Connecting You to a World of Ideas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Why Trump endorsed J.D. Vance, who once called him an 'idiot' (and worse)

jd vance
Joshua A. Bickel
AP Pool The Columbus Dispatch
U.S. Senate Republican candidate J.D. Vance answers a question during Ohio's U.S. Senate Republican Primary debate, Monday, March 28, 2022, at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Let's face it — even among Donald Trump's most fervent followers, "forgiveness" and "redemption" are not qualities that leap to mind when you think of the 45th president.

This is a man who seems never to forget a slight, no matter how small or distant in the past it occurred. In the dictionary, there should be a photo of Trump next to the definition of grudge.

All of which makes it more than odd that the man who is the object of awe and admiration among the candidates for Ohio's Republican U.S. Senate nomination would reach down into that crowded field of (mostly) Trump acolytes and pull out of his hat the name of J.D. Vance, the Middletown native who hit it big with his book Hillbilly Elegy and his career as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

It seemed weird, just because of how Vance was talking about Trump back in 2016 when he was out hawking his book on talk shows and lighting up Twitter with his commentary on the presidential election.

Vance called Trump an "idiot" and a "noxious" human being. "Reprehensible," in fact.

During a 2016 Fresh Air interview, he even suggested he might have to hold his nose and vote for Hillary Clinton for president.

Then, on Tuesday, a state representative from Georgia named Josh McLaurin, who was a college roommate of Vance, threw more gasoline on the fire by tweeting out a Facebook message he said he received from Vance in 2016 in which he said Trump may become "America's Hitler."

Apparently, Trump has forgiven all of these trespasses committed by Vance running his mouth.

You see, after returning to Ohio from Silicon Valley, where he had spent most of his adult life, and deciding it was time for him to be the United States Senator from his native state, Vance had an epiphany, a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, in which he realized that he was wrong, wrong, wrong about Donald Trump.

Trump is, Vance concluded, not America's Hitler at all, but the friend to all the little people Vance says he loves so much.

And, Donald Trump forgave him.

"Like some others, J.D. Vance may have said some not-so-great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades," Trump said in his statement endorsing Vance.

So, what in blue blazes is going on here?

Why Vance

First, let's ask ourselves this question — what it is that J.D. Vance and Donald Trump have in common?

Peter Thiel.

peter thiel
Carolyn Kaster
Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel looks over the podium before the start of the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Thiel, is a Silicon Valley billionaire and advisor to former President Donald Trump.

Peter Thiel is the incredibly wealthy venture capitalist who was an early investor in Facebook and a co-founder of PayPal. Thiel has steered millions upon millions into campaigns boosting both Trump and Vance. That's Peter Thiel, who is rich enough to buy and sell both J.D. Vance and Donald Trump many times over.

Early in the campaign, Thiel cut a $10 million check to a super PAC supporting Vance's candidacy called Protect Ohio Values.

Thiel's friend Trump doesn't like losing, and he's probably getting tired of so many of his endorsed candidates going down the drain. He likely doesn't want it to happen again in Ohio, where the polls show Vance is within striking distance of winning, but not leading the polls.

So, on Tuesday, Politico reported that Thiel had dumped another $3.5 million into Protect Ohio Values.

Why so generous to Vance? Well, because Trump wants it; and because Vance used to work for Thiel's Mithral Capital in San Francisco. Last year, Thiel was one of the investors in a new venture capital firm that Vance started in Cincinnati — Narva Capital.

This sounds like big money — and it is, in a political campaign — but it is a drop in the bucket if you are a multi-billionaire like Thiel.

"Peter Thiel spends $10 million the way you or I spend $100,'' said Mark R. Weaver, a longtime Ohio-based GOP campaign strategist. "It's not a lot of money to him."

Weaver said the Thiel connection is obvious, but he thinks Donald Trump Jr. might also have had some influence on his father's decision.

"Donald Junior and Vance have been friends; and I think his son finally got to him on this,'' Weaver said.

donald trump jr
Mike Stewart
Donald John Trump Jr. speaks during a political rally on Sept. 22, 2021, in Marietta, Ga.

Trump Jr. was at a small, high-dollar fundraising event for Vance earlier this month in a French restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida. And, on Wednesday, he was scheduled to campaign with Vance at a "town hall forum" in the Cleveland suburb of Independence.

I don't doubt that Junior might have put a bug in his dad's ear, but when it comes down to it, I'd bet on the Thiel connection. Randy Newman wrote a song about it: It's money that matters, whatever you do.

David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said he sees this endorsement as something that has more to do with connections than commitment.

"If loyalty counted for anything in this, somebody like Mike Gibbons or Mandel would have gotten Trump's endorsement,'' Niven said. "There's really no papering over what Vance said in the past about Trump."

Vance and Trump are already getting blow-back from Republican leaders around the state and conservatives who are not happy at all with the anointing of Vance as the endorsed candidate.

Most of the Republican county party chairs around the state signed a letter last week asking Trump to not endorse Vance. That group included Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou.

Trump ignored that advice, but he and his new friend, Vance, may not be able to ignore the conservatives out there who have been loyal to Trump in the past but can't swallow this Vance endorsement.

Jo Ingles of Ohio Public Radio did a story about the We the People Convention, a Tea Party group based in Portage County, which had endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Mike Gibbons.

"Conservatives in Ohio do not accept this endorsement and will not vote for Vance," said Tom Zawistowski, the president of the Tea Party group.

Zawistowski told Ingles that everyone he's talked to in the past few days echoes that sentiment. He said Trump’s endorsement of Vance flies in the face of Ohioans who elected Trump.

“Mr. President, you claim you won Ohio twice but let me be clear. You didn’t win Ohio. We the people worked our a—s off and elected you twice,” Zawistowski said.

Sounds like trouble in paradise.

Does it even matter?

Niven said he's not sure how much Trump's endorsement will matter at this stage of the game. Time is running out.

"It says a lot that Trump waited this long to do it,'' Niven said. "Yes, his endorsement is valuable. But it is not nearly as valuable as it would have been a couple of months ago."

It didn't take long for Vance's campaign to start trumpeting the endorsement.

Tuesday, as I was having lunch at my favorite diner in Clifton. Channel 12's noon news was on the TV. In the first break, I saw Vance's new TV ad, during which some variation of the phrase Trump endorsed me appeared at least five times within the space of 30 seconds.

In the second break, Gibbons and Mandel had ads up touting their consolation prize endorsements — Ted Cruz speaking for Mandel, as Mandel sat by his side, sullen and silent; and Kentucky's junior senator, Rand Paul, touting the candidacy of Gibbons, the investment banker from the Cleveland area.

And Wednesday morning, State Sen. Matt Dolan — the only candidate in the GOP Senate primary who didn’t seek Trump's endorsement — released a one-minute ad in which he goes after Vance for his statement on a conservative talk show saying, "I've got to be honest with you, I don't really care what happens with Ukraine one way or another."

It was, for Vance, a foot-in-mouth moment. And, some would say, a not-ready-for-primetime statement from a rookie candidate.

I wonder if Trump understands how far out on a limb he has gone with this 11th hour endorsement of an inexperienced candidate who clearly has some chameleon-like powers that he won't hesitate to use when the situation suits him.

And I wonder how many Ohio Republican primary voters are going to play along with this Vance-Thiel-Trump production.

Trump's rally Saturday on the Delaware County Fairgrounds could be his last hurrah as the Pied Piper of Ohio Republican politics.

J.D. Vance could, for Trump, be a bridge too far in Ohio.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.