Donald Trump’s 2015 rise, his incredible 2016 victory, and his remarkable political resilience since then, together constitute one of the most important developments in American political history. To most of America’s leadership class, this turn of events was nigh-inexplicable, but not to Ohio’s J.D. Vance. In his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Vance described growing up in the exurbs of Cincinnati in a precarious lower-middle-class household haunted by drug abuse, divorce, and the economic hollowing-out of middle America. This demographic was ground zero for the Trump realignment. Long ignored by the GOP as economically obsolete, and rejected by the Democratic Party for having the wrong race, the people of Southwest Ohio turned out for Trump in droves. Though Hillbilly Elegy is not a political book, its intersection with 2016 helped make it a bestseller and Vance a star.

But now, rather than just helping people understand Trump’s America First revolution, Vance plans to advance it directly. He is running for the Ohio Senate seat that Rob Portman is vacating. Much like Donald Trump, Vance has aroused the wrath of establishment Republicans and Democrats for questioning D.C. orthodoxy. He has stood up for January 6 political prisoners and demanded closer investigation of Capitol provocateur Ray Epps. He’s called out America’s “third world” election system and demanded real reforms. And most recently, Vance has joined Tucker Carlson as one of the few voices anywhere on the political spectrum rejecting the rush to escalation and possible nuclear war over Ukraine. He warned against war before Russia’s invasion, has stayed consistent afterwards, and when necessary has even confronted the most thuggish and clownish takes from members of his own party.

On Monday, the Ohio GOP held a Senate primary debate. Despite pressure, Vance held firm in opposing what would easily be the most reckless war in American history.

“I’m very distressed, frankly, that for four years Congressional Republicans refused to give Donald Trump $4 billion for a border wall,” Vance said. “$4 billion for a border wall when fentanyl was pouring into our country, killing our citizens by the tens of thousands. In one week they gave Joe Biden $14 billion for Ukrainian aid.”

Vance’s major rivals Mike Gibbons and Josh Mandel, on the other hand, discredited themselves by giving into the neocon-backed rush for nuclear war.

Obviously, in Ohio’s fiercely-contested Senate primary, every viable candidate is posing as a backer of the Trump realignment. Yet only Vance, through his actions, has shown that he fully grasps what Trump’s America First approach calls for in 2022. Instead of protecting Americans from yet another suicidal and useless war on behalf of special interests, Gibbons and Mandel apparently interpret America First to mean “staging a fake fight on-stage.”

Both Vance and Mandel are veterans, but Mandel’s exploitative use of his service to pose as a tough guy, while demanding suicidal wars overseas, embodies the worst bad habits of the old, tired, and discredited Bush-era GOP. And of course, the whole “fight” was staged, too.

Fresh off of what can only be described as a decisive debate victory, Vance joined Revolver for an interview about his worldview and the situation facing the country.

With the sole and precious exception of Tucker Carlson, it seems like the entirety of Western (and certainly American) media is banging the war drums toward escalating conflict between the US and Russia. Are you surprised by the intensity and uniformity of the media coverage on this issue? In theory, doesn’t a functioning democracy require that citizens have access to multiple viewpoints on important issues of war and peace? Is democracy even a possibility in the present media environment, and if not, how do we fix this?

I’m extremely surprised. One of the formative political experiences of my life was cheerleading the Iraq War as a teenager, reading neoconservative books (like Richard Perle’s An End to Evil), enlisting in the Marine Corps, and then realizing over the next 10 years that it was all garbage. And yet none of the people who pushed for the war, from Bill Kristol to Paul Wolfowitz, have faced any professional consequences for being so catastrophically wrong.

That to me, is the answer to the question: if you hold yourself out as an expert on foreign policy, and lead your country into disaster, you should face professional ruin. The people who screwed up in Iraq did the same in Syria. The people who screwed up in Syria did the same in Libya. The people who screwed up in Libya are now pushing for a military confrontation with Russia. So long as those people have influence in our media and culture, we’ll continue to play with fire in foreign policy.

This is something Republican politicians have to do. Our political leaders have to ignore people like Kristol and encourage their donors to stop giving these think tanks money. To sound a hopeful note, our voters are far smarter on this stuff than the politicians, and the politicians are probably better than the think tank “intellectuals.”

In the 2016 South Carolina presidential primary debate Donald Trump scandalized the political establishment by taking a strong public stance against the Iraq War. Despite the transformational effect of Trump’s presidency on foreign policy and other matters, we see the same reflexive war mongering on Ukraine from many of the same characters who originally attacked Trump over the Iraq War. Why is this pro-war attitude still so prevalent within the GOP? Do you think there’s a generational gap there?

It goes back to the point I made above: the people who are ideologically committed to war still have good jobs and a lot of influence in the media. But it’s worth considering the financial incentives.

