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Analysis: Ohio U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance slams “elites” despite shared backgrounds

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Analysis: Ohio U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance slams “elites” despite shared backgrounds

Feb 09, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
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Analysis: Ohio U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance slams “elites” despite shared backgrounds
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NEWARK, OH - APRIL 30: J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, hugs Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) as he arrives to speak during a campaign rally at The Trout Club on April 30, 2022 in Newark, Ohio. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

While it’s impossible to know what’s in his heart, Ohio Republican J.D. Vance has been taking some positions against so-called elites that would seem to be squarely opposed to… guys like him.

They include statements he’s made about people trying to disqualify former President Donald Trump from running again.

It’s widely thought that Vance is lobbying to be Trump’s running mate. And last week he received a lot of attention by telling ABC host George Stephanopoulos that in 2020 he would have given Trump’s phony slates of electors a chance to contest the election in Congress.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, of course, refused to do such a thing. So Trump attacked him via Twitter during a violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That prompted some of the marauders to chant “Hang Mike Pence!” while Pence was still in the building.

Vance’s current statements contrast with the time before Trump took power. “My god what an idiot,” Vance tweeted of soon-to-be President Trump in 2016.

And his statements to Stephanopoulos last week were part of a series of head-scratchers Vance has made in recent months. On Jan. 4, for example, he published a 494-word post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

In it, Vance bitterly criticizes “elites,” who he says got their positions not through working hard and being smart, but because they “checked a box.”

Vance starts with Claudine Gay, the Harvard University president who was forced out amid multiple allegations of plagiarism.

“The most important point about Claudine Gay’s plagiarism isn’t that she was fired, but that she had the job — the most prestigious job in higher education — after an extremely thin record of accomplishment,” Vance wrote of Gay, who is Black. “Claudine Gay has never published an article — even a plagiarized one — that really mattered, or significantly advanced scholarship. She got her job not through merit, but because she checked a box.”

Vance then cast a wider net, writing, “Our entire elite is like this. People who got their jobs because they checked boxes, not because they achieved something amazing or accomplished something meaningful.”

Vance’s despised “elites” apparently don’t include Trump, who inherited at least $413 million, only to declare six bankruptcies, be indicted on 91 felony counts, lead the Trump Organization to a criminal tax fraud conviction, and to be found  to have committed sexual abuse in a civil proceeding.

Ohio’s junior senator also wouldn’t talk about where he falls in the privilege scale.

His office didn’t respond on the record when asked how, as a sitting U.S. senator and a graduate of Yale Law School, Vance himself is not an “elite.” And in terms of “box-checking,” his office didn’t respond to a question asking whether he played up his Appalachian ancestry on his Yale admission essay — thereby checking a “box” of his own.

But where his argument perhaps is most confusing is when Vance turns his attention to lawyers trying to keep Trump off the ballot on the rationale that the former president violated 14th Amendment by engaging in insurrection. It seems to be a reasonable question, given Trump’s lies about his loss, his elaborate attempts to overturn it, and the violent attack he stoked as Congress met to certify Joe Biden’s victory.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on the issue. During them, the justices seemed poised to reject Colorado’s attempt to disqualify Trump for fear of sowing chaos by allowing individual states to decide presidential elections. 

But the debate didn’t delve very deeply into a pretty important issue: whether Trump had engaged in insurrection and what looms for the country if he’s allowed to run again, win or lose.

In his post last month, Vance himself tried to disqualify lawyers for even making the argument that Trump had disqualified himself by attempting to overturn the election results and the will of 80 million American voters.

“This is why you should scorn the attorneys who tell you that Donald Trump committed ‘insurrection’ and should be thrown off the ballot,” Vance wrote. “They have no special legal knowledge. They are political hacks pretending to be lawyers, and they are not smart or accomplished, they have a credential from an institution that cares more about box checking than merit.”

That’s an interesting claim when you look at the credentials of three attorneys who have played major roles in the effort to disqualify Trump.

Two are Michael Stokes Paulsen and William Baude

In August, the conservative law professors wrote an article. It said that Section 3 of the post-Civil War 14th Amendment was written for just such an eventuality as Trump seeking reelection after doing so much to overturn the result of one he’d already lost. 

The Colorado Supreme Court cited the pair’s argument when it ruled that Trump couldn’t be on the ballot in that state and their article came up again in Thursday’s oral argument.

As for the professors having “a credential from an institution that cares more about box checking than merit,” that’s a surprising statement for Vance to make. 

Both hold law degrees from Yale University, the same school that awarded one to Vance. His office didn’t respond when asked in a follow-up question if Vance believed his degree came from an institution that is more concerned with “box checking” than merit.

Then there’s the senator’s claim that proponents of the 14th Amendment argument “have no special legal knowledge” and “are not smart or accomplished.”

Before he was elected to the Senate in 2022, Vance worked in corporate law, then in venture capital, and wrote a memoir about his Ohio roots. Baude is a law professor at the University of Chicago and Paulsen at the University of St. Thomas.

Whatever their relative merits, all three resumes seem to pale next to that of another prominent believer that Trump should be disqualified from the 2024 election.

That would be J. Micheal Luttig. In 1991, George H.W. Bush appointed him to the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals — a bench on which he sat for 15 years. Before that, Luttig served as assistant attorney general, assistant counsel to then-President Ronald Reagan and clerk and special assistant to then-Chief Justice to Warren E. Burger.

Instead of ad-hominem attacks against people who disagree with him, Luttig made an argument on historical and constitutional grounds.

“The January 6, 2021 insurrection sought to prevent the vesting of the authority and functions of the Presidency in the newly-elected President,” said a brief Luttig co-authored urging the Supreme Court to disqualify Trump. “The Civil War generation certainly understood that the threat and use of force to prevent a newly-elected President from exercising executive power is an insurrection. Indeed, the activities of federal officials to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration were one basis for Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 

That’s an argument with which Vance doesn’t seem to have engaged.