As Democratic Representative Timothy Ryan and venture-capitalist mascot J.D. Vance faced off in Youngstown last night for their final debate before the midterm election, an all-encompassing taking of offense ensued. Each candidate harped on the phoniness, the inauthenticity, and the bought-and-paid-for policy positions of his opponent; each candidate offered carefully presented “commonsense” positions on divisive controversies, and assured the Ohio electorate that he was the candidate most in touch with their struggles and sensibilities.
In other words, each candidate intended to go to Washington and take offense on their behalf. Toward the end of the exchange, Ryan ended a reply to a panelist’s question about the allure of the “great replacement” theory on the American right with an unlikely appeal to the had-enough electorate: “I say that I want to represent the exhausted majority.” Vance, who had sputtered over much of Ryan’s entirely proper derogation of Vance’s white-nationalist rhetoric, finally burst out that the congressman was unleashing a hate campaign on his family of “three beautiful biracial babies”—all because, in Vance’s estimation, “you’re so desperate not to have a real job.”
Earlier in the proceedings, Vance said he knew that Ryan was a played-out D.C. insider hack because a steelworker in a local diner told him so. And he proceeded to deliver the evening’s biggest whopper as he feebly sought to downplay his indulgence of the fictitious “Stop the steal” refrain that led directly to the attempted coup of January 6. Citing a Democratic and media “obsession” with the insurrection, Vance lamented that “there’s been a nonstop effort not to honor the election of 2016,” which he deemed “just as bad” as the Capitol siege of January 6.
Where does one begin with such shameless outbursts of toxic bullshit? To briefly belabor the obvious, whatever one makes of the Mueller investigation into purported Russian collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign—the bogus analogy that Vance was reaching for—it didn’t culminate in a siege of the seat of legislative power, serious calls to hang the vice president, or violent assaults on Capitol police in the effort to reverse a free and fair election. In a sanely configured forum of debate, anyone mounting such a comparison would be hooted off the stage and perhaps reminded of the provisions of the long-neglected insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Instead, the debate panel placidly moved on to its next agenda item, stoking a substance-challenged federal debate over gun control. The posturing resumed apace, as Ryan waxed lyrical over annual hunting outings with his eldest son, and Vance strained mightily to make an objectively insane proposal—to arm and train teachers with firearms to counter school shooters—sound like a plausible foray into commonsense policy-making. (In a last-ditch bid to incite more outrage, Vance also claimed it was Ryan’s support for the abolition of cash bail that had unleashed a perilous wave of crime and anarchy across the country, even though jurisdictions that have enacted bail bans have not seen spikes in violent crime rates.)
Ryan ended last week’s debate with a rousing and well-earned shot at Vance’s gratuitous sacrifice of his own dignity before former president Donald Trump, at the behest of Vance’s billionaire libertarian Big Tech retainer Peter Thiel. One might have hoped that he could have filled out that broadside in this return engagement. Unfortunately, though, he seemed unfocused and rushed through much of the evening, derisively calling Vance “our guy” in a weird bro-ish gesture of dismissal as he sought to underline another flourish of double-talk and hypocrisy from the media establishment’s formerly anointed poster boy for all things hillbilly. Pressed for detail on subjects like police reform, Ryan appealed for a broad-stroke “national discussion,” and hailed a pet “police immersion bill” as a model for bipartisan accord going forward. This left him wide open for more Vance-branded fearmongering and demagoguing on the tried-and-true right-wing law-and-order front: “Tim Ryan says he believes in reasonable solutions, but what were you doing at the moment when the lawless people were attacking our police?”
Vance performed the same pivot into lurid and gothic culture-war fare while dodging questions about what exceptions he might consider permitting under a national abortion ban. Referencing the tragic case of the 10-year-old Ohio girl forced to get an abortion out of state after she’d been raped, he once more summoned the specter of the lawless nonwhite hordes: “That little girl was raped by an illegal immigrant,” he said, insisting that if Ryan and Joe Biden had shut down an “open” US southern border, “she would not have been raped in the first place.”
This vivid word picture is steeped in falsehood, even leaving aside the racist equation of national identity with the rape of children. Biden has retained Trumpian levels of border paranoia on his watch, and Ryan loudly professes that those measures aren’t draconian enough for his own liking. But that’s largely the point for an amoral provocateur like Vance. Following the standard playbook of Trump himself—whom Vance famously disowned during that same 2016 election cycle he professes such profuse hurt feelings over now—Vance can peddle fables of bottomless racialized victimhood, and then affect howling indignation when someone confronts him with the consequences of his grievance-driven posturing.
“Calling your own people racist—that’s the game they play,” Vance sneered in Ryan’s direction toward the end of the evening. That taunt was just a windup. “I think you deserve a country with a border,” Vance announced sententiously in his closing statement, “and I think you need leadership that won’t call you racist because you believe you should have a country with a border.” Offense-taking was the basis of Vance’s final pitch to the Ohio electorate, and it looks distressingly like the whole cynical ploy is paying off: The most recent polls show the race tightening in Vance’s direction, and nothing in last night’s exchange seems likely to shift that momentum.