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J.D. Vance seeks to build bridges, maybe even among Republicans

As a high school student, bestselling "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance recalled, "People talked about Clarence as someone to look up to."

"Not when I was there," I interrupted.

And we laughed like two people who went to the same high school, although in vastly different decades.

So did the host of our discussion, Bob Woodson, a former civil rights activist and founding head of the 40-year-old Woodson Center, based in Washington. After I told Woodson, a longtime source of great column ideas, how much "Hillbilly Elegy" shows that class and culture increasingly matter more than race in determining one's socioeconomic success in life, he invited young J.D. and me to talk about it in a special video podcast, "Desegregate Poverty."

I was delighted and fortunately so was Vance. It really is I who looks up to him, I noted, returning his compliment. After all, he's the one who turned his humble working-class upbringing in Kentucky and our shared hometown of Middletown, Ohio, into a cultural and literary sensation and Netflix movie.

He also gained unexpected national stardom as the "Trump anger translator" (among other nicknames) after the 2016 election, as journalists in particular turned to his account from Flyover Country for clues about the working-class folks who energized Donald Trump's surprising campaign.

Significantly, the book doesn't even mention Trump's name. But Vance's account of how family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse and the loss of dignity and purpose after the elimination of manufacturing jobs gave three-dimensional life to Trump's "forgotten man" images and "American carnage" rhetoric, minus his inflammatory language about immigrants, "fake news" and other scapegoats.

Vance is more conservative than I am, but so, it seems to me, is most of our hometown, which only adds to the bitter frustration of those who feel the system has left them, as Vance puts it, on the "losing side of globalization."

Both of us credit our homespun Midwestern upbringing for our shared desire for civility and common ground, along with the tough love he so eloquently describes in elders like his "mamaw," who urged him not to be a "loser."

I agree with him that the erosion of family life has been brutal for Blacks and whites alike, studies show, even though Black families proportionately suffer worse. But what, I counter, can we do about it? There's no mail-order catalog to order up more responsible Black fathers, especially when so many have been locked up, thanks to the mass incarceration policies of both parties.

We Americans need to offer more than simple "Save the Family" slogans about such complex problems. For a while at least, J.D. was encouraged that his book was helping to send Americans down that road.

Shortly after his book came out, "There was this moment where I actually thought I had accomplished something very meaningful because it seemed like folks were asking, what did we miss? What did we not see that was happening in the middle of the country with the white working class? Let's try to empathize and understand where they're coming from, let's try to make their lives better because that's obviously a part of living and sharing the country with people ..."

Alas, that lasted for maybe a few weeks before the national discussion moved on to deny that job loss or the middle class feeling left behind by globalization were the real reasons for Trump's victory.

"Instead," he recalled, "it was either that they (Trump voters) were racists or stupid or maybe Russia stole the election."

That frustration, I believe, led to J.D.'s other recent bit of news: He's seriously pursuing the Senate seat occupied by Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who is not running in 2022. Before he has even confirmed whether he'll run, his former employer Peter Thiel, billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, has given $10 million to a super PAC that would support Vance's potential run.

The former Marine, Iraq War vet and Yale Law School graduate has an attractive resume for the job, especially as the Republicans try to rebrand themselves as the working-class party. But in a state that Trump carried twice, his old Trump-bashing tweets may well come back to haunt him.

I wish him well, as a fellow "Middie" alumnus. But if anything will challenge his warm, engaging Midwestern charm in pursuit of higher ground, this could be it.


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