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Meet the Poster Boy for the GOP’s Trumpian Cult of Personality

J.D. Vance secured Ohio’s Republican US Senate nomination Tuesday not by impressing the voters of Ohio but by winning the favor of one man. Vance was Donald Trump’s candidate, which is all that matters anymore in a Republican Party where Trump’s wish is the electorate’s command.

For Vance, a shameless self-promoter with an ego almost as outsize as that of the former president, his first race for public office has provided a humiliating reminder that it’s Trump’s party. Everyone else is just a hanger-on, pleading for an invite.

In Vance’s case, the invite came late, and only after the desperate candidate had abandoned his past, his values, and his last shred of dignity.

A corporate lawyer and venture capitalist who achieved fame as the author of a lamentable book that purported to tell the story of working-class people in rural America—despite the fact that its author had grown up in a midsize city, graduated from Yale Law School, and spent much of his adult life cavorting with billionaires in northern California—Vance returned to his native Ohio only in 2017. He arrived with political ambitions and began positioning himself as Trump’s “mini-me”: a millionaire populist with a penchant for making the sort of outrageously racist and xenophobic pronouncements that he once condemned his political benefactor for uttering.

It was a pathetic exercise in precisely the sort of political grasping that Vance once claimed to despise. And it got him nowhere in the initial stages of the campaign.

Ohio Republicans showed little interest in Vance’s bid for their party’s nod. After several years of working the circuit of county party dinners and conservative gatherings from Chillicothe to Ashtabula, and even after his former boss (billionaire Peter Thiel) poured more than $10 million into an advertising campaign to pump up his flailing candidacy, Vance was on April 14 polling at just 10 percent, languishing in fifth place among the Republican competition with less than three weeks to go before the primary. Despite his celebrity, despite Thiel’s big money, Vance seemed doomed.

Then, on April 15, Donald Trump endorsed Vance, even though his pick had opposed the former reality-TV star’s 2016 presidential campaign, back in the day when the author was referring to Trump as “a total fraud” and, potentially, “America’s Hitler.” Three other Ohio candidates were begging for Trump’s endorsement, but Vance beat them out by groveling. He scrubbed his Twitter account—deleting anti-Trump tweets such as the one from 2017 that declared, “In 4 years, I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him the most aggressively”—and went on Fox to expressly apologize for offending the dear leader.

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