Religion & Liberty Online

J.D. Vance and the politics of resentment

Resentment is a complicated emotion, a curious mix of disappointment, disgust, anger, and fear. The villainous court composer Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Academy Award-winning film Amadeus is a study in resentment. In his youth, Salieri, desired nothing more than to make music. Salieri admits Mozart was his idol and that “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know his name!” He confesses he was always jealous of Mozart’s talent but still makes a successful career as a composer in Vienna. When Mozart visits Vienna, Salieri eagerly seeks him out. He wonders aloud of Mozart’s genius: “Did it show? Is talent like that written on the face?” When Salieri first encounters Mozart he is disappointed—not in Mozart’s talent, which Salieri still experiences as sublime, but in the person of Mozart himself, whom Salieri comes to resent.

J.D. Vance’s recent essay “End the Globalization Gravy Train” in The American Mind is a study in resentment, resentment of the conservative movement. Like all resentment, it is complicated. The essay is a mixed bag of thoughtful observations, interesting questions, strange equivocations, and malicious psychoanalysis.

Vance gets a lot right in his essay. He is right that much of the debate about the trade-offs between the economic and public health impacts of well-intentioned, but often heavy-handed, shelter-in-place orders miss the fact that people change their behavior irrespective of such orders. Vance is also correct that the actions of Communist China in covering up the early spread of COVID-19 ensured its escalation into a global pandemic. He raises interesting questions about the consumption habits of Americans and the reliance on national, institutional, and household debt to finance that consumption. The future of our relationship with Communist China, and the pervasive role of debt and its capture of seemingly all of American life, are important and enduring questions whose answers are more vital than the political controversy du jour.

Vance’s essay goes wrong when it ceases to draw proper distinctions. He attributes the growth of the financial sector (labeled by critics as “financialization”) solely to China:

“When you have an economy built on borrowing money from China and then buying the stuff it makes, you need a robust financial sector. Getting all that money from the U.S. to China, and then there and back again, takes, well, money.”

As a co-founder and partner of a technology investment firm, Vance surely knows that a robust financial sector is not something uniquely dependent on money borrowed from China to buy goods from China. Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, offered a criticism of “financialization” that ignores the connection between the willingness to fund new investments and the ability to trade those investments later. Similary, Vance’s essay ignores the vast majority of the actions of the financial sector to paint its sole role as underwriting conspicuous consumption to benefit the Chinese Communist Party.

Why this rhetorical sleight of hand? This allows him to label the class enemy: “Even if you zoom out from the finance industry, it is hard to find an American tycoon who hasn’t benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the rise of Beijing.”

When someone disagrees with me, I try to ask them, “Why?” When someone disagrees with J.D. Vance he asks, “Who benefits?”

This is an old rhetorical trick dressed up as analysis. V.I. Lenin famously posed the question “Who Stands to Gain?” He wrote:

Yes, indeed! In politics it is not so important who directly advocates particular views. What is important is who stands to gain from these views, proposals, measures.

In this way, Vance can sidestep any of the actual arguments against economic nationalism. Who benefits is an empirical question that Vance doesn’t actually examine. No companies or “tycoons” are named in the essay. We are merely told that “American tycoons” in general, and “conservative donors” in particular, both do. The psychological question of motivation is ignored in sweeping insinuation. That would require asking people who disagree why they do so and taking their arguments seriously.

Vance states that devaluing and dismissing arguments in favor of free markets is widespread but unvoiced among certain circles of conservative writers and intellectuals. He tells us that it is unvoiced due to the fear of donors. Putting yourself in a position in which you feel you have to hide your true thoughts and feelings is a recipe for resentment, a breeding ground for Salieris.

J.D. Vance longs for an American conservative movement that never existed. He laments that he does not come across Whittaker Chambers or Russell Kirk in the recommendations of unnamed “well-known organizations.” I wonder what he would think of Kirk’s inclusion of Friedrich Hayek and Isabel Paterson in the first edition of The Conservative Mind? I hope his admiration of Kirk will not suffer too badly if he encounters his delightful textbook Economics: Work and Prosperity.

The schools of American conservative thought have always been diverse. Each deserves to be appreciated and evaluated in terms of its best arguments articulated by its greatest representatives. J.D. Vance’s latest essay is further evidence that this is increasingly not the practice in certain corners of the conservative movement.

Life is too short, and too precious, to entertain resentment. As Paul admonishes us, “You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk–indeed all malice” (Ephesians 4:31).

(Photo credit: Paul Sableman. CC BY 2.0.)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.