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J.D. Vance near the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

When we first met J.D. Vance five years ago, he was being hailed for a personal memoir that chronicled the deep despair and growing hopelessness found in the industrial American Midwest and Appalachian foothills of his childhood.

Along the way it also helped explain the rise of Donald Trump.

Hillbilly Elegy was a brilliantly crafted account of Mr. Vance’s improbable ascent from the crumbling Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio, and the depressing social conditions of Breathitt County, Kentucky, where he often spent summers, to Yale Law School.

It was the anger and resentment possessed by those who still lived in these increasingly destitute places, mostly whites who believed China and new immigrants were responsible for their often miserable circumstances, that Mr. Trump exploited on his way to the White House.

Mr. Vance would go on to endear himself to liberal elites with his often searing indictment of the Trump presidency, using Twitter to denounce the man as a “demagogue leading the white working class to a very dark place,” and someone whose movement amounted to “cultural heroin.”

He endorsed tweets that called the president a “thug” and someone who was “psychologically disturbed.” Mr. Vance became a regular on the U.S. progressive talk show circuit, regularly popping up on MSNBC and CNN to offer commentary.

Not anymore.

Mr. Vance is now authoring one of the more bewildering and cynical transformations we have witnessed in recent years, from Trump critic to cheerleader. Politics often has that corruptible effect on people.

He is looking to fill the seat of retiring Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman. Once a swing state, Ohio went full in on the Republicans in both 2016 and 2020, which explains why Mr. Vance has been on a Trump mea culpa tour in his bid to replace Mr. Portman.

But far from simply saying he was wrong about the 45th U.S. president and moving on, Mr. Vance has gone full nativist, throwing his lot in with the likes of Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who raised his fist in support of those storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year. Today, Mr. Vance says the idea that the event was a Trump-fuelled insurrection is a “big lie.”

In a piece in The Atlantic headlined “The Moral Collapse of J.D. Vance,” moderate conservative writer Tom Nichols suggested that the Hillbilly Elegy author had returned home as a Republican Senate hopeful to “weaponize the resentment and cultural dysfunctions” that he documented in his book.

Meantime, in an appearance on the right-wing Federalist Radio Hour, Mr. Vance said he supported the “overthrow” of the existing ruling class in America. He also urged Twitter to reconsider its ban on a white supremacist from the social media platform, and pleaded with its founder, Jack Dorsey, to reinstate Mr. Trump if only so he could tweet about Alec Baldwin.

This after Mr. Baldwin accidentally shot and killed the director of photography, Halyna Hutchins, on a movie set. Mr. Baldwin routinely portrayed (and mercilessly mocked) Mr. Trump on Saturday Night Live while he was president.

Money is the oil of politics and it should surprise few that it likely has everything to do with the vile transformation of Mr. Vance we are witnessing. One of his main financial backers is Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist friend of Mr. Trump, who seeded a political action committee in Mr. Vance’s name with US$10-million. He also arranged for a recent audience with the former president, which, for a Republican candidate looking to win during the 2022 midterms, is a must-have photo-op.

Mr. Vance’s shift to the hard right should be instructive to anyone trying to discern the direction in which America is heading.

The nationalist, ultra-right-wing message that he’s selling on the campaign trail is right out of Mr. Trump’s culture war manifesto. Mr. Vance is banking on the midterms not being about the economy or the pandemic but about America’s culture war. His constant assault on the “woke left” goes down well in many parts of Ohio. You don’t stand a chance of getting elected there as a Republican unless a significant part of your stump speech is devoted to eradicating these people from the face of the earth.

Mr. Vance’s ideological about-face should also serve as a warning: Mr. Trump still controls the Republican party. The odds of him being the party’s candidate for the presidency in 2024 increase with each passing day.

And there are people like J.D. Vance who are willing to sell their soul to go to Washington in servitude to him.

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