J.D. Vance on Trump, Israel and his chosen faith

In a JI interview, the Ohio Senate hopeful explains his flip-flop on the former president and his conversion to Catholicism

J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, got off to something of a bumpy start when he declared his candidacy in Ohio’s open-seat Senate race two months ago. Speaking at a factory in Middletown, where he grew up, the 37-year-old Republican seemed disoriented as a campaign poster unceremoniously slid from its place on the lectern just as he was about to announce his first bid for public office.

The flub, while relatively minor, was nevertheless a portent of deeper problems that have dogged his campaign — chief among them past criticisms of former President Donald Trump expressed by Vance in since-deleted tweets during the 2016 presidential election. Vance, who now casts himself as a staunch Trump supporter, has apologized for the tweets, which were recently unearthed by CNN.

Despite some initial stumbles, Vance suggested in a recent conversation with Jewish Insider that he has finally found his footing as his campaign enters its third month. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of momentum,” he said in the rare interview with a national publication. “Certainly a lot of folks seem excited. We’re raising a lot of money. We’re getting a lot of volunteers. We’re getting a lot of media, and I think the polling is moving in our direction. All good signs, but it’s very early.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether his tweets, including one in which he described the former president as “reprehensible,” will be a liability in the crowded Republican primary to succeed outgoing Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).

Trump maintains widespread support throughout the Buckeye State. But the former president has yet to make an endorsement in the race, even as the leading GOP candidates — including former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, former state party chair Jane Timken, Cleveland car dealer Bernie Moreno and investment banker Mike Gibbons — are locked in competition to win Trump’s favor.

“I certainly think I have a chance if he ends up doing an endorsement,” Vance posited to JI. “But everything I’ve heard from both the president directly, but also his close advisers, is that he is taking a wait-and-see approach on this race.”

Having entered the race on July 1, Vance is the only candidate yet to report official fundraising numbers. His campaign declined to reveal how much money he has raised so far. Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, pumped $10 million into a pro-Vance super PAC, Protect Ohio Values, in March.

Rise of the Rest Seed Fund managing partner J.D. Vance speaks onstage during Day 2 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Vance established himself as a leading voice of the white working class when he published his 2016 memoir about his turbulent Rust Belt upbringing. But his candidacy will test whether voters in his home state of Ohio feel as if he speaks for them.

The Senate hopeful emphasized that he will need to appeal to a wide cross-section of voters if he has any hope of prevailing in next year’s primary. “My view here is that, to win a state like Ohio, I have to be a candidate not just winning any one geography or any one group,” he told JI, “but I have to try to appeal to everybody.”

For Vance, Jewish voters in particular represent an opportunity to expand his support base. “I think the Jewish community is an important part of our coalition on the right,” he said, noting that he has engaged in conversations with local and national Jewish organizations since he launched his campaign. “I hope it becomes a more important part of our coalition because I think that, frankly, the left has gone pretty crazy on a lot of issues that Jews care about.”

“When the left talks about Israel as sort of an evil colonizer apartheid state,” said Vance, “I think that’s a pretty radical departure from how politicians have talked about the State of Israel.”

Vance has never been to Israel but said that his connection with the Jewish state has deepened in recent years, thanks in part to his conversion to Catholicism. “Culturally, morally, politically, it is a real ally in the sense that we’re not just sort of sharing interests,” he argued, “we’re actually sharing common values.”

In conversation with JI this week, Vance discussed, among other things, his evolution on Trump, his recent conversion to Catholicism and how his political views may have changed since he wrote Hillbilly Elegy.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Why did you decide to jump into this race now?

J.D. Vance: I’ve been talking for a long time now about what I think the Republican Party should be doing to better serve the working middle-class base of the party, and I kind of got to the point where I thought, instead of complaining about why other politicians weren’t doing things the way that they should, I should throw my hat in the ring and actually offer up some ideas to the voters of Ohio. I have ideas about how I think the problems of the country should be solved, and nobody else is really making those arguments.

JI: You considered challenging Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2018 but ultimately didn’t go for it. What changed between then and now?

