Home National Politics On J.D. Vance and “MAGA Intellectuals”

On J.D. Vance and “MAGA Intellectuals”

Vance's ideas more often reflect the simplistic harshness of budding fascism than anything innovative or helpful to American society.


By Kindler (Please check out all my work at Substack)

I can already hear you LOLing over the idea of “MAGA intellectuals” and as you’ll see, I share your skepticism – but please hear me out.  Every movement, even one of the most lunk-headed morons, is based on ideas that someone somewhere has articulated and fleshed out.

It’s very important to know about those who shape the thoughts of the MAGA movement because the significance and threats their ideas represent go well beyond the obvious reality that Donald Trump is a megalomaniac, pathological narcissist.  So much of our political commentary is focused on the fact that Trump is a jerk that way too few people understand that the intellectual foundations for turning America into a fascist state are being laid in the shadows by a range of right-wing actors with money, power and access.

We need to drag these actors out of the shadows and into the light so that the voters can be crystal clear about the ugly threat to the country and world that they represent.  This goes for Chris Rufo, the skillful propagandist behind the “CRT” and trans scares as well as for Kevin Roberts, the new head of the Heritage Foundation whose Project 2025 presents a chilling vision for a post-democratic America.

But today I want to highlight an excellent long piece on Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) in Politico by Ian Ward.  The author quotes lots of right-wing luminaries on Vance’s alleged intellectual leadership while expressing well-placed skepticism and showing, in his quotes from Vance, the fundamental shallowness of so much of what the man has to say.

Now, I have no doubt that Vance has read more books and has a much larger vocabulary than the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert.  But his ideas more often reflect the simplistic harshness of budding fascism than anything innovative or helpful to American society.

Take his conclusion about our alleged globalist overlords ruling us from Davos: “The problem with the elites is not that they’re malevolent, it’s that they’re stupid.” That’s a funny line, but not nearly as profound as Vance might think it is. More than anything, it seems to me to reflect the arrogance of Silicon Valley tech bros like himself and his billionaire sponsor, Peter Thiel – the actual moneyed elites ruling over us right now – who believe that they are not just the smartest people in the room, but in the whole world.  And that we desperately need them to save us from those other alleged elites who sip more lattes than them, or something.

In his skillful dissection of Vance, the author focuses on the Senator’s preferred slogan, “The culture war is class warfare.”  As Ward notes, “From a liberal frame of reference, Vance’s mantra sounds a lot like a sophisticated-sounding justification for, say, sexist shitposts about “childless cat ladies” on Twitter.” And indeed, Vance is a notorious social media troll, a requirement for success as a Republican in the Age of Trump.

When asked for an example of how right-wing culture war equates with class warfare, Vance gives the totally insincere answer that his attempts to limit hormone therapy for trans people is really an attack on Big Pharma. Oh, puh-lease! It could not be more obvious that the American right, like the German right of the 1930s, is seeking to motivate its base by scapegoating marginalized groups that they don’t expect to be able to defend themselves – in both cases, including LGBTQ populations.

One thing I aim never to allow pundits, academics or the press to get away with is sugarcoating pure fascism with the pretty name of “populism”. Vance is very clearly seeking to associate himself with that pleasant-sounding label and has even gone out on a limb by co-sponsoring a couple of bills with Democrats that aim to increase regulation of out-of-control corporations, specifically on railroad safety and executive compensation at banks.

But look, anyone who’s observed politics for a while should be familiar with the tactic of trying to moderate your image and show how reasonable a politician you are by comprising on a few very carefully selected issues. While many in the mainstream media regularly fall for this trick and swoon over so-and-so (see: Senators Manchin, Sinema, Collins, etc.) for being so admirably “centrist”, these ideological apostasies are usually well chosen to maximize positive publicity while taking minimal risk of offending one’s own base.

But if, as the author suggests, Vance has the White House in his sights, there is no question that he will surrender to the pro-corporate wing of the GOP faster than a speeding bullet from the right’s beloved AR-15. This is inexorably dictated by the logic of coalition politics – just as the corporate wing spent decades trying to mollify the Christian nationalist wing of the Republican party even while attempting to keep it under its control, so the corporate wing, particularly its millionaire and billionaire donors, must be kept in the tent even if they are not running the show as much as they used to. The same judges banning abortion and birth control also continue to promote the expansion of corporate power, and GOP politicians will continue to straddle this coalition even if they choose to commit an occasional apostasy for public relations purposes.

Ultimately, Vance and his fellow travelers describe themselves as throwbacks to an earlier conservatism, and I think that is right – specifically, the xenophobic, racist, paranoid ideology of those who trust nobody other than those who look like them or part of their clan. It’s the reactionary ideology of the isolationist Republicans of the 1920s, of the McCarthyites of the 1950s, the John Birch Society of the 1960s, Pat Buchanan’s followers in the 1990s, and so on.

It is quite telling in this context that Vance says here: “Maybe the thing that I’m most proud of is that we are on the cusp of radically changing U.S. policy towards Ukraine.” In this too, he is a throwback to the right wing Americans of the 1930s and 1940s who fought for non-intervention in World War II with more than a little sympathy for the Nazis then on the rise in Germany, as Rachel Maddow discusses at length in her book Prequel. Vance claims that his real target is to dismantle the “rules-based international order”, which he correctly blames for the excesses of globalism but fails to appreciate for holding the line against the violent, genocidal imperialism of the likes of Vladimir Putin.

Ultimately, the most important reason to read about Vance and the other alleged MAGA intellectuals is to be forewarned about their efforts to provide a philosophical and political underpinning for the MAGA effort to turn America into Viktor Orban’s Hungary – a former democracy being continually eroded by a ruling party changing the rules of the game in order to stay in power forever.  Vance shares with the other MAGA propagandists who spend the most time praising him – like Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson – a dark vision that America is in such a precipitous decline that they need to resort to extraordinary measures to “save” it.

Ultimately, the goal of such a vision is to scare the “hillbillies” which Vance became famous for writing about into accepting the destruction of American democracy and installation of Trump, his goons and gurus into power in order to arrest the demographic decline of the white conservative base that increasingly makes victory at the ballot box challenging.

Getting millions of voters to reject the core values of American democracy and accept the sort of fascism we fought a world war to defeat is not an easy task – it takes not only demagogues like Trump but also a full pseudo-intellectual elite to justify and grant permission for such horrific ideas.  That’s what it took under Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1930s and it’s why we need to put lunatics like Vance under sharp scrutiny and expose all these little men behind the curtain. They may not be legitimate intellectuals, but they are marketing ideas that are dangerous as hell – and every American needs to know that before they choose to vote to put their dystopias in place.




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