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

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The members of the smart New York ensemble reunited 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. Vances’ new memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which chronicles his working-class upbringing in southwestern Ohio and a rise that took him to Yale, where his mentors included Amy Chua, the one of the 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 how disarmed people were by this, said one, novelist Joshua Cohen.

Hillbilly Elegy, who 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. The book, which had a modest initial print run of 10,000 copies, has sold more than three million, according to its publisher, HarperCollins. It was made into a 2020 feature film by Hollywood stars 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 kissed 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. Vances’ 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 a high-octane book was because liberal scholars, professors, cultural arbiters embraced it as explaining a forgotten part of America, said Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University who previously featured 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 taken by Mr. Vance and by 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 contributed to Mr. Vances’ 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 slams elites and campaigned with polarizing far-right figures, including Representatives 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 disdain for elites and his insight that Republicans had done too little for working-class and middle-class voters.

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

He owes almost everything to becoming a Trump whisperer phenom, 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 helped liberals understand the causes of what happened to them in the 2016 election, said Adrian Zackheim, the publisher of several editions of Penguin Random House, including Sentinel. , which focuses on conservative books.

Mr. Vances’ 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 do a reboot of the sitcom Roseanne, a lighthearted prime-time portrayal of people who 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 Hillbilly movie Elegy. It received poor reviews, but was would have among Netflix’s most-streamed movies the week it was released in November 2020. Both Mr. Howard and Mr. Grazer were generous Democratic donors, according to documents filed by the Federal Election Commission. Ahead of the 2020 election, Ms. Close, who played Mr. Vances’ grandmother, made a series of social media posts urging voters to support Joseph R. Biden Jr. Ms. Closes’ representatives n did not respond to inquiries.

Last year, as Mr. Vance began his run for the Senate, he backed down from his earlier criticism of Mr. Trump. He deleted a few old tweets, including one that called Mr. Trump objectionable. Last month, Mr. Trump embraced Mr. Vance like a prodigal son who said bad things about him, using a louder word than things. (Mr. Vances’ campaign declined to comment for this article.)

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 had written a book calling Ohioans hicks and then sold his story to Hollywood. And Elizabeth Walters, the chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Party, accused Mr Vance of landing a book deal in New York to cash in on Ohio’s pain and earning untold millions from a movie Netflix Hollywood.

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 those 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 New York Times critic and columnist, said some of the Republican parties’ biggest contemporary stars, including Mr. Vance, Mr. Trump and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, are the products elite institutions whose constant railing against the elites is just weird, because it’s 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. What 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 very quickly criticize the left for relying too much on Hollywood for support and glamour, Brownell said.

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

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