Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Can These Notorious Libertarians Buy Themselves a Senate Seat in Ohio?

Peter Thiel

Politicos perked up when Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder, donated $10 million last month to a super PAC seeking to recruit author J.D. Vance to run for the Republican Senate nomination in Ohio, for the seat that Rob Portman is giving up. Peter Thiel has a big, actually abusive Libertarian reputation, and really so does J.D. Vance, the author of the best-seller Hillbilly Elegy, who hasn't even said definitely that he's running.

Why would Thiel be so enthusiastic about Vance? The super PAC that's trying to recruit Vance calls itself "Protect Ohio Values," a phrase out of sync with the ambitions of a man like Thiel, for whom nothing seems sacred and who clearly thinks of other people as a problem to be solved -- or evaded. He's built himself a sprawling luxury compound in New Zealand as a refuge for himself and other like-minded Libertarians when there's a collapse of civilization in the United States. (I can recommend Mark O'Connell's "Notes From the Apocolypse," which includes a chapter on Thiel.) Thiel also helped found the spy world's ideal Big Eye, the Palantir company, which hacks "big data analytics," bigger and better than Cambridge Analytics of Steve Bannon fame. But Ohio values?

So the name of that super PAC backing a Senate candidacy for J.D. Vance is camouflage for something else, something not at all sinister, I'm sure.

Vance himself wrote his best seller about growing up poor and white in Appalachia and getting all the way to Yale Law School as an up-by-the-bootstraps saga of personal triumph against great odds. He sold the book to the movies, and now Glenn Close is nominated for an Academy Award. The movie was loudly panned as stereotype-strangled claptrap. David Sims called it "the worst movie of the year" in The Atlantic.

J.D. Vance

The book the preceded it, however, made Vance the go-to oracle not only of modern Appalachia but also of the rural, white, economically struggling "Trump voter." Vance was in the media multiple times explaining, for example, why/how Trump had won Pennsylvania and Michigan. White resentment, what historian Bob Hutton called "sado-nationalism," got fully flowered because of decades of the liberal welfare system, hatred for which the Trump presidency provided full justification. Vance himself was an enthusiastic Trump supporter (as was Thiel, at least in 2016), both attracted to the norm-shattering populism of an otherwise ignorant and cunning con-man.

Despite its best-sellerdom and the wide respect Vance earned as a writer of words, Hillbilly Elegy was the most hated book of 2016 among the regional activists and scholars I know and pay attention to. An entire book of Vance denunciation, "Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy," was published by West Virginia University Press in 2019. The essays, one and all, found Vance to be not only "clueless" about the diversity of life in Appalachia but dangerously clueless, peddling “a media-constructed mythological realm, backward and homogenous,” "full of Scots-Irish hillbilly welfare queens and kings too lazy to work who spend most of their time drinking moonshine and getting high on opioids" (1st quote, Dwight Billings, filtered through the reviewer James Branscome in the 2nd quote).

I have little doubt that Vance will be running for that Senate seat and that Thiel knows it. Vance will have a primary -- already, two other Republicans, both avid Trumpists vying for an endorsement from he who was formerly known as Twitterman, have announced their candidacies. I'll get around to profiling all those candidates, and the Democrats, eventually. But right now I just want to marvel at what our broken political finance system and the continuing evil of Citizens United can potentially do to our Republic.

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