Put simply: a lot of powerful institutions realize they can get rich from America’s decline. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the defense industry. Raytheon, Lockheed, and others make a ton of money if we send their military equipment to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Ukraine. No one gets rich if less fentanyl comes across our southern border. Incidentally, these same companies donate a fair amount of cash to major American think tanks.

It’s definitely generational. I hosted a town hall the other day in Ohio with about 75 voters. It was midday, so most in the crowd were retirees. The young people were extremely skeptical of any involvement in Ukraine. The older people weren’t beating the war drums, but they were definitely more conflicted about what to do there.

The people who cheered on Iraq and Libya are more successful than ever. The generals who lied about Afghanistan for twenty years still run our military. In D.C., there is basically no connection between actual achievement and career success. What can we do to restore accountability to the American system?

We have to appreciate that there’s a very deep ideological problem here. If you go to an elite school, you’re formed to see American foreign policy through a primarily moral (rather than strategic lens). The Iraq war was an evil colonial incursion or an effort to liberate an oppressed people. Hillary Clinton killed Libya’s leader because he was a bad man. Rarely do we ask: does this make sense for the United States and the people who live here?

These institutions are incredibly boring. Very few genuinely interesting people hold professorships. Independent thought is discouraged. But the one thing these institutions have going for them is that they hand out social prestige. People derive a ton of psychic benefit from having graduated from Yale Law School, or the Kennedy School, or wherever else. If I’m being honest, that was true of me until I realized how corrupt these places were.

What this means in practice is that mediocrity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not to pick on the guy, but consider Bill Kristol. If he had been born to anyone other than Irving Kristol, he would have become a midlevel office manager at an enterprise software firm in San Mateo. Instead, he went to a fancy school, where he acquired a lot of prestige, which he then used to regurgitate a generation’s worth of conventional wisdom until he killed thousands of Americans. Our institutions reward mediocrity, even when it has catastrophic consequences, so long as that mediocrity doesn’t challenge the talking points.

What can we do? Accept that the institutions that bestow this prestige and form people in these opinions are broken. Stop giving them our money. End their special privileges: the Harvard University endowment pays a lower tax rate than every member of my family, which is predominantly working class. We’ve erected a set of institutions that teach conformity and stupidity, allow them to control our labor market, and give them preferential financial treatment. It’s no surprise our society is so broken. We’ve given over the formation of our leaders to sociopaths.

Suppose you were Senate Majority Leader. What’s a piece of legislation you would put forward immediately that the Republican Party has so far been too weak to attempt?

There’s so much to do. I personally think the southern border crisis is a historic catastrophe, so I’d focus my efforts there. And there is a jarring contrast between that crisis and the one in Ukraine: for four years, Congressional Democrats (and Republicans) refused to give Donald Trump $4bn for a border wall; they gave Joe Biden $14bn for aide to Ukraine in a week.

Combine the border wall funding with the elimination of welfare benefits for any illegal alien (it’s a major incentive for illegal crossings), a full scale effort against the Mexican Drug Cartels, and a reform of our legal immigration system along the lines of the RAISE Act, and you have “comprehensive immigration reform” that’s worthy of the name.

The tactics used to sanction Russia have strongly resembled the tactics used to “cancel” US citizens (or entire states) that step out of line: Shut down bank accounts, cancel credit cards, brand pullouts, banned from social media platforms. What do Republicans need to do to make sure “woke capital” doesn’t dictate what their voters are allowed to say and think?

Google “Can a man become pregnant?” The first response is something like, “yes, in fact it happens more often than you might think.” Then consider that Google is the authoritative source of information for millions of American children. We can have a proper civilization or we can allow these companies to control information in our country, but we can’t do both.

So much needs to happen that it’s hard to pick one thing. We do need to break the back of the tech industry — I’m a fan of common carrier approaches, combined with strong limitations on the theft and resale of personal data by the tech companies. But the most pressing problem may be turning American corporations back to things like developing products and making a profit, and away from ESG — environment, sustainability, and governance — focuses that basically turn American corporations into arms of progressive social policy.

So many Republicans want to believe we live in a “free market” economy but we simply don’t. The largest corporations have created massive tax, regulatory, and other protections for themselves, and they use their political activism to ensure the goodies never stop. To take just one example, many large tech companies benefit from heavily subsidized electricity in the state of Ohio. This gives them a leg up on any new entrants. Democrats protect these companies because they’re major donors to left-wing causes. Republicans protect them because Republicans want to be “pro business.” The end result is an economy where financial deplatforming, firings, and censorship are common. There’s nothing free about that market.

One of the people I’m running against is Matt Dolan, who markets himself as a traditional, pro-business conservative. He often takes potshots at me for having the temerity to suggest Republican senators ought to legislate in a way that protects the values and economic interests of Republican voters. “When did Republicans become the party of interfering in business?” Of course, he supports the Fairness Act, which would make it illegal for even religiously motivated businesses to ensure their employees share the values of the company. Every one who repeats these talking points is a fraud: they all want government to influence the private sector.

