Many hoped that populism would become more serious after Donald Trump left the White House. “Trumpism without Trump” was supposed to be smarter and more focused on policy. It hasn’t worked out that way. The most promising elements of the Trump movement—rejection of free-trade orthodoxy, protection of entitlements, opposition to foreign adventurism, honesty about the political-economic roots of “American carnage”—are falling away. Conventional conservatives have mastered a Trumpian cultural vernacular while ditching Trumpism’s authentically populist dimensions.
But all isn’t lost. Over the past few weeks, one figure has shown himself up to the task of preserving and extending the movement’s best energies. That figure is J.D. Vance, the newly elected senator from Ohio.
Two of Vance’s recent moves in a still very-young senatorial career underscore his potential. Start with his call for a thorough audit of the more than $100 billion in pledged military aid to Ukraine. The proposal is sane and credible on its face: Until Vladimir Putin’s misbegotten invasion granted Kiev the status of a saintly government that could do no wrong, Ukraine was notorious as one of the most corrupt countries on earth. The coming to power of pro-Western neoliberals in the aftermath of 2013 Maidan uprising did little to lift it out from the lower depths of Transparency International rankings.
So it’s reasonable to wonder: Where exactly are these dollars and arms going? As former Sen. James Webb has recently warned, America’s disastrous military-aid experience in the War on Terror should raise red flags about the risk of sophisticated weapons being wasted or, worse, falling into the wrong hands. Vance should be commended for voicing the concerns of his constituents (not to mention many millions of others outside the Buckeye State).
Equally praiseworthy, however, was the seriousness and moderation that characterized his framing of the proposal. As he has repeatedly said, even Americans who back continued robust military aid to Kiev should support an audit. In this way, Vance has sought to overcome polarization of the issue and win over elites and ordinary citizens who might otherwise be skeptical of foreign-policy restraint and realism. It’s made his proposal hard to object to.
Likewise, on entitlements, J.D. Vance has shown what a serious populism looks like. Republicans are once again calling for drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even as they vow to increase military spending. Trump, who still has sound political instincts on the issue, jumped in to criticize the politically reckless quest by the GOP. Vance—alone among elected officials—sided with Trump. “Trump is 100 percent correct,” Vance tweeted.
Republican voters are older and less educated than their Democratic counterparts. They increasingly rely on the entitlement programs that their elected representatives are eager to cut. Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin, has called for ending these programs in their present form, turning them into discretionary spending that would have to be renewed each year rather than entitlements. Meanwhile, activists on the right call for simply abolishing Social Security.
J.D. Vance, once celebrated by the commentariat for his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, has now drawn their scorn. His crime? Indicting the failures of the American elite on economics and foreign policy. No other Senate candidate stood so firmly against recklessness in Ukraine. No other Republican office-holder has spoken so strongly in defense of Medicare and Social Security. On both issues, J.D. Vance has shown the kind of leadership needed in the Republican Party.