How did Ohio and Pennsylvania become ground zero for Trumpian unreality? Three Dangers to Defeat
By Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist
MAY 5, 2022 – I was not a fan of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” when it was riding high on the bestseller lists a few years ago. Even then, I suspected that there was something forced and inauthentic about it.
I felt vindicated when then Senate-majority leader Mitch McConnell gassed on and on about how great the book was, because that alone meant it was actually terrible. Mr. McConnell then encouraged Mr. Vance to run for the open Senate seat in Ohio in 2018.
Not too long ago, “Hillbilly Elegy” was made into a bad movie by director Ron Howard. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment had moved on from an initial infatuation with Mr. Vance to get behind Josh Mandel, an over-the-top Trump loyalist best known for nearly coming to blows with a 70-year-old rival candidate during a primary debate.
Despite his frantic attempts to earn Donald Trump’s blessings as the Trumpiest of the candidates, Mr. Mandel was outmaneuvered by former Never Trumper J.D. Vance at every turn.
Both candidates willingly debased themselves to get Mr. Trump’s endorsement in ways that would have made a North Korean apparatchik blush.
But even after audio clips of Mr. Vance insulting his autocratic style resurfaced from the 2016 presidential race, Mr. Trump endorsed the author and venture capitalist, knowing that he had an excellent chance of nabbing a servile Senate ally in a crucial state if he won.
Even though Mr. Vance is technically a fellow celebrity whose life had been turned into a movie, he isn’t particularly memorable. Days before the Ohio primary, Mr. Trump still didn’t have a firm grasp of his own endorsed candidate’s name. “We’ve endorsed J.P., right? J.D. Mandel,” he said after deciding it simply didn’t matter and that people would figure it out. “He’s doing great.”
During his victory speech, J.D. Vance wrapped his arms around the entirety of Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda without a scintilla of embarrassment. His transformation into America’s least authentic politician was complete. He needed Mr. Trump’s endorsement, raced to the bottom against determined primary foes to get it, and now has an excellent chance of being elected to a six-year term in the U.S. Senate in November.
As part of the identity shift, Mr. Vance has had to lose whatever integrity he had left to come across twice as dumb as he actually is. He’s devolving before our eyes so that he can be considered more “relatable” to the Trump-faithful in November.
But as odd and dispiriting as the race in Ohio appears to the rest of the country, it may actually pale in sheer awfulness and stupidity to the Multiverse of Madness that is Pennsylvania politics.
Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat has no shortage of Republican operators eager to kiss the ring of the MAGA King even if it meant kneeling in the middle of the Pa. Turnpike to get it.
Just like in Ohio, the Republican establishment has a preference that the former president couldn’t care less about. David McCormick got wealthy in software and hedge fund management and has actually served in a Republican White House where he made powerful friends, including several high profile veterans of the Trump administration.
The problem for Mr. McCormick is that Mr. Trump doesn’t respect meritocratic presumption. Of the seven GOP candidates, Mr. Trump sees only one viable candidate — Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor Oprah Winfrey launched to fame.
Dr. Oz was able to corral the coveted endorsement largely on the strength of his own celebrity and willingness to genuflect before Mr. Trump on everything, including conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, contempt for Dr. Anthony Fauci and criticism of Democratic governors over “harsh” COVID measures.
Dr. Oz’s reputation as a flim-flam artist precedes him, so he was more likely than the others to land Mr. Trump’s endorsement. His primary opponents have accused the Turkish-born candidate of being a carpetbagger who doesn’t really live in the state, but sees an opportunity to pick up an open Senate seat while benefitting from his two-decade career as a snake oil salesman.
His opponents have recently circulated pictures of Dr. Oz voting in an election in Turkey as recently as 2018. He’s a dual citizen and defends his 2018 vote as his right and responsibility. The problem is that it is impossible to find a photo of him voting in a Pennsylvania election.
Still, he’s considered the Republican frontrunner because in the context of this race, he’s the Trumpiest and has the benefit of the Trump imprimatur.
But the wackiest race of all is the GOP gubernatorial primary. That’s where all the laziest, least distinguished candidates are, some of whom actually scoff at those with actual political experience. Mr. Trump has yet to endorse anyone among the nine candidates, but no one doubts that it is state Senator Doug Mastriano’s endorsement to lose.
Mr. Mastriano is a Christian nationalist and QAnon-friendly politician who organized a bus convoy from Pennsylvania to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6th. He was spotted on the Capitol grounds that day, but swears he never breached the Capitol itself with the rioters. He was just an innocent bystander as American democracy came close to being permanently hijacked.
Since November 2020 when Mr. Trump lost the presidential race, Mr. Mastriano has demonstrated an unwavering loyalty to the sorest loser in American history. He’s a true believer whose fervent constituency overlaps with the former president’s perfectly, establishing a deeper legitimacy with Mr. Trump than even raw charisma — which he lacks — could.
When Mr. Trump finally gets around to endorsing GOP frontrunner Doug Mastriano as his choice for governor, the Multiverse of Political Madness in Pennsylvania will have its triggering event.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631 or Twitter @Tony_NormanPG.