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How Hollywood and the Media Fueled the Political Rise of J.D. Vance


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Members of Recent York’s smart set gathered on a warm Thursday evening within the early summer of 2016 on the ornately wallpapered apartment of two Yale Law School professors within the elegant Ansonia constructing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to toast a Marine Corps veteran, enterprise capitalist and first-time creator named J.D. Vance.

They were celebrating Mr. Vance’s recent memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which chronicled his working-class upbringing in southwestern Ohio and an ascent that brought him to Yale, where his mentors included Amy Chua, one among the party’s hosts. Mr. Vance seemed modest, self-effacing and a little bit of a fish out of water amongst guests drawn from the worlds of publishing and journalism, a half-dozen attendees later recalled. “It was almost silly how disarmed the people were by that,” said one among them, the novelist Joshua Cohen.

“Hillbilly Elegy,” which got here out as Donald J. Trump was overcoming long odds to win the presidency, became a phenomenon, and Mr. Vance — a conservative who reassured Charlie Rose that fall that he was “a Never Trump guy” and “never liked him,” and later said he voted for a third-party candidate that yr — became widely sought out for his views on what drove white working-class Trump supporters, particularly within the Rust Belt. The book, which had a modest initial print run of 10,000 copies, went on to sell greater than three million, in accordance with its publisher, HarperCollins. It was made right into a 2020 feature film by Hollywood A-listers including the director Ron Howard and the actresses Amy Adams and Glenn Close. However the J.D. Vance story didn’t end there.

The previous “Never Trump guy” went on to embrace Mr. Trump last yr, and eagerly accepted his endorsement within the Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio that he won earlier this month. Mr. Vance, who once called Mr. Trump “reprehensible,” thanked Mr. Trump “for giving us an example of what may very well be on this country.”

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Mr. Trump’s endorsement proved critical within the race, together with the financial support of Peter Thiel, the conservative Silicon Valley billionaire, and favorable coverage by 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 seen as liberal bastions, which had embraced him as a reputable geographer of a swath of America that coastal elites knew little about, believing that he shared their objections to Mr. Trump.

“The rationale ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ was such a high-octane book was academics, professors, cultural arbitrators — liberals — embraced it as explaining a forgotten a part of America,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University who once introduced Mr. Vance at an event. “They wouldn’t have touched Vance with a 10-foot pole in the event that they thought he was a part of this Trump, xenophobic, bigot-fueled zeitgeist.”

Mr. Howard, who has said that he sought to downplay the political implications of “Hillbilly Elegy” in directing the film, describing it as a family drama, declined to comment for this text. But he told The Hollywood Reporter that he was “surprised by among the positions” Mr. Vance has taken and the “statements he’s made.” He has not spoken with Mr. Vance because the film’s release, he said.

Lots of the entities in publishing and Hollywood who helped fuel Mr. Vance’s rise — including HarperCollins, which published his book; Mr. Howard and his co-producer, Brian Grazer; and Netflix, which financed and distributed the film — declined to comment on his reinvention as a Trumpist who rails against elites and who campaigned with polarizing far-right figures, including Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida.

“Hillbilly Elegy” was published by a subsidiary of News Corp., which is controlled by the conservative Murdoch family, but through a flagship imprint that puts out broadly appealing books. It didn’t originally mention Mr. Trump. In an afterword added to the paperback edition, Mr. Vance wrote that despite his reservations about Mr. Trump, “there have been parts of his candidacy that actually spoke to me,” citing his “disdain for the ‘elites’” and his insight that Republicans had done too little for working- and middle-class voters.

“Hillbilly Elegy” tried to clarify a few of those voters’ concerns, and in appearances on CNN (where he was named a contributor) and National Public Radio, in addition to in opinion essays in The Recent York Times in 2016 and 2017, Mr. Vance tried to attach those concerns to their support for Mr. Trump.

“He owes nearly all the things to having turn into a ‘Trump whisperer’ phenomenon,” Rod Dreher, whose interview with Mr. Vance for The American Conservative in July 2016 was so popular it briefly crashed the magazine’s website, said in an email. “The thing is, he didn’t seek this out. J.D. became celebrated because he really had something essential to say, and said it in a way that was comprehensible to a large audience.”