Vance: It was not great personal timing. We had just had a baby, my wife had just started a tough job. We were sort of in the middle of moving from Columbus to Cincinnati. Just a lot of crazy stuff happening personally where it just wasn’t a great time. When you do this, you have to do it the right way, and to do it the right way you really have to have your family in the right place. 

JI: You’re a first-time candidate. It’s early in the race, but how do you feel about your prospects so far?

Vance: I feel like we’ve got a lot of momentum. Certainly a lot of folks seem excited. We’re raising a lot of money. We’re getting a lot of volunteers. We’re getting a lot of media, and I think the polling is moving in our direction. All good signs, but it’s very early, and I try to keep some perspective on the fact that this is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. It’s one thing to have a good six or seven weeks; it’s another thing to have a good whole year, which is what we really need to do.

JI: How does it feel to be going back into the communities you wrote about in your book, now as a Senate candidate?

Vance: I really like campaigning. I like getting out there and talking to people, especially this time of year. It’s just a really fun and beautiful state, and you get to see different parts of it and talk to different people, and I’ve always liked that. It’s interesting because my family is still all mostly in Middletown, so I still have a pretty deep connection to Middletown. But it is very interesting to get to other parts of the state where you wouldn’t visit normally or as often. You see a lot of similarities to the town I grew up in and some differences, too.

JI: What do you think differentiates you from the other leading candidates in the race, like Josh Mandel and Jane Timken and perhaps Bernie Moreno?

Vance: First of all, I think I’m willing to say things and can go to areas that other candidates aren’t willing to go to. Your other candidates talk a lot about tax rates and regulation and the immigration crisis at the Southern border. I don’t know how many of them are going to talk about the fact that we need to change our legal immigration system. You hear a lot of folks talk about the problems of Big Tech. I don’t think you hear most people say we should actually be breaking these companies up and making their entire business model, which is based on data theft, illegal. I think there’s just a fundamental difference in what I’m willing to say and how I’m thinking about solving the problems that we face. 

The second big difference is that I sort of recognize that the biggest challenges and the biggest problems that we have aren’t just a problem of the Biden administration or a problem of bad government policy — they’re also increasingly a problem of America’s biggest multinational corporations actively aligning themselves with the left against conservatives. If you’re not willing to solve that problem as a conservative, I think you’re not actually serious about the challenges that we’re facing in this country.

JI: One of your biggest financial backers is Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Is there any tension between the two of you over your views on Big Tech?

Vance: Certainly no tension between the two of us on that issue. We agree on many things and we disagree on things, too, but on the tech issue in particular, I think Peter has been pretty far out there the last few years making some of the same arguments I’ve made, which is, basically, these companies are way too powerful, and they’re, I think, a very real threat not just for our democracy but for our prosperity.

JI: Are you engaged in any outreach to Jewish voters or pro-Israel advocates in the state? 

Vance: I’ve definitely talked to a number of folks in the Jewish community and will continue to do so. I’ve definitely had a lot of conversations with both local and national Jewish organizations. I think we met with AIPAC a month or so ago. I’ve tried to be engaged. My view here is that, to win a state like Ohio, I have to be a candidate not just winning any one geography or any one group, but I have to try to appeal to everybody. Obviously, you’re going to be more successful with some groups than others. But I think the Jewish community is an important part of our coalition on the right. I hope it becomes a more important part of our coalition because I think that, frankly, the left has gone pretty crazy on a lot of issues that Jews care about. I see this as a real opportunity for my campaign, but also for the Republican Party more broadly in the state.

JI: Can you elaborate on that?

Vance: In my experience, Jews, whatever their political affiliation, are pretty patriotic. They care a lot about living in a country that’s prosperous and free, and they don’t see Western civilization, which obviously has deep roots in the State of Israel and in the Jewish tradition, as something that’s evil and needs to be rejected but as something that needs to be built upon. When the left talks about Israel as sort of an evil colonizer apartheid state, I think that’s a pretty radical departure from how politicians have talked about the State of Israel. Even in the last decade, it’s changed pretty dramatically, and I think most Jews probably recognize what I’ve seen.

JI: Have you been to Israel? 

