How Hollywood and the Media Fueled JD Vance's Political Rise

Members of New York’s smart set got together on a hot Thursday night in early summer 2016 at the richly upholstered two Yale Law School...


Members of New York’s smart set got together on a hot Thursday night in early summer 2016 at the richly upholstered two Yale Law School professors’ apartment in the elegant Ansonia Building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to toast a Marine Corps veteran, venture capitalist and first-time author named JD forward.

They were celebrating Mr Vance’s new memoir, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, which chronicled his working-class upbringing in southwestern Ohio and a rise that took him to Yale, where his mentors included Amy Chua, one party entertainers. Mr. Vance seemed unassuming, self-effacing and a bit out of water among the publishing and journalism guests, half a dozen attendees would later recall. “It was almost silly to see how helpless people were,” said one, novelist Joshua Cohen.

“Hillbilly Elegy”, which came out as Donald J. Trump overcame long odds of winning the presidency, became a phenomenon, and Mr. Vance – a conservative who reassures Charlie Rose this fall that he was ‘a Never Trump guy’ and ‘never liked him’, and later said he voted for a third-party candidate that year – became widely sought after for his opinions on what pushed white working-class Trump supporters, especially in the Rusty Belt. The book, which had a modest initial print run of 10,000 copies, sold more than three million, according to its publisher, HarperCollins. It was transformed into a 2020 feature film by Hollywood A-listers including director Ron Howard and actresses Amy Adams and Glenn Close. But the JD Vance story didn’t end there.

The former ‘Never Trump guy’ then embraced Mr Trump last year and eagerly accepted his endorsement in the Republican primary for an open US Senate seat in Ohio which he won earlier this month. Mr. Vance, who once called Mr. Trump “reprehensible,” thanked Mr. Trump “for giving us an example of what could be in this country.”

Mr. Trump’s endorsement proved essential in the race, along with financial backing from conservative Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel and favorable coverage from Tucker Carlson on Fox News. But Mr. Vance’s political rise was also made possible by the worlds of publishing, media and Hollywood, fields long considered liberal strongholds, which had embraced him as a credible geographer of a part of America that coastal elites knew little about, believing they shared their objections with Mr. Trump.

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

Mr Howard, who said he sought to downplay the political implications of “Hillbilly Elegy” in making the film, describing it as a family drama, declined to comment for this article. But he told the Hollywood Reporter that he was “surprised by some of the positions” Mr. Vance took and the “statements he made”. He has not spoken with Mr. Vance since the film was released, he said.

Many of the publishing and Hollywood entities that have contributed to Mr. Vance’s rise, including HarperCollins, who published his book; Mr. Howard and his co-producer, Brian Grazer; and Netflix, which financed and distributed the film — declined to comment on his reimagining as a Trumpist who speaks out against elites and campaigned with polarizing far-right figures including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz from 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 appealing books. It did not originally mention Mr. Trump. In an afterword added to the paperback edition, Mr. Vance wrote that despite his reservations about Mr. Trump, “there were parts of his candidacy that really spoke to me”, citing his “contempt for the “elite”” and his insight that Republicans had done too little for working-class and middle-class voters.

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

“He owes almost everything to becoming a ‘Trump whisperer’ phenomenon,” Rod Dreher, whose interview with Mr. Vance for The American Conservative in July 2016 was so popular that he briefly crashed the magazine’s website, he said in an email. “The thing is, he didn’t look for that. JD became famous 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 following among liberals. “Although ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ has been widely read across the political spectrum, I feel the book has helped liberals understand the causes of what happened to them in the 2016 election,” Adrian said. Zackheim, publisher of several Penguin Random Houses. imprints, including Sentinel, which focuses on conservative books.

Mr. Vance’s work has been embraced at a time when Mr. Trump’s surprise election has prompted many media executives to reflect on the audiences they have overlooked. ABC, for example, decided to make a reboot of the sitcom “Roseanne,“a light-hearted prime-time portrayal of people who have supported Mr. 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 fund the movie “Hillbilly Elegy.” It received poor reviews, but was would have among the most streamed films on Netflix the week of its November 2020 release. Both Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer have been generous Democratic donors, according to documents filed by the Federal Election Commission. Ahead of the 2020 election, Ms. Close, who played Mr. Vance’s grandmother, made a series of social media posts urging voters to support Joseph R. Biden Jr. Ms. Close’s representatives n did not respond to inquiries.

Last year, as Mr. Vance began his run for the Senate, he renounced his earlier criticism of Mr. Trump. He deleted a few old tweets, including one that 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 for this story.)

As a Republican candidate in a Republican-leaning Midwestern state, Mr. Vance didn’t seem keen on touting the pivotal role the publishing, media and film industries have played in his rise. But his political opponents were more than happy to make the connection.

An ad last month for Josh Mandel, a Republican who ran against Mr. Vance in the primary, said Mr. Vance ‘wrote a book calling Ohio people hicks and then sold his story at Hollywood”. And Elizabeth Walters, the chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Party, accused Mr Vance of landing “a book deal in New York to profit from the pain of the people of Ohio” and making “untold millions through to a Netflix Hollywood movie”.

Accepting the nomination, Mr Vance attacked “a Democratic Party that bends the knee to big business America and their woke values, because Democrats actually agree with these ridiculous values, you know, 42 genders and all the other follies”.

That a rising star in the Republican Party, who has recently highlighted cultural grievances with Twitter, CNN and Disney, has risen to prominence through elite media establishments comes as no surprise to scholars and cultural critics who have long understood the symbiotic relationship between these apparent antagonists: the conservative movement and the media-entertainment complex.

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

Frank Rich, essayist, television producer and former critic and columnist for the New York Times, 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 elite institutions” whose “constant slurs against elites are just plain weird, because they are so dishonest”.

“Where would Vance be if it hadn’t been for the mainstream publishing and promotion of the book, if it hadn’t been for Ron Howard – a major figure in show business who identifies as a liberal – and Glenn Close and Netflix?” asked Mr. Rich. “Where would Trump be without NBC Universal, Mark Burnett, everyone in showbiz?”

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

“It’s something they’re very quick to criticize on the left — relying too much on Hollywood for support and glamour,” Brownell said.

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

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Newsrust - US Top News: How Hollywood and the Media Fueled JD Vance's Political Rise
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