But he also found a specific audience amongst liberals. “Though ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ was read widely across the political spectrum, my impression was that the book helped liberals to grasp the causes of what had happened to them within the election of 2016,” said Adrian Zackheim, the publisher of several Penguin Random House imprints, including Sentinel, which focuses on conservative books.

Mr. Vance’s work was embraced at a moment when Mr. Trump’s surprising election prompted many media executives to think about what audiences they’d been overlooking. ABC, for example, decided to make a reboot of the sitcom “Roseanne,” a lighthearted prime-time portrayal of people that 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 a reported $45 million to finance the “Hillbilly Elegy” film. It received poor reviews, but was reportedly amongst Netflix’s most-streamed movies the week of its release in November of 2020. Each Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer have been generous Democratic donors, in accordance with Federal Election Commission filings. Within the run-up to the 2020 election, Ms. Close, who played Mr. Vance’s grandmother, put up a series of social media posts urging voters to support Joseph R. Biden Jr. Ms. Close’s representatives didn’t reply to inquiries.

Last yr, as Mr. Vance began his Senate run, he renounced his earlier criticism of Mr. Trump. He deleted some old tweets, including one which had called Mr. Trump “reprehensible.” Last month, Mr. Trump embraced Mr. Vance as a prodigal son “who said some bad” stuff about him, using a stronger word than stuff. (Mr. Vance’s campaign declined to comment for this text.)

As a Republican candidate in a Republican-leaning Midwestern state, Mr. Vance didn’t appear desirous to tout the central role the publishing, media and film industries played in his rise. But his political opponents have been greater than comfortable to attract the connection.

An ad last month for Josh Mandel, a Republican who ran against Mr. Vance in the first, said Mr. Vance “wrote a book trashing Ohioans as hillbillies, then sold his story to Hollywood.” And Elizabeth Walters, the chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Party, charged that Mr. Vance had landed “a Recent York City book deal to money in on Ohioans’ pain” and made “untold tens of millions from a Netflix Hollywood movie.”

Accepting the nomination, Mr. Vance attacked “a Democrat party that bends the knee to major American corporations and their woke values, since the Democrats actually agree with those ridiculous values, you understand, 42 genders and all the opposite insanity.”

The proven fact that a rising star within the Republican Party, which has recently emphasized cultural grievances with the likes of Twitter, CNN and Disney, got here to prominence through elite media institutions isn’t surprising to scholars and cultural critics who’ve long understood the symbiotic relationship between those ostensible antagonists: the conservative movement and the media-entertainment complex.

“To determine populist bona fides — since they represent economic elites — cultural elites are those they will rally against,” said Neil Gross, a professor of sociology at Colby College.

Frank Wealthy, an essayist, television producer, and former Recent York Times critic and columnist, said that among the contemporary Republican Party’s biggest stars — including Mr. Vance, Mr. Trump and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri — are “the products of elite institutions” whose “constant railing against the elites is just odd, since it’s so disingenuous.”

“Where would Vance be if it hadn’t been for mainstream publishing and book promotion, if it hadn’t been for Ron Howard — a crucial person in show business who identifies as liberal — and Glenn Close and Netflix?” Mr. Wealthy asked. “Where would Trump be without NBC Universal, Mark Burnett, the entire showbiz world?”

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an associate professor of history at Purdue University, situated Mr. Vance in a lineage of figures from the entertainment world who became Republican politicians, including George Murphy, an actor turned senator from California; Ronald Reagan, whose success as a movie actor helped him turn into California governor and president; Arnold Schwarzenegger, one other movie star and California governor; and Mr. Trump, a longtime tabloid fixture who gained newfound celebrity in the course of the 2000s as host of the NBC reality competition show “The Apprentice,” created by Mr. Burnett.

“That is something they’re really quick to criticize the left for — relying an excessive amount of on Hollywood for support and glamour,” Brownell said.

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

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