Politics / September 26, 2023

How J.D. Vance’s Bad Tweets Explain Modern Conservatism

His very cringe posts contain everything you need to know about the hate-filled emptiness at the heart of the supposed “intellectual” wing of the GOP.

Ginny Hogan
JD Vance, a Republican from Ohio, during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, US, on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

J.D. Vance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., on March 2, 2023.

(Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Before the 2022 midterms, I was hearing way too much about the rise of the so-called “New Right.” The term has been used many times before, but this particular brand was loosely defined as consisting of the “young, smart, radical conservatives” associated with tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Their ideology was inconsistent—maybe populist, theoretically anti-corporate, realistically landing somewhere between techno-fascist and regular bad— but there was one thing everyone seemed to agree on: They were intellectual, and that was what distinguished their movement from Trumpism.

I’m hopeful that this strain (let’s call it, with heavy sarcasm, the “intellectual new right”) has died. While the heavy lifting for the “movement” may have been done by writers and thinkers, Thiel’s candidates were its face. Perhaps the intellectual new right’s death was written in the stars long before the midterms, such as when early Thiel beneficiary Josh Hawley was caught on tape fleeing the January 6 mob that he had helped to incite. Or maybe the death knell happened when Blake Masters got killed in a race that was supposed to be close. Or when Thiel decided to skip the 2024 cycle entirely. Or when we got so close to actually losing our democracy that Curtis Yarvin didn’t seem so cute and sci-fi anymore.

But if I were to write an obituary, I’d say the intellectual new right officially keeled over on August 8, 2023, the day that Ohio Republican Senator J.D. Vance called someone a cat lady on Twitter for at least the fifth time.

I love J.D. Vance’s Twitter. It has all the elements of a good story: stakes, character development, conflict, a gun that could come back in Act III. And why wouldn’t it? The freshman Republican senator from Ohio is a writer, after all. But his tweets also contain, within their tawdry little walls, the entire arc of the supposed “intellectual new right” movement—from its overhyped, hollow rise to its exposure as yet another way for the establishment far-right to gain political power. Moreover, there’s one obvious distinction between Vance’s Twitter and the now-defunct “intellectual new right”: Vance is still a prominent part of public life. And for that, his online presence deserves a deeper examination in its own right.

Vance was hailed as an intellectual before the new right claimed him. After the mega-success of his book Hillbilly Elegy, he assumed the identity of a “moderate” working-class whisperer, appearing on CNN and writing Atlantic essays comparing Trump to heroin. But it’s no secret that Vance has taken what might charitably be called a “turn” in recent years. In 2021, he decided he wanted to be a senator. So he wiped his Twitter clean, bent the knee at Mar-a-Lago, and won the Ohio Senate race in 2022. To call Vance a chameleon is offensive to chameleons, who actually do a pretty good job disguising their transformation. He’s not fooling anyone, and I don’t think he thinks he is.

Vance’s transformation is narratively compelling; there’s a whole genre of “How did J.D. Vance go so wrong?” think pieces. I can’t help but wonder if his past rectitude gets a bit overstated. Hillbilly Elegy contains full passages shaming poor people for their supposed laziness.

Between 2016 and now, Vance’s more significant change has been in tone, not substance. While the book is packaged (somewhat) empathetically, the modern Vance is harsher—quick to hit opponents with cat lady digs, for example.

So, when did these cat lady tweets start? We can’t know exactly, since most of Vance’s old tweets are gone:

Screenshot of JD Vance's deleted Twitter history.
(Twitter screenshot)

By July 2021, though, he’d turned on the “establishment,” embraced MAGA, and was putting the cat lady trope to work:

JD Vance tweet: "Paul Krugman is one of many weird cat ladies who have too much power in our country. We should change this."
(Twitter screenshot)

I’m here for the gender progressivism!

Vance also started shitposting more generally, using dumb jokes to criticize anything he didn’t like. It’s a style that’s endured.

I have no hate in my heart for shitposting; it’s an art I dabble in myself. The more interesting question is why—if JD is such an intellectual—he can’t come up with anything better than, for instance, “This is so disrespectful to anyone with a brain.”

And why is he weighing in on the new Gossip Girl?

Screenshot of JD Vance saying of the new Gossip Girl, "wokeness will make everything boring and ugly."
(Twitter screenshot)

As a person who watched that show, I assure you, wokeness wasn’t the problem.

As 2021 wore on, so did Vance’s cat tweets, in association with political views that he disdained:

Twitter screenshot of JD Vance: "The cat ladies, man. They must be stopped"
Twitter screenshot
JD Vance tweets: "I am shocked a cat is your profile picture" and "This sociopath was also the head of Planned Parenthood. I wonder if a
small child ran over her cat and she never got over it."
(Twitter screenshot)

(As an aside, I’m not sure how a small child would “run over” a cat, as small children don’t normally drive).

Vance also took his cat lady routine onto Fox News, telling Tucker Carlson that the US is run by “childless cat ladies.”

The fixation on kids is a major tell; pro-natalism is common in modern conservatism, but Vance has a specific vendetta against those who don’t want children. I tend to think that people who feel secure in their life choices don’t get angry that others have chosen differently. Vance’s pro-reproduction push reminds me of November 2019, when I pressured four of my closest friends to get bangs, too.

