His bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy captured a cultural moment around the rise of Donald Trump. Its author, a child of the hardscrabble Appalachians turned Yale law graduate and venture capitalist, is now being courted for a Senate run. Could JD Vance be the Republicans’ next big thing?
James David Bowman, later Vance, was born in Middletown, Ohio, in the heart of the US Rust Belt, in 1984. His mother, Bev Vance, struggled with addiction, first to alcohol, then drugs. His parents split up when he was still a toddler; his father, Don Bowman, was largely absent for the early years of the young JD’s life.
But home, for Vance, was elsewhere: with his maternal grandparents, known as “Mamaw” and “Papaw”, in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, the vast inland region that stretches from the Deep South to the fringes of the industrial Midwest.
Stability amidst turmoil
His family were what he calls “hillbillies”: white, working class, no education beyond secondary school, and mostly of Scots-Irish descent. They were proud, clannish and occasionally violent. Aspiration was rare; addiction – increasingly to prescription medication – was commonplace.
Mamaw, in particular, is the star of the book: foul-mouthed, hot-tempered, but affectionate and a source of stability for her grandson.
Mr Vance credits that stability with his success in lifting himself out of the poverty that besets the Appalachians. Instead of sinking into sporadic employment, drugs and violence, he joined the Marines, serving in Iraq, before going to Ohio State University, where he gained a degree in political science and philosophy.
From Ohio State, he gained admission to one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the US, Yale Law School. It was there that he met one of his mentors, Amy Chua, law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It was she who convinced him to write his memoir, published in 2016, just as Donald Trump was making his successful pitch for the US presidency.
The book became one of the touchstones of the Trump years: a portrait of the forgotten white working class, a key to the voters overlooked by the coastal elites. Profoundly conservative, Mr Vance put the blame for the hillbillies’ failure to thrive on culture and a lack of personal responsibility, rather than systemic issues of economics and policy.
Hillbilly Elegy won rave reviews, inspired a legion of think pieces and took up residence on the bestseller charts for much of the following year. Ohio Senator Rob Portman was among those who named it their favourite book of 2016. In 2020 it was turned into a film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close as Mamaw. Despite unfavourable reviews, it was one of the most streamed films on Netflix at the end of the year.
Mr Vance himself was not a Trump loyalist: he understood the reasons for his rise but criticised his policies on race and immigration in particular. However, senior Republicans were already eyeing him as a future senate candidate.
Republican strategist Adam Gingrich says Mr Vance’s “great personal story” of individual hardships and conspicuous government failures has been key to his appeal so far.
“His ability to dole out Clintonian ‘I feel your pain’ lines, without the political baggage, will be a decided advantage in Ohio. However, his “hand up, not hand out” economic message could fall flat with many struggling Ohioans who have recently become intrigued by the concept of more stimulus checks from the government,” Mr Gingrich told the BBC.
Return to his roots
In 2017, Mr Vance moved back to Ohio from California, where he had been working in biotech. He married a Yale law classmate, Usha Chilukuri (now Vance), who had clerked at the Supreme Court. In Hillbilly Elegy, he described her as his “Yale spirit guide” who helped him navigate the socially treacherous waters of the Ivy League and the recruitment rounds of the big law firms. The couple now have a son.
Mr Vance joined Revolution, a company established by AOL founder Steve Case to funnel venture capital to the parts of the country that otherwise went overlooked – places such as Middletown, Ohio. He considered, and then decided against, a Senate run. In 2019, he set up his own venture capital operation, Narya Capital with backing from PayPal founder Peter Thiel.
Mr Thiel, a sometime libertarian and rare Republican in Silicon Valley, is an outspoken Trump supporter. According to the Washington DC website The Hill, he recently put $10m (£7.2m) into a committee seeking to recruit Mr Vance as a senate candidate to succeed Rob Portman, who had announced he would not be seeking a third term in the US Senate at the elections next year.
And on Thursday, the Axios news website reported that Mr Vance had told associates he was planning to run. It also said Mr Vance had met Mr Trump and Mr Thiel at the former president’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.
It marks a distinct change of tack, but Mr Gingrich says it may not be enough to sway the former president’s supporters.
“Since Vance will be facing at least four or five well-known, well-funded pro-Trump republicans in the primary election, his past comments on Trump being ‘terrible for the country’ in 2016 will come back to haunt him,” he says.
Recently Mr Vance has been raising his profile, with regular appearances on Fox News. He attracted controversy when he tweeted in support of Fox presenter Tucker Carlson, who had been espousing theories of white nationalism.
He has also tweeted against 100 CEOs who took part in a call to discuss how best to respond to new laws restricting voting rights, notably in Georgia.
However, he has vehemently denied that those tweets led to him being forced off the board of AppHarvest, a green agriculture start-up which has several large sites in Appalachia.
The field will be crowded for the Republican nomination for the Ohio Senate seat which will be contested in 2022. For now Mr Vance is saying nothing officially about his plans. But if he does decide to throw his hat in the ring, he will have a name recognition and resume that few can match.