” elites “” and his intuition that Republicans had done too little for middle and working class voters.

“Hillbilly Elegy” tried to explain some of those voters’ concerns, and in appearances on CNN (of which he was named a contributor) and National Public Radio, as well as in opinion essays in the New York Times in 2016 and 2017, Mr. Vance tried to link these concerns to their support for Mr. Trump.

“It almost all owes to becoming a ‘Whisper Trump’ phenomenon,” Rod Dreher, whose interview with Mr. Vance for The American Conservative in July 2016 was so popular that he briefly blocked the magazine’s website, he said in an email. “The thing is, he didn’t look for this. JD was celebrated because he really had something important to say and he said it in a way that a large audience could understand. “

But he also found a particular audience among the liberals. “Although ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ has been widely read across the political spectrum, my impression was that the book helped liberals understand the causes of what happened to them in the 2016 election,” said Adrian Zackheim, editor. of several Penguin Random House footprints, including Sentinel, which focuses on conservative books.

Vance’s work was welcomed at a time when Trump’s surprising election prompted many media executives to consider which audience they had overlooked. ABC, for example, has decided to do a restart of the sitcom “Roseanne,A lighthearted prime-time portrait of people who supported Trump, including Roseanne Conner herself. (The show was later canceled after its star, Roseanne Barr, posted a racist tweet.)

In 2019, Netflix won a bidding war and pledged $ 45 million to finance the film “Hillbilly Elegy”. It received bad reviews, but it was reportedly among Netflix’s top-streamed movies the week of its November 2020 release. Both Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer were generous Democratic donors, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Ahead of the 2020 election, Ms. Close, who played Mr. Vance’s grandmother, posted a series of social media posts urging voters to support Joseph R. Biden Jr. Ms. Close’s representatives did not respond to the requests.

Last year, when Mr. Vance started his run in the Senate, hey renounced his earlier criticism of Mr. Trump. He deleted some old tweets, including one he called Mr. Trump “reprehensible”. Last month, Mr. Trump embraced Mr. Vance as a prodigal son “who said bad things” about him, using a stronger word than things. (Mr. Vance’s campaign declined to comment on this article.)

As a Republican candidate in a republican-leaning Midwestern state, Mr. Vance did not seem eager to publicize the central role played by the publishing, media and film industries in its rise. But his political opponents were more than happy to make the connection.

An announcement last month for Josh Mandel, a Republican who ran against Mr. Vance in the primary, said that Mr. Vance “wrote a book that destroyed Ohio people as highlanders, then sold his story to Hollywood. “. And Elizabeth Walters, the president of the Ohio Democratic Party, accused Mr. Vance of getting “a New York City book deal to take the pain of the Ohio people” and making “untold millions from a movie. of Netflix in Hollywood “.

By accepting the nomination, Mr. Vance attacked “a Democratic party that bends on its knees to major American societies and their awakened values, because Democrats actually agree with those ridiculous values, you know, 42 genders and all the others. madness “.

The fact that a rising Republican Party star, who recently emphasized cultural grievances with the likes of Twitter, CNN, and Disney, has come to prominence through elite media institutions comes as no surprise to scholars and cultural critics who have come to the fore. time including the symbiotic relationship between those apparent antagonists: the conservative movement and the media-entertainment complex.

“To establish populist good faith – since they represent economic elites – cultural elites are the ones they can rally against,” said Neil Gross, a sociology professor at Colby College.

Frank Rich, an essayist, television producer and former New York Times critic and columnist, said some of the biggest stars of the contemporary Republican Party – including Mr. Vance, Mr. Trump and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri – are ” the products of the elite institutions “whose” constant inveighing against the elites is simply strange, because it is so deceptive “.

“Where would Vance be if it wasn’t for traditional publishing and book promotion, if it wasn’t for Ron Howard – an important person in show business who identifies as liberal – and Glenn Close and Netflix?” Mr. Rich asked. “Where would Trump be without NBC Universal, Mark Burnett, the entire show business?”

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an associate professor of history at Purdue University, placed Mr. Vance in a lineage of show business figures who became Republican politicians, including George Murphy, an actor-turned-senator from California; Ronald Reagan, whose success as a film actor helped him become governor and president of California; Arnold Schwarzenegger, another movie star and governor of California; and Mr. Trump, a longtime tabloid who gained a new stardom in the 2000s as the host of the NBC reality show “The Apprentice,” created by Mr. Burnett.

“This is something they’re really quick to criticize the left for, relying too much on Hollywood for support and glamor,” Brownell said.

“But,” he added, “the Republican Party has been more successful in turning entertainers into successful candidates than the Democrats.”