I’m not quite sure what Vance was after with these childfree-shaming tweets. I’ve never heard of anyone getting mocked into having a child. (If he’s really so concerned with the birth rate, he could focus on, I don’t know, paid parental leave? The cost of childcare? The quality of schools? Gun violence? Just spitballing.)

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By then, Vance had won Trump’s endorsement and the subsequent Ohio primary. Once that was obtained, he abandoned his own Twitter style and started copying his benefactor—ending his criticisms with “Sad!” and assigning alliterative nicknames to his opponent. Or speaking like a child describing what he did at school that day.

Lacking Trump’s confidence, he wore his own insecurities boldly on his sleeve. The day he won the Republican primary, he tweeted screenshots of the pundits who said he would lose (a topic he returned to about a year later).

Since taking office, Vance has developed his own genre-bending style. Sometimes, he still echoes his hero (Trump could pay his legal fees by charging his hangers-on a licensing fee). Sometimes, in an echo of the old intellectual new right, he posts long threads about a policy issue or rails against the “regime” (Republicans always make Democrats sound so cool). Sometimes, he uses Twitter like it’s Yelp (you are a literal senator, sir).

The variance is fine; there’s no rule stating elected officials must stick to one tone, and surely his staff is helping him. But Vance’s new Twitter persona is tactical; he effectively said so himself this past February, in an insult he thought was so good he retweeted it:

Twitter screenshot of JD Vance telling Jason Kander, "If you weren't such a humorless scold you might be a senator right now."
(Twitter screenshot)

Listen, if Vance thinks he won his Senate seat because he was funny, who am I to argue? Thiel only gave him $10 million; the rest was sheer wit.

And in recent months, the cat lady tweets have resumed:

JD Vance tweet: Who's taking care of your pet cats and/or tarantula while you hate tweet
me?
Vote yes Ohio! Still a few hours to go.
(Twitter screenshot)

I’m not the right person to tell anyone Twitter is a waste of their time. I just spent the better part of an hour hunting down J.D. Vance’s cat lady tweets, after all. But I have to wonder why, six months into his term, a US senator is being this tediously petty.

I don’t think Vance’s cat lady tweets are some form of four-dimensional chess, but maybe they’re deliberate. Calling someone a “cat lady” feels like a man’s idea of how to offend a generic woman. Maybe he’s winking to misogynists, to let them know he’s with them, without going all the way. It’s cowardly, really. One of these days, I’d like to see him man up and call somebody a c*nt.

Or maybe he just can’t think of anything better. “Cat lady” is an extremely mediocre insult. It’s nothing short of moronic to disparage someone who loves their cat by calling them a person who loves cats (and before you can ask, yes, I do have a cat). Besides, Vance would be lucky to be associated with a furry little creature; a lot of people still associate him with that time he said he didn’t give a shit about Ukraine.

But either way, by the fifth time he dropped “cat lady,” it was clear that he’d rejected any sort of “intellectualism.”

Now, I need to be fair to Vance. On his Twitter, he never describes himself as an intellectual; it’s not a label he chose. Nonetheless, his public career symbolizes how empty the concept of the “intellectual new right” was to begin with. Whatever they called themselves, the goal was ostensibly to improve upon Trumpism or to outsmart it. But its chosen candidates defected the moment they realized they needed Trump. How intellectual is your conservatism when you make this man the public face of it?

JD Vance tweet: Is breakthrough COVID when a COVID-positive illegal immigrants breaks
through our southern border?
(Twitter screenshot)

Much of the criticism of Vance’s hypocrisy essentially boils down to elite shock that he’d rather have power than their respect. I’m less surprised. He’s having fun (his words). He also has clear signs of poster’s brain disease; in his response to random accounts, he sometimes becomes so petty that he forgets even to pretend politics is about public service. But above all, he’s successful. Something has worked for him.

Decent people post dumb things on the Internet all the time. It’s what Vance does offline that gives weight to what he does online. Beneath the bad jokes is a genuine antipathy toward the transgender community, immigrants, masks, women with jobs, DEI initiatives, Mexicans, environmentalists, and on and on. When he mocks families who want gender-affirming care for their children, he’s not just some Internet troll; he’s a senator who’s already made moves to codify his hatred into law. I’m not reading between the lines. I’m just reading the lines.

Vance is almost certainly going to run for president someday, and I don’t think calling him a hypocrite is enough. If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that voters are willing to forgive even the most outrageous inconsistencies. In that sense, his Twitter is a gift—he’s showing us who he is. So instead of harping on about Vance’s hypocrisy itself, I’d like to point out what that hypocrisy says about him. His tweets, in aggregate, paint a picture of an insecure loser (no offense). A loser who repeatedly calls women “cat ladies,” retweets his own jokes, tries to be funny, and says things like “Let’s deport Joe Biden from the Oval Office.” Reading through Vance’s Twitter, I’m reminded of the line in The Social Network, where Rashida Jones says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”

Except, J.D. Vance definitely is an asshole. Which is good, because he’s trying very hard.

Ginny Hogan

Ginny Hogan is a New York City–based writer and stand up comic. She's a contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Cut, and The New York Times.

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