The Memo: 'Hillbilly Elegy' author binds himself to Trump after past criticism

J.D. Vance, the bestselling author, was once a stern critic of former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE.

Now, as a candidate for the Republican Senate nomination in Ohio, he is a big Trump fan.

How and why Vance moved from one position to the other is a topic of red-hot debate only days after the “Hillbilly Elegy” author declared his candidacy for the seat that is being vacated by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken McConnell: Republicans 'united in opposition to raising the debt ceiling' MORE (R-Ohio).

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That debate, in turn, is a window into the current state of the Republican Party, riven by tensions over the 45th president and the long shadow he casts.

Vance declared his Senate candidacy on Thursday.

Soon afterward, CNN uncovered old tweets in which he had called Trump “reprehensible” in relation to his policies on “immigrants, Muslims etc.” In another tweet from the same year, 2016, Vance said he would vote for an independent candidate, Evan McMullin, rather than Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPennsylvania GOP authorizes subpoenas in election probe We must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE.

Vance, who has in more recent times become a regular Fox News guest, gave a penitent interview to the network on Monday.

“I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I've been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy,” Vance said.

Those comments have not been enough to quell the storm, however.

Tuesday brought new attention to Vance’s record on Trump. There was a Vance column from USA Today in early 2016, in which he wrote that “Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd."

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In another story that year, this time from The Atlantic, the bestselling author described Trump as “cultural heroin” for otherwise marginalized voters.

“He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it,” Vance said then.

The difference between Vance then and Vance now is huge.

His Twitter feed during the past week has featured support for tighter voting laws, derision about moves made by the Biden administration on gender identity and complaints about the stances taken by corporate executives in general and “Big Tech” in particular.

It is, in a word, Trumpy.

As for Vance’s views on the former president himself?

“After he won [in 2016], I rethought my opposition,” Vance wrote in Newsweek this March.

“What separated Donald Trump from other Republicans in my lifetime wasn’t just his populist-inspired policy agenda — it was his fearlessness.”

The problem for the newly minted Senate candidate is at least threefold.

First, it looks on its face as if Vance has cravenly changed his tune out of political expediency.

Second, this in turn undermines his greatest asset — the supposed authenticity that directly springs from his hardscrabble background in Middletown, Ohio.

Third, if even someone like Vance cannot have his blue-collar bona fides accepted by GOP voters without an ostentatious show of loyalty to Trump, what does that say about the state of the party?

Critics, among both liberals and conservatives, are piling on.

“The question comes down to this: Was J.D. Vance lying then or is he lying now?” Rick Wilson, the GOP strategist who is a driving force behind the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said on Tuesday. “Vance is in many ways a signifier of a post-ideological Republican Party. He doesn’t believe in anything. He believes in the acquisition and retention of power.”

The previous day, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodThe Memo: Democrats vent frustration with Biden on Afghanistan Psaki dismisses Axelrod's criticism of Biden on Afghanistan Axelrod says Biden should have 'embraced' failures of Afghanistan exit MORE, a former Obama aide, tweeted a link to Vance’s expression of contrition for his Trump criticisms.

“The heavy toll of ambition,” Axelrod noted.

Aides and allies to Vance are pushing back hard against that narrative.

In particular, they object to the idea that Vance had hidden his earlier objections to Trump.

Three different pro-Vance sources stressed to this column that the author had spoken repeatedly about his shift.

They also took exception to the emphasis in the CNN story on the fact that Vance had deleted the anti-Trump tweets. Many old tweets have been deleted, his allies say, including plenty that had no Trump-related, or even political, relevance.

Taylor Van Kirk, the press secretary for Vance’s campaign, said: “JD regularly deletes all of his tweets, political or not. He’s very open about his past comments on the president.”

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She added: “He was an enthusiastic supporter and defender of President Trump and his policies in 2020. We look forward to the next oppo dump from our opponents and the Lincoln Project.”

“He didn’t try to hide it,” a spokesman for a super PAC supporting Vance’s candidacy told this column, regarding his past dissent from Trump. “That’s what bothers me about this narrative. He has been open about it for months.”

The case put forward by Vance’s allies is that he was simply not convinced that Trump was for real when he first ran. In this version of events, it was Trump’s pugnaciousness in the face of Democratic and media antagonism that won Vance over.

The super PAC spokesperson said that Vance has “always been an immigration restrictionist and has always been a trade skeptic. His views have been Trumpy for a lot longer than other people. He has always been a social conservative, he has always been pro-life.”

Another Vance ally with close ties to Trump World argued that Vance’s shift toward the former president was real, and the kind of thing Trump loyalists should admire.

“J.D. Vance is no different from a million other conservative commentators who were initially hesitant but then were won over by Trump. Is that not what we want — to win people over to our side?” this ally said. “Those of us who are true Trump loyalists should never take issue with somebody who has had a genuine conversion.”

The same source insisted that “probably more so than any other Senate candidate in the country,” Vance “is 100 percent all-in with us on Trump’s America First policy agenda.”

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None of that will convince the Never Trump faction within conservatism, which sees Vance as a pure opportunist.

“He is a quivering mass of ambition. Unfortunately, he is now playing a role that is not very authentic,” said Lucy Caldwell, a strategist who served as campaign manager for former Rep. Joe WalshJoe WalshThe Memo: 'Hillbilly Elegy' author binds himself to Trump after past criticism Joe Walsh says radio show canceled due to Trump criticism The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE’s (R-Ill.) long-shot bid for the GOP nomination in 2020.

Will voters in Ohio see it the same way?

Vance is a big name, but he also faces several rivals, the most high-profile being former state Treasurer Josh Mandel.

But even a look at the first sentence of Mandel’s short Twitter biography is a reminder that the biggest name in the race isn’t on the ballot.

“1st Statewide Official in Ohio to support President Trump,” it says.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.