It’s a testament to Trump’s profound influence on politics that just about everyone claims to espouse “America First” position on foreign policy, immigration, and so forth. But depending on who is saying it, this can mean radically different things in practice. What are the principles that distinguish a truly America First orientation from mere sloganeering?

The most important thing is to separate moralizing from strategic interest. The media always accused Trump of being a “Putin stooge” or being “pro-Russia” for saying that he had a good relationship with Putin. It’s just such a preposterous argument. To be an effective negotiator, you need to accept that the other party has distinct interests. You don’t have to agree with what they want to accomplish. But if you walk in to a foreign policy dispute obsessing over who the ”bad guy” is, you’ll make stupid decisions. Trump is maybe the first American president of my lifetime who understood this.

Most right-wing media sells Trump short on foreign policy. You hear all the time that Putin would have never invaded Ukraine because “Trump was strong.” That is true, but Trump was also smart! He didn’t antagonize every world leader. He accepted that other countries — even those led by evil men — have strategic goals that we need to acknowledge. Remember how every media outlet attacked Trump for being evil because he said something polite about a rival’s leader? Trump’s response was always: “it’s actually important to be able to talk to people.” This is just so obvious, yet 99 percent of the establishment ignored it.

A lot of things flow from this. For example, because very few people in the current establishment think strategically — but they can moralize all day long — we should inherently mistrust them and give them as little power as possible. We should avoid military conflict if possible, because the mediocrities in that same establishment are driven more by emotional considerations than the interest of their country.

Another way of putting this is: what’s in our interest as a country? Escalation with Russia brings a ton of risks. The barrier to get involved is extremely high. What do we get out of it? Protecting democracy? There are a lot of dictatorships, and we shouldn’t go to war with all of them. Ensuring the safety of this or that population of innocents is certainly an admirable goal, but it doesn’t justify starting a major war. The closest I’ve heard to a real strategic argument is that unless Putin is stopped in Ukraine, he’ll march all the way to Paris or Berlin. I’m skeptical of this argument, but at least it’s better than “Putin mean; Zelensky nice.”

Despite everything that Trump was able to accomplish in office, there was still more that he could have done but was prevented from doing by a hostile national security bureaucracy. In the past four years, we have seen just what a bottleneck the national security state can become. It may not be an exaggeration to say they have the power to nullify our elections, and render democracy “fake”. What is your perspective on this issue? What can be done to reform the national security bureaucracy such that it focuses on countering America’s adversaries rather than conspiring against the American people?

A friend put it this way: there are three issues you’re not allowed to touch. Trade, immigration, and foreign policy. You can be right-wing on everything else, but if you truly push for an America First set of policies on those three issues, the uniparty will lose their minds. Of those three issues, foreign policy is the one where you’re really not supposed to step out of the mainstream. That means something important, though I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s like the regime has its own immune system, and the antibodies are supercharged against any departures from the warmongering consensus.

It’s impossible to disconnect the national security bureaucracy from the think tanks and other institutions of the swamp. You need to transform the institutions that grant prestige to these people. You need to make it so they suffer professional consequences when they push their own country into catastrophe. And finally, you need to make it easy for the president to investigate and fire the members of the bureaucracy — if the bureaucrats can’t be fired, the president doesn’t control the government, the deep state does.

One of the most powerful things Trump spoke about was the theme of the “forgotten man” — the working man forgotten, ignored, and left to rot by corrupt politicians and special interests that actually run the country. What is the status of the forgotten man today? What are the issues they care about and what message do you have for those who feel betrayed by our increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional rulers?

Here’s how I think about it: the United States is the greatest country in the world. It was built by generations of hardworking, compassionate, and brilliant people. And over the last couple of generations, a group of extremely corrupt people have decided that they can get rich by plundering this nation. And they’ve realized that they can silence people by hurling accusations of racism, or sexism, or whatever ism the ruling class uses to justify the silencing of its own citizens.

To me, the forgotten man is the guy who has seen his community devastated by job loss, addiction, and crime. They work hard, pay their taxes, and send their children to die in our nation’s wars. They believe our history is something to be proud of, and they’re sick of being told to feel shame over people like George Washington, who they take inspiration from. Because they love their country, they believe newcomers should feel a sense of appreciation for what generations built—not resentment or loathing.

There are a lot of problems. While Trump made a lot of progress, no four year term can solve the problems that exist in communities like mine. There are a lot of proud towns that need to be rebuilt. Our education system is broken in that it both fails to teach useful skills and indoctrinates many Americans into self-hatred. The border crisis has exacerbated these issues and created new ones. Our local businesses shouldn’t be treated worse than Google and Amazon because they depend on fossil fuels or because the workers make things with their hands.

A lot of people feel forgotten because their leaders have made them feel like strangers in their own country. But I’m actually hopeful. Why? Because there’s still a lot of fight left in our people. And we’re not going to give up our country easily.