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JD Vance: Started from the bottom, now he’s here

Sen. JD Vance addresses the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2024.

Sen. JD Vance addresses the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2024.

CNP/ via Reuters

From holler to white collar. That’s the unusual life arc of J.D. Vance, the 39-year-old junior senator from Ohio.

Born into extreme poverty in rural southern Ohio, he grew up in the holler – “the hollow” – surrounded by abuse, addiction, and despair. But he made it out: He joined the Marines, graduated from Yale Law School, and became a successful tech venture capitalist.

He recounted all of this in his bestselling 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which became required reading after Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton spurred interest in the disaffection of white working-class America. In the book, Vance criticized a culture of victimhood and dependency among poor whites while also blasting the establishment’s condescension and neglect.

Initially a fierce critic of Trump – he once called the 45th president “unfit,” and his Indian-American wife criticized Trump’s racist language – he had changed his views by the time he ran for Senate in 2022. Vance broadly supports Trump’s populist challenge to the traditional bipartisan establishment and has said Trump’s legally disproven claims of fraud in the 2020 election had political merit.

What are Vance’s policy views? He wants to slash immigration, raise tariffs, and increase the minimum wage to boost employment, industry, and productivity among the US working class. He is certainly no old-school “limited government, free trade” Republican.

He is socially conservative – he favored a national 15-week abortion ban, although he softened his view when his own constituents voted strongly against it. Echoing Trump, he says he supports access to mifepristone, the “abortion pill.”

On foreign policy, he says he is a “realist,” willing to deal with countries based on American interests. He considers China a bigger threat than Russia and wants to cut support for Ukraine, where he seeks a settlement along current front lines that includes sovereignty, US security assistance, and neutrality for Ukraine.

He has strong support from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, which wants to leave the traditional GOP behind.

Why would Trump choose him? “To bolster his standing with persuadable Republicans who dislike Trump’s personality but love his policy,” says Clayton Allen, a US politics expert at Eurasia Group. “And because he’d gamble that Vance’s naked ambition can be held in check long enough not to cause problems.”

What else to read: For a good one-stop look at what J.D. Vance believes, check out this Q&A by the Times’ Ross Douthat on “What J.D. Vance Believes.” And to learn about Trump’s other possible VP picks, check out our Veepstakes series here.


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