Hillbilly Spin Cycle: JD Vance wins the Ohio primary

When the real news doesn't portend anything good, where does one turn?

On Friday, Politico's Michael Kruse turned to a fiction writer and academic as his source to explain the primary victory of J.D. Vance in Ohio, perhaps because his news outlet couldn't find anyone else.  But just like with most Politico articles that attempt to explain the world outside the Beltway to readers, this effort demonstrated Politico's inability to find a source that can interpret the average person's perspective.

It started on May 3, when Ohio went to the polls to vote in primaries for federal and statewide elections, with all eyes on the crowded GOP race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring senator Rob Portman.

Ahead of the primary, there was a deluge of attention devoted to the rise in the polls of state senator Matt Dolan, the lone candidate who made a point of not seeking former president Donald Trump's endorsement.  However, Trump's endorsed candidate, J.D. Vance, is the candidate who won.

That endorsement was so important that Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Jason Williams projected that it wasn't J.D. Vance who won the primary, but rather Donald Trump.  Dolan came in third after Vance and Josh Mandel.  Dolan was possibly buoyed by Democrats, who pulled a GOP ballot maneuver to support Dolan, and incumbent Gov. Mike Dewine because "there are no significant primaries on the Democratic side," as one said. 

Williams had previously written that Vance would come in third place as a "best-case scenario" in March after his statement that "I think it's ridiculous that we're focused on this border in Ukraine.  I got to be honest with you, I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another."  But again, it was Vance who won, and this, despite Ohio having a very large Ukrainian-American voter base.  Nevertheless, once the final results were in, all of the candidates, including Dolan, had endorsed Vance.

In response to this, Politico turned to one Silas House, chair of the Appalachian Studies department at Berea College in Kentucky, who tweeted that "[f]or years now people have asked me what I think about #JDVance, then get mad when I tell them.  His book isn't a memoir.  It's a treatise, full of dog whistles.  In 21 years as a published writer it's the only book I've ever publicly disparaged.  He's dangerous.  So is his book." 

Kruse then published an interview with him, and although he mentioned House's academic position, he failed to include House's long history of political activism.  Among the items he could have included were that just a week earlier, House had tweeted out a promotion of a joint event with fellow author and Democrat U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker, who is running against incumbent Sen. Rand Paul with what can only be described as an endorsement.  He began the tweet, "@Booker4KY believes Kentucky is worth fighting for, and so do I."

House also stated that "for the record, I do not like to give a lot of my energy to this man (JD Vance)."  House has repeatedly trashed him and his book, including promoting  "alternatives to Hillbilly Elegy" such as the documentary Hillbilly, which he was executive producer of, in a 2020 tweet ahead of the movie adaptation's release.  The film explores a feminist female Hillary Clinton–supporting film director living in Los Angeles coping with the media's blaming of Donald Trump's political success on Appalachian hillbillies.  Whether intentional or not, an early scene from the film shows a stack of books in her Los Angeles home that includes Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.  Much of the film covers her return to tiny Kimper, Kentucky to visit her family and cope with her family's political loyalty to Trump during the aftermath of the 2016 election.

House also said in the interview that "the first time I read [Hillbilly Elegy], it read like the launching of a political campaign to me."

Did he really think so? It's hard to tell, since in a 2018 interview House said he "doesn't believe Vance has any malicious intent" and mentioned nothing about a political motive.  When the book was published in 2016, House left it off his book reviews on Goodreads.

Another criticism House throws at Hillbilly Elegy is that the memoir includes scenes of Vance's uncles fighting and beating their wives.  "Well, as an Appalachian man, that's deeply troubling to me," House commented, "because that doesn't embody Appalachian masculinity as I know it.  It does embody the stereotypes of Appalachian masculinity over the last 150 years of media."  It seems House objects to Vance stigmatizing Appalachian men as misogynistic he-men and alcoholics.  Yet in 2017, House spoke at the Women's March in Lexington, Kentucky and read an account of his grandmother working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken where the men would pinch her butt and remark about her body, including an admonition from her that he should never act in such a manner.  He went on to call on all men to take a stand against rape culture, generalizing on the experiences of his grandmother in Kentucky from years before he was born.  Ironically, his criticism of Vance is that he extrapolates his grandmother's experiences in Appalachia as being common to everyone there.

Finally if House's real feelings toward his own Appalachian culture were not clear enough, he tweeted in 2019 that "unfortunately, Appalachia IS part of the reason Trump is in office.  Unfortunately, the region as a majority IS homophobic.  We can deny it all we want, but it's true[.]"

House also splits hairs in the interview over whether Vance's story is really one of Appalachia, where his family originated, or the Rust Belt, given that they moved to southwest Ohio just outside the traditional boundaries of Appalachia.  He calls Vance's characterization of his family as Appalachian "manipulative."  This semantic argument is particularly petty, given that just like Southern blacks, many Appalachian whites have migrated for generations to Ohio's industrial cities like Akron, Toledo, and Dayton in search of factory jobs as part of the extensive migration pattern known as the "Hillbilly Highway."  As an Appalachian Studies professor, one would expect this to be a topic Houseis intimately familiar with.

The ironic pattern of the interview is built on the accusation by House against Vance of trafficking "in ugly stereotypes and tropes," as Kruse writes.

However, whereas Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, House injects almost all of the same stereotypes into his novels.

In the Amazon synopsis of his first novel, Clay's Quilt, we read: "Silas House introduced himself as an important voice for Appalachia, and indeed, for the entire rural South." 

The plot to this novel is a young man's "path to adulthood" surrounded by characters like his "Aunt Easter tied to her faith and foreboding nature," a fiddler, and two "wild girls." 

His 2018 book Southernmost portrays a preacher coping with the homophobia of his congregation in a "small Tennessee town" against two gay men.

Kruse's work supports the notion that the same formula is baked into Politico's coverage of the MAGA movement: to understand it, one must only reach out to those who hate it the most.  While one could argue that J.D. Vance's memoir may serve to confirm outsiders' perceptions of Appalachian hillbillies as backward drunks, having an author who typically adds that they are homophobic religious zealots doesn't exactly make an effective rebuttal.  The tone of the interview smacks of not only partisanship, but professional envy, even to an Ohio voter like me who voted for one of Vance's primary opponents.

Kruse's article seems like a desperate stab at finding a silver bullet in the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky to stop the Vance campaign.  It wouldn't be the first time he chose a narrative of dubious importance in order to interpret the attitudes of pro-Trump communities that are so strange to him.  In a January article, he asked the question, "Does John Katko have the secret to thwarting Trump?" — predicting that the Syracuse-area GOP congressman is in a "strong position to hold his seat" after voting to impeach Donald Trump in 2021.  Every person interviewed in the article was a party insider.  Eight days later, Katko announced his intention not to seek re-election.

Do we expect any better from Politico as primary season continues?

Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 3.0.

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