Vance: I never have. You could probably imagine, given my background, I didn’t do a whole lot of international traveling growing up. I recently had a trip planned where I was hoping to go to Israel. We were actually talking about going in the summer of last year, and you can probably anticipate how that went. But no, never been. I’ve always wanted to go. I’m a devout Christian, so it’s a pretty important place for me personally.

JI: You converted to Catholicism in 2019. How does your faith influence your political views?

Vance: A brief personal background: I grew up in kind of a non-denominational Christianity. Like a lot of kids, I went off to college, lost my faith, didn’t really care that much about it. And then, as I got older and realized that Christianity was asking and answering very important questions about life and character and virtue, [and I] got more serious about it. When I got more serious about it, I started thinking about where I should actually call home. What tradition within Christianity should I belong to? I always just really liked the liturgy, the old rites, the tradition of the Catholic Church. Importantly, talking about policy views, I’m a very pro-life person. It was always very meaningful to me that Catholics were always very firm on the life question. So, on a lot of these moral questions, I just saw that particular part of Christianity as a really good home for me and for my family, and that’s where we are.

JI: Has your conversion at all strengthened your connection with Israel?

Vance: It has. One of the things that people have observed about Catholicism — I’m hardly the first — but I think once you get there, you realize that because the rites and the liturgy of Catholicism are so old, there are all these interesting ways in which I think it’s a more self-consciously Jewish faith culturally than maybe some of the newer denominations are. Once you’re on the inside, if you’ve ever been to a Jewish religious service, if you’ve ever sort of heard certain songs or hymns — I’m not sure what the right vocabulary is — but if you’ve ever heard those within both the Jewish and Catholic context, you realize there are certain similarities. And of course, a lot of the early church fathers that Catholicism calls its own were obviously Jewish men. So there is this kind of historical continuity between Judaism and Catholicism that I always found pretty interesting and that I’ve noticed a lot as I’ve actually spent some time within the faith.

Venture capitalist and author JD Vance (2nd from R) shakes hands with Tim Cook (R), chief executive officer of Apple, on the third day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 13, 2017 in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

JI: Do you have a favorite part of the Old Testament?

Vance: I’ve always loved the Book of Genesis. Even though I’ve read it many, many times, I realize that I miss things, and I learn something new every time I read it. I’ve always been a big fan of Psalms, obviously very important to both Jews and Christians. And I kind of like some of the weirder stuff too, like the Book of Daniel is like the Old Testament version of Revelation. I find a lot of that stuff pretty fascinating. I don’t know what it always means sometimes. But those are, I guess, the three that jump to mind if you forced me to to answer. 

JI: You’re a fan of the French intellectual René Girard, who influenced your views of Catholicism. Are there any Jewish thinkers you admire?

Vance: It’s interesting. I’m trying to think of people from the Jewish faith who have been influential. There’s a guy by the name of Yoram Hazony. He’s sort of a conservative Jew who’s written about what Judaism means for national politics, and not national politics meaning specifically this nation — he lives in Israel — but just what it means to be a sort of nationalist and a patriot in the context of the Hebrew and Christian traditions. So Yoram’s been quite influential to me. There are actually a couple of relatively influential Catholic writers who are converts from Judaism. But the easy answer is Yoram, just because his book has influenced how I think about politics quite a bit.

JI: There’s been an uptick in antisemitic incidents over the past few years, most recently following the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. Do you have a plan to address this as a senator, whether it’s simply through the bully pulpit or more directly through legislation?

Vance: The bully pulpit is important, but I think you have to prosecute people when they commit heinous acts of violence against people because they’re Jewish. And one of the things we’ve seen, unfortunately, in a lot of Western European countries, is a real substantial increase in antisemitic violence, not just in the last couple of years but in the last couple of decades. There’s this weird way where this problem can become endemic if you don’t cut it out, and I think that that has to be our focus in the United States. We do not want to be like France, or like Belgium, or like certain countries in Western Europe where Jews are legitimately afraid to walk down the street. And I know there’s been an uptick in violence here, but I think what we do over the next three, four, five years is going to determine whether this becomes a long-term problem or just a blip on the radar, and God-willing, it’ll just be a blip on the radar.

