On its face, Donald Trump’s endorsement of author J.D. Vance in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Vance’s campaign hasn’t exactly taken off, and there’s that pesky issue of him running down Trump (and Trump voters) in the past.
And yet …
“It is time for the entire MAGA movement, the greatest in the history of our Country, to unite behind J.D.’s campaign because, unlike so many other pretenders and wannabes, he will put America First,” Trump said in a statement Friday announcing the endorsement. “In other words, J.D. Vance has my Complete and Total Endorsement. He will not let you down. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
I can explain it all in a single word. Ready? “Celebrity.”
Trump is drawn to other famous people. He thinks famous people have an “it” factor that distinguishes them from the normals. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Trump views himself first and foremost as a celebrity. He likes people who are in the club with him. It’s that simple.
Consider a sampling of Trump’s endorsements so far in 2022:
- He endorsed Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race. Walker was both a college and NFL star.
- He endorsed Sarah Palin in the special House election in Alaska. Palin, who served as governor of Alaska, was the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president and later – and perhaps more importantly for Trump’s purposes – a reality TV star.
- He endorsed Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Oz gained fame and notoriety over more than decade.
In endorsing Oz, Trump gave some insight into his thinking.
“When you’re in television for 18 years, that’s like a poll,” the former President said. “That means people like you.”
That’s a tremendously revealing quote. It shows that the way in which Trump consumes and interacts with culture is through television. That is his lens on the world. As The New York Times wrote of Trump’s TV habits in April 2020:
“President Trump arrives in the Oval Office these days as late as noon, when he is usually in a sour mood after his morning marathon of television.
“He has been up in the White House master bedroom as early as 5 a.m. watching Fox News, then CNN, with a dollop of MSNBC thrown in for rage viewing. He makes calls with the TV on in the background, his routine since he first arrived at the White House.”
Which means that if you are on television – as Vance, Walker, Palin and Oz have all been, in various forms over the years – you matter to Trump.
Trump’s assessment of Vance then – in contrast to his statement on the decision – is primarily built around this conceit: Game recognize game. Vance is good on TV, ergo, in Trump’s mind, Vance is just plain good.
Trump hinted at that belief in his Friday statement – arguing why Vance is best positioned to beat the likely Democratic nominee, US Rep. Tim Ryan.
“I’ve studied this race closely and I think J.D. is the most likely to take out the weak, but dangerous, Democrat opponent – dangerous because they will have so much money to spend, ” said Trump. “However, J.D. will destroy him in the debates and will fight for the MAGA Movement in the Senate.”
The debates are key to Trump because they are televised performances. And because Vance, the famed author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” has been on TV, he will be good in those debates.
When it comes to Trump, don’t overthink why he does what he does. The simplest answer is almost always the right one.