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CLARENCE PAGE: Which J.D. Vance will we meet next?

“Are you a racist?” asks the young bearded man in the TV ad. “Do you hate Mexicans?”

“The media calls us racists for wanting to build Trump’s wall,” he says, sounding to my politically attuned ears a lot like The Donald himself. “They censor us, but it doesn’t change the truth,” he continues. “Joe Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country.”

His tone softens a bit as he continues: “This issue is personal. I nearly lost my mother to the poison coming across our border.” He closes like a classic demagogue, pitting “us” against “them.”

“I’m J.D. Vance and I approve this message because whatever THEY call us, WE will put America first.”

Sad. Compared to the J.D. that I used to know, this new version sounds like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has arrived.

As longtime readers may recall, I met Vance, now 37, in 2016, when I learned that we both had grown up in Middletown, Ohio, although more than 30 years apart.

In the interim, the booming factory town, where I earned enough at the local steel mill to pay for my college tuition, became a casualty of Rust Belt decline and a ferocious opioid plague.

Much of this animates the pages of his bestselling 2016 memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Those who are surprised that he sounds so conservative now missed plenty of hints in the social problems recounted in his book.

He properly praises the Appalachian values of his Kentucky-rooted family, including loyalty, tenacity and love of country. Driven in particular by his colorfully resourceful, resilient and no-nonsense grandmother, he stayed on the right path to the Marines, Ohio State University, Yale Law School and a career as a venture capitalist.

All of this came despite such social hurdles as violence, verbal abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction in the family and community.

Good for him. In many ways, I saw similarities to my working-class family life on the Black side of town, except I was blessed to have quietly sober, ambitious and religious parents, as well as a booming postwar economy with expanding economic and academic opportunities, helped along for my generation by the hard-won civil rights reforms of the 1960s.

Vance’s story has been criticized, including by some fellow Appalachians, for putting more blame on hillbilly culture and social rot than economic insecurity. As a veteran of a summer job with the Upward Bound program during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” I know what they mean.

Vance relies heavily on anecdotes, like customers who bought steak with their food stamps when he was a grocery store cashier, who, like my family, couldn’t afford such luxury. He also disdains the resentment expressed by a guy who quit his job, yet complained of the “Obama economy.”

When we met after Trump’s 2016 victory, Vance complained about Trump for, among other sins, pandering to the self-defeating resentments of mostly white middle class and working-class voters. We had too many self-defeating attitudes in the Black community, too. We agreed that America’s politics need to focus more on what we share in common across racial lines, not just our differences. It’s a nice dream that I still believe in.

But as a candidate for the Ohio Senate seat now occupied by pragmatic Republican Rob Portman, a new J.D. emerged. The guy who once called Trump “reprehensible” and “cultural heroin,” among other hits, went full Trump.

That’s hypocritical, many say. But in today’s brutally partisan politics, it’s not unrealistic. After Trump’s endorsement in the crowded field, Vance leaped swiftly from third place to victory.

Now with Trump’s blessing, he faces the Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, 48, a resolutely pro-union, tough-on-trade populist from another economically troubled district that stretches from Youngstown to Akron.

Ryan ran unsuccessfully for president in 2020, when candidates to his left seemed to dominate the stage until Biden’s campaign belatedly caught fire.

Although Republicans look strong in this off-year election, Democrats are expected to focus heavily on suburban voters amid a possible backlash against the Supreme Court’s possible overturning of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights.

I like Vance but, as a steadfast critic of Trump and Trumpism, I hope he loses.

I hope he understands. It’s not personal. It’s politics.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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