JI: You’ve criticized social media companies and their efforts to de-platform bigots who use their services. Recently, your tweet about Nick Fuentes caused something of a stir. You denounced Twitter’s decision to ban Fuentes last month while also describing him as a “giant troll” who had leveled “dishonest” attacks against you. But many observers felt that your characterization of a known Holocaust denier didn’t go far enough. How did you view that criticism?

Vance: I don’t pay attention to the criticisms of my tweets too much, because if I did then I probably wouldn’t get anything else done. But I think the point there is pretty straightforward, which is that, unless a person is advocating violence against somebody, unless a person basically is speaking in a way that violates the First Amendment, we should not let private companies control what people are allowed to say and how they’re allowed to say it. I mean, the most important right in our democracy is the right to speak your mind, to opine on the questions of public policy. What really worried me about that episode is that it sort of revealed how — again, this is not the only example, but it’s yet another example, and I think President Trump is the most high-profile one — where if we allow multinational corporations to control what people are allowed to say, they’re eventually going to come after speech that you like. And that, to me, is an unacceptable way to actually run a country.

JI: What did you make of the Trump administration’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East, and would you hope to expand on it if you’re elected?

Vance: I think Trump was very successful in the Middle East, and hilariously, was met with extraordinary hair-on-fire rhetoric when he actually did move the [U.S.] embassy to Jerusalem. A lot of his policy initiatives were dismissed as immature or poorly thought out or whatever the case may be. But if you actually looked at the sum total of the legacy, I think it was very positive for the region and certainly positive for the State of Israel. My basic foreign policy is that Americans have to be a little bit more humble about what we can accomplish in the Middle East, and importantly, what we can accomplish in the world. I think we’re learning in Afghanistan, for example, that our efforts to build a Western-style nation out of a very different culture and linguistic tradition didn’t actually work that well. It caused a lot of spent American life and a lot of spent American money for an outcome that I don’t think anybody in America is happy with right now. 

I definitely think that one of our takeaways, and one of the reasons why Israel is such an important ally, is that culturally, morally, politically, it is a real ally in the sense that we’re not just sort of sharing interests, we’re actually sharing common values. Because of that, I think there are things that we can do with Israel that we just can’t successfully do with other countries, and we should have a little bit of humility about that fact. I’ve always thought we should be more willing to help Israel. We should recognize that it’s sort of an island of shared values in a sea of really despotic regimes, and that’s important.

On a lot of these questions — what do we do with Iran, for example, what do we do with Afghanistan now, what do we do with a lot of the troublesome regimes in the area? — I think the approach that we should take is, well, what’s actually going to work? What’s going to be the interests of the United States and its allies? Not, like, can we turn some of these countries into American-style democracies with 10 years of war, fighting and roads and bridges? Because the answer is clearly that we can’t.

JI: Trump hasn’t made an endorsement in this race. You’ve met with him at least once. Do you have any expectation that he will endorse and, if so, whether you’ll receive his support?

Vance: I certainly think I have a chance if he ends up doing an endorsement. But everything I’ve heard from both the president directly, but also his close advisers, is that he is taking a wait-and-see approach on this race. And I don’t know if that’ll be true six months from now or nine months from now. We’ll see what he does.

JI: You were pretty critical of Trump when he ran in 2016 and didn’t even vote for him, though you have since expressed regret for speaking negatively about the former president. Notwithstanding the mea culpa, has your past criticism been a point of tension in your conversations with Trump?

Vance: I wouldn’t say it’s a point of tension. He’s certainly aware that I criticized him and we talked about it. I think he understands where I was then, where I am now, and why I changed my mind. I think that’s true not just for the president but for a lot of voters. It’s one of the most poorly kept secrets in this race that I was a critic of Trump in 2016, thanks to my opposition. But I also think that people care about what you actually think about the issues, what you think about the substance, and whether you’ve got a credible argument for why you changed your mind and why Trump proved you wrong. I think I do. Trump seems to think that, and I think a lot of voters do as well.

JI: Can you elaborate on your evolution there?

