© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

J.D. Vance Is Rising and Taking National Conservatism With Him

The Ohio senator and potential VP pick is emblematic of a new strain of right-wing ideology. The Reagan-era GOP, he said, is “over.”

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, right, points toward Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump
Jeff Dean/AP

If Donald Trump decides to make Sen. J.D. Vance his running mate sometime in the next week, he’ll be doing more than just elevating Vance: He’ll be elevating the national conservative movement.

“It would certainly put it more towards the front page and bring it some life,” Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas told NOTUS, adding that he sees national conservatives representing a “quiet majority” of conservatives.

National conservatives are part of a new wave on the right — Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt pointed to recently elected conservative senators as emblematic — united by nationalism, economic populism and the rejection of the separation of church and state. Proponents advocate for the abandonment of small government conservatism to be replaced by institutional power that can take on leftist cultural and economic trends.

“Democrats have completely abandoned working folks and cater to the elites. And I think you’re seeing the Republican Party become more of a multiethnic party, for working-class folks,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt and Marshall were among several Republicans in sync with the movement who spoke at a conference this week of hundreds of national conservatives, known as NatCon 4. The event, significantly smaller than other conservative gatherings that have taken place in the capital in the past year, included other prominent speakers like senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts, Vivek Ramaswamy and, of course, Vance himself.

The vice presidential front-runner most aligned with national conservatism, Vance — who was introduced as one of the movement’s “greatest champions” — was the keynote speaker on the last day of the event and was welcomed with loud applause by the attendees, which only included a portion of those who went to the conference as only “VIP” guests were allowed in.

“This really is the place of intellectual leadership in the American conservative movement,” Vance said, after bragging to the audience about being considered a VP pick but blaming Democrats for the lack of media attention on him, relative to the circus surrounding the president. “There’s nothing the media loves more than a death watch.”

More so than any other NatCon guest, Vance captured the audience. He hailed the movement’s major issues as only an insider could, with blunt jokes about the idiocy of elites and insults to the proponents of free enterprise and legal immigration — “There are some towns in Ohio where we actually had houses before the Immigration Act of 1964.” But befitting a movement steeped in pessimism, he soon struck a darker tone.

“The real threat to American democracy is that American voters keep on voting for less immigration and our politicians keep on rewarding us with more,” Vance said. “No one can avoid that [immigration] has made our societies poorer, less safe, less prosperous and less advanced.”

Some of Vance’s other Republican colleagues say he would be a great pick for vice president and would help bring the movement to the forefront. But, they argued, Vance wouldn’t be the movement’s first foray to the front of the national stage. Trumpism, they say, carries many of the movement’s principles, with Vance arguing that Trump’s hold on the GOP has ended the Reagan-era Republican Party.

“I think that’s over,” he told the audience. “The fact that it’s over is a huge, huge win for you guys. But most importantly, it’s a huge, huge win for the American people.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, the keynote speaker Monday night, said that Trump’s agenda is already a national conservative one: “I hope that he will pursue his agenda of putting working people first and prioritizing good paying blue-collar jobs in this country, supply chains back in this country, that is the real meat on the bones of what we’re talking about here.”

Vance, in his speech, said Trump exemplified national conservative beliefs: Americans “need people who put the interests of … our own citizens first, and that’s what this entire movement is all about, and I think that’s what the Trump presidency will be about if we give him another shot, as I expect that we will.”

“J.D. would be great,” Hawley told NOTUS, also praising some of the other Republicans who have been named as potential picks, such as Sen. Marco Rubio and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, whose Reagan-esque foreign policy beliefs contrast with Vance’s isolationist brand. “I’m sure that Trump would make a good choice and choose somebody who fits with him.”

Since Trump has already taken on some national conservatism, it would make sense for his VP pick to share similar values, both Hawley and Marshall said.

“I would have thought that President Trump was a national conservative as well, maybe doesn’t check every box, but to me this national conservatism is really a reflection of the values I was raised on,” Marshall said.

However, to say that national conservatism mirrors Trump’s America First agenda is to ignore the complexity of its characters. During a conference panel on a post-Dobbs America, panelist Tom McClusky lambasted the RNC platform approved by Trump’s team and supported by Vance and fellow VP possibility Sen. Marco Rubio.

“It is the worst platform I’ve ever seen,” he said, causing his audience to applaud. “We do expect our politicians to at least hold up to some moral standard.”

“In this case, they’re failing,” he added.

Tenets of the movement, like an emphasis on Christian morality by the state, did create some dissonance among attendees. During Hawley’s calls for Christian nationalism Monday, Jewish attendees in the back of the room exchanged glances. Then they looked toward the ceiling, seemingly uninterested in a deep dive into America’s Christian heritage and its needed rejuvenation for the nation’s survival.

While Vance could elevate the movement’s influence, its insurgent advancement may continue to evade the public and political eye. Sen. Ron Johnson, who spoke at NatCon 4, referred to the conference as “that thing over there” when asked about national conservatism’s influence.

“I just spoke at it,” Johnson said, noting that he doesn’t know about the movement. “Seems to be a consolidation of a bunch of conservative groups, which I generally support, so I appreciate those types of associations.”

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS. Ben T.N. Mause and Claire Heddles are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.