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J.D. Vance, Replacement Theory, and the 2022 U.S. elections

Bill V. Mullen reflects on the Ohio Senate campaign of J.D. Vance, in the aftermath of the white supremacist murders in Buffalo, and finds a through line of “Replacement Theory” and emergent fascist politics.

The horrific massacre of ten African-Americans in Buffalo, New York by white supremacist Payton Gendron has drawn renewed media attention to the so-called “white replacement” theory that Gendron cited as motivation for his attack. Replacement theory is the idea that whites will one day be erased or overtaken by non-white people. Replacement theory was popularized at the Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right”far-right rally and torch march of 2017 by preppy fascists chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” It is woven through the white nationalist rantings of Anders Breivik, Brenton Tarrant, and Dylann Roof, which inspired Gendron’s own 180 page hate-filled manifesto. Replacement theory has become an important but quick-fix substitute for deeper analysis of the crosscurrents of capitalist disaster-making that toxify our current political moment.

Sign that reads, "White Supremacy is Terrorism"
Part of an anti-racist campaign after the Charlottesville march in 2017. Photo by anokarina.

A harrowing and legible emblem of those currents is the recently victorious Republican Senate nomination campaign of J.D. Vance. Vance is from Middletown, Ohio, approximately 400 miles from the Gendron holocaust, but in every way a predictive poster-boy for its bloody horrors. Widely known as the author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of his working-class upbringing, Vance, like Gendron, has traveled far in a short time to notoriety. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and graduating from Yale, Vance made a fortune as a tech capitalist investor before his recent run for the Senate in Ohio. Once a candidate, Vance embraced whole hog the politics of Donald Trump, courting voters with pledges to reduce immigration, complete construction of Trump’s border wall, punishing China for ‘stealing’ U.S. jobs and capital, vehemently attacking abortion rights, slamming COVID-19 restrictions, and endorsing Trump’s idea of a stolen election in 2020. For his efforts, the man Vance had in 2016 sardonically called “America’s Hitler” gave him the endorsement that pushed him over the edge to victory.

Vance now stands poised to become the most visible and telegenic electoral face of the extreme far-right in the United States. Indeed, he has become Fox News Host Tucker Carlson’s hot house darling, appearing on his show no less than 15 times in the past two years and announcing his recent Senate run there. Carlson is of course famous for peddling on a nightly basis the “great replacement” theory that helped spur Gendron to the Buffalo massacre. Vance in turn regularly references and tweets Carlson’s Fox rants.

If J.D. Vance is the man who now wants to “make American great again,” what made J.D. Vance? The answer lies in another story of U.S. replacement. Middletown, Ohio was the birthplace of the steel producer, American Rolling Mill Company (Armco). From 1899 to 2006 it expanded to operations and changed its operating name to AK Steel. In 2006, after a long period of declining profits, AK Steel began a lockout of about 2,700 workers at its Middletown plant after it refused to pay a contract minimum negotiated with the local Armco Employees Independent Federation. Within a day, about 1,800 managers and replacement workers had taken their jobs. In 2007, Ak Steel signed an agreement with the Union paying more than $7 million in response to five lawsuits.. Along the way, AK Steel reached a settlement to compensate for polychlorinated biphenyl contamination in middle Ohio including cleanup work estimated to cost $12-13 million dollars.

Vance has used this story of capitalist malfeasance and violence against the workers of Middletown as the springboard for his own ‘great replacement’ theory: rather than placing blame on union-busting, toxifying U.S. corporations it is Chinese competition, Mexican workers, U.S. ‘elites’ and the media who are to blame. His story is a classic tale of white resentment against invading foreign bodies. The Mexican border is more than 1,400 miles from Middletown, but for Vance, the border is everywhere. This formula replaces one set of actual ruling class vultures (Vance uses the phase ‘ruling class’ often) with another set of unnamed actors—shadowy coyotes and liberal ‘elites’—who conspiratorially threaten the “American way of life.” Like Trump, Vance also attacks government as the enemy of the people, a version of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “anti-state statism.” Under the guise of getting ineffective big government off the backs of the hillbilly, Vance promotes a more durable police state: more cops, more walls, and a bigger military that wins better wars. Vance himself boasts that as a child he was kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, perhaps, he writes on his website, “because she owned 19 handguns.”

