The infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, which was organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis to celebrate white nationalism and that led to the tragic killing of counter-protester Heather Heyer, became an early defining moment of Donald Trump’s presidency when he declared there had been “very fine people on both sides.” Pundits, Republican and Democratic officials, and others recoiled at Trump’s both-sidesism and his inability—or unwillingness—to sharply and definitively condemn the racists, fascists, and antisemites who had gathered. The critics included J.D. Vance, the author and venture capitalist. But in the years since, Vance, now the Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, has changed his tune on Charlottesville to sync up with Trump and his denialism.
Days after the protest and the murder of Heyer by a white nationalist, Vance appeared on CNN to discuss what had occurred. Asked by host Wolf Blitzer for his overall reaction, Vance was straightforward:
Wolf, you see people marching around doing the Nazi salute. I come from a family with a large number of military veterans, and from back in the day, people who actually went and fought the Nazis. It’s really disturbing to see this display of white nationalism. And [it] became doubly terrifying and terrible because it led to somebody losing their life. Like a lot of people, I watched the TV, was horrified. And it forced me to think, what’s going on in our country and happening that this stuff is becoming seemingly more common.
Noting that in Trump’s initial response Trump had not specifically mentioned the Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists who had mounted this rally—Trump had criticized “hatred, bigotry, and violence” on “both sides”—Blitzer asked Vance to evaluate how Trump had handled the matter. Vance did not hold back:
The President really missed an opportunity to name this phenomenon and gives people a sense where it comes from and show the moral leadership people want from a president. The thing that’s important for folks from my political side, the conservative side of the aisle, have to keep in mind that a lot of the people who feel physically threatened by white supremacists, not people angry by it, the people who see it get upset by it, that’s all of us. The people who feel physically threatened by it are, by and large, not those who voted for Donald Trump. When they look to that movement, I think the President needs to show leadership saying you may not have voted for me but I’m coming out to deplore and criticize that particular movement as strongly as I would if it was on the other side of the political spectrum. Many, a lot felt the president could have spoken to that. Unfortunately, by not naming it what it was, white supremacism, he missed an opportunity.
Vance continued slamming Trump’s response and added,
If I was President Trump in this situation, I’d spike the football. This is one of the things that really unites the entire country. Racism is bad. Nazism is bad. We fought a war to defeat Nazism. And the president should not just be—there’s a sense in which he’s ambivalent or too cautious about coming out and criticizing this stuff.
Vance was not shy in castigating Trump for his reluctance to condemn racists and neo-Nazis. Yet as a Republican seeking a Senate seat, Vance has brazenly flip-flopped on this point.
Last year, during a podcast with Breitbart, Vance expressed quite a different opinion on the Charlottesville march. Railing about identity politics, he accused Democrats of cynically and crassly playing the race card: “Basically, racism [for Democrats] is anything that doesn’t give the Democrats more power. And of course, the reason they use that accusation, it’s not because they care about minorities or not, because they care about racists or whatever the whatever the topic of the day is, it’s because they recognize it as a useful strategy to give them more power.” His No. 1 example of this: “the ridiculous race hoax in Charlottesville.”
Race hoax in Charlottesville? A rally was put on by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and a white nationalist did kill a counter-protester. Where’s the hoax?
Vance was apparently adopting the right-wing talking point that Trump was unfairly pilloried for his “very fine people” remark. In the years after that march, a variety of Trumpers—including Dilbert creator Scott Adams—have run a campaign claiming that Trump’s “very fine people” comment did not refer to white supremacists and neo-Nazis but to others protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and that Trump has been a victim of, yes, another media-generated hoax. The problem (for them): The event was organized by white supremacists and billed as a white supremacist event.
Trump has led this revisionism, contending the protesters included “neighborhood” folks who opposed taking down the statue. In the Trumpian media echo chamber, the supposedly warped depiction of Trump’s response to the rally has become known as the “Charlottesville hoax.” With his comment on the Breitbart podcast, Vance racialized this phony “hoax” and cited it as evidence that Democrats routinely and purposefully issue false charges of racism against Republicans.
This is not the only race-related matter on which Vance has pulled a 180, as he has journeyed from Trump-basher to Trump toady. In a 2017 interview, he raised the issue of “white privilege” and said, “It’s always important to note that there are obviously still advantages to being white, there are still disadvantages to being black.” Yet in a conversation last year with right-wing talk show host Bill Cunningham, Vance referred to “white privilege” as “ridiculous terminology” and claimed the left uses it “as a power play” to “shut up” conservatives so “they get to run things without any control, without any pushback from the real people.” In an interview with Breitbart, Vance said, the leftist narrative of “white privilege” is “disgusting.”
Vance has traveled a great distance in a few short years. In 2016, he told a former roommate that he viewed Trump as either a “cynical asshole” or “America’s Hitler.” Now he’s a full Trump acolyte and eagerly appeared with Trump at a recent QAnonish rally in Ohio. It’s not surprising that during this transformation, Vance jettisoned his criticism of Trump’s response to Charlottesville. But his contemptuous dismissal of that tragedy as a “ridiculous race hoax” shows how far Vance will go to exploit Trumpism and serve its Dear Leader.
I asked the Vance campaign if he had any explanation for his change of heart regarding Charlottesville. The campaign did not reply.