Vance: I think it’s a couple of things. In government, I thought Trump did a good job. He advanced the cause on a few issues that I really cared about, specifically our manufacturing relationship with China and just our long-term stagnation of the middle class in this country. I also think that, like a lot of folks who were critical of Trump in 2016, or even those who weren’t, we all saw that Trump’s presidency revealed something about the insanity of the left and that we should never let these people have power in our country. We should never let them control how the public debate unfolds because they’ve shown a very clear willingness to censor people, to shut them up, to silence them and to ruin people’s lives if they disagree with them politically. Even though, obviously, I had some negative things to say about Trump in 2016, I think recognizing how insane the left was, I was a very enthusiastic supporter in 2020 because I didn’t want these people to have any more power than they already do.

J.D. Vance, author of the book “Hillbilly Elegy,” poses for a portrait photograph near the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2017. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

JI: You were regarded, around the time Trump won, as a sort of whisperer of poor white people and the white working class. In your memoir, you describe, somewhat witheringly, a sort of deeply ingrained fatalism that prevents these communities from accepting responsibility for themselves even as they receive assistance from the government. It seemed to bother you that members of the community you grew up in had seemingly managed to procure cellphones from the welfare system when you were unable to afford one. Would you say your views have since changed, or do you feel like you still have the same outlook on that community?

Vance: Of course, it’s not that community, it’s my community. It’s where I grew up. I think it’s important for us to be able to hold two ideas in our head at the same time. One is that the community that I grew up in really has been decimated by globalization, by bad trade deals, by the opioid problem, by a lot of very significant forces that are outside of people’s control. At the same time, I think, as an individual ethic, however hard an individual’s life is, people have to try anyway, and they can’t give into defeatism and they can’t give into pessimism. And I think both of those things are true at the same time. We actually have to make sure that people have an opportunity in this country to a better life, we have to reverse and undo the policies that made it hard for people to get ahead, and at the same time, we can’t encourage our young people to give into defeatism, even though their lives are hard — maybe especially if their lives are hard. We have to encourage them to try to make something of themselves anyway.

JI: Do you have any desire to write another book?

Vance: Oh yeah, I’m always writing, and obviously, most of my writing these days is in op-eds or press releases, public remarks, things like that. But no, I’m sure that I’ll eventually publish another book. It’ll be on some of the topics that I’m running on and some of the topics that I care about. I care about this stuff, and will always continue to write and think about it, even as a U.S. senator.

JI: Recently, Insider published an investigation of the work you did, before you ran for Senate and after the publication of your memoir, as the founder of a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic as well as a venture-capital firm devoted to Midwestern startups. The piece made the case that you’d overstated your achievements in those roles. Do you have a response to that article?

Vance: The response is, look, I don’t think that we ever said that we were doing anything that we weren’t, which is we were taking some resources, a lot of which were coming from me personally, and we were putting them into a couple of efforts that we thought were worthwhile on the opioid epidemic. And that’s what we did. And that’s what we’ve been doing. And I don’t think that we’ve ever been dishonest about what we were doing with the nonprofit. I think one of the weird things about that article — and I have to be honest, I haven’t read it; I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t read it — but one of the things about the criticism, I should say, the criticism of the nonprofit is that the guy that we got to run it was diagnosed with stage-four cancer almost immediately after we really set things up. And so, like, I’m not going to pretend that that didn’t dampen our plans a little bit and that didn’t distract us for a little while. It did. But I also think that even with that distraction, we did some good work and never said we were doing anything that we weren’t.

JI: Is there anyone in the Senate you could imagine yourself working with if you’re elected?

Vance: Josh Hawley [R-MO] is, I think, right on a lot of this stuff, and on the Big Tech question has been one of the most important leaders in the country. I think Tom Cotton [R-AR] has been a great leader on the national security stuff that we talked about but also the manufacturing and trade stuff. There are definitely some good folks in the Senate; I think maybe some more that will come in 2022, that we’re going to have an opportunity to hopefully get some good things done with.

JI: If she were alive today, what do you think your grandmother — your unofficial guardian growing up, whom you credit in your book as your most formative influence — would have made of your Senate bid?Vance: It’s interesting. I’ve thought about that. I think that she probably would have just encouraged me not to get too big for my britches and not to let all the attention, positive and negative, go to my head, and to remember that most important is that I’m a husband and a father, and if I could serve my country in the U.S. Senate, that’s great. But I’ve got to make sure that I’m rooted in my family to do a good job at anything, including being senator.

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