Vance’s own version of ‘replacement theory’ thus dovetails with the one popularized at Charlottesville: on the one hand, it situates the white majority as victims of history, while discounting and discarding non-white labor in its representation of capitalist suffering. On the other, it portends the Black, brown, Asian and Semitic workers as the enemy of a people whose vitality and survival depending upon a militarized resistance to their threat [author’s note: as I was editing this piece for publication Vance went on Twitter to mock the idea of replacement theory even while doubling down on it, this just days after the Buffalo massacre.

There is also very little daylight between J.D. Vance’s campaign platform and the manifesto Payton Gendron wrote as inspiration for his massacre in Buffalo. Both involve a double-killing of racialized political enemies: first in theory, then in practice. Vance is pro-gun, has defended the war in Iraq, and has called for a military unencumbered by problems of “diversity” (meaning anything not normatively white and heterosexual) so that it is better positioned to win: an aestheticized and nationalized military body the better to kill you with.

Vance has also shored up a classically fascist base of support: from above, reactionary xenophobic billionaire Peter Thiel has poured more than $15 million dollars into his campaign while Vance has secured the endorsement of Ohio Right to Life, converted to Catholicism in 2019, lauded small business owners in his campaign speeches—noting that “some of our biggest companies funded Black Lives Matter rallies that destroyed our towns and cities”and blamed Chinese mendicancy for the loss of U.S.working-class jobs. As Trotsky wrote in The Only Road for Germany:

“The economically powerful big bourgeoisie, in itself, represents an infinitesimal minority of the nation. To enforce its domination, it must ensure a definite mutual relationship with the petty bourgeoisie and, through its mediation, with the proletariat.”

Vance has also defended the most fascistic elements of the U.S. far-right. On the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021 (J6) capitol riot, he tweeted out a link to a website that encouraged donations to those accused of involvement, claiming they were being “mistreated” in D.C. prisons. Criminals, meanwhile, according to Vance, have been imported by a porous U.S. border, while cops are “terrified” to do their jobs because of Black Lives Matter protests. Vance was not surprisingly endorsed by U.S. Representative from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, another J6 defender.

At the same time, we cannot pin Vance’s fascist imaginary only on the Republican Party. Vance was courted by Obama Democratic handler David Axelrod before announcing himself as a Republican candidate. According to writer David Frum, Obama was one of Vance’s first models for a potential run at political office. Liberal filmmaker Ron Howard, a Democratic Party contributor, enthusiastically turned Hillbilly Elegy into a Netflix feature film of the same name (Howard has since expressed ‘surprise’ at Vance’s rabid turn to Trumpism). The Democrats have also supported in one way-shape-or-form virtually every ideological position Vance professes: anti-immigrant, pro-police, anti-woman, pro-war. If Vance is a political Frankenstein, he is a monster made in the lab of two masters.

Putting this in another, more theoretical way: Vance is a product of a political duopoly and racial capitalist system that has always depended upon its own version of great replacement theory. The brutal expendability of non-white, female, trans, immigrant, queer and working-class lives in the United States has proceeded at a torrid pace ramped up in recent years by savage neoliberalism, mass incarceration, pandemic violence and endless wars. Vance’s ability to narrow this catastrophe to a reactionary saga of despoiled straight white U.S. manhood and family life is itself direct from the master narrative of U.S. history. His fascist fables are stories of heroic white men rising from the ashes of fires they themselves have set.

In this context, the job of the U.S. Left remains to start its own fires. The response to the Buffalo massacre requires a relentless doubling-down of efforts to protect and defend Black lives. The ongoing attacks on workers means linking the fight against the far-right to the fight for union campaigns that can offer anti-racist militancy and cross-border solidarity. It means defending reproductive justice against an oligarchy of patriarchs who support every neoliberal version of choice except a woman’s right to own her own bodily autonomy. It means seizing the means of healthcare reproduction to stave off mass premature death. It means defeating electoral shamans like Vance with the power of organization from below. It means replacing the lies and myths and rulers who are making life obsolete with our own deeply-needed society of plenitude and love.

I dedicate this essay to the lives of Aaron Salter, Ruth Whitfield., Roberta Drury, Deacon Haywood Patterson, Pearl Young, Margus Morrison, Katherine Massey, Andre MackNeil, Geraldine Talley, Celestine Chaneyy.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Gage Skidmore; modified by Tempest.

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Bill Mullen View All

Bill V. Mullen is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the organizing collective for the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He is the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (Pluto Press) and co-editor with Christopher Vials of The U.S. Antifascism Reader (Verso).