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JD Vance Claims He’s Taking on Elites. His Donor List Tells Another Story.

Vance's top donor occupation is "CEO"

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Video narrated by Brian Tyler Cohen

JD Vance–the investment banker, author, and now politician–built a career for himself on the idea that he’s a man of the people who just happens to have been successful and gotten rich.

[JD Vance]: I think that those of us who are lucky enough to have had the life that I’ve had have a certain responsibility to not completely forsake the people that we came from.

His 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was heralded for shining light on the unheard white working class of Ohio, his investment firms focus on areas underserved by traditional venture capital, and the mainstream media put him on TV for years as an expert on the working class. 

And he does talk about the problems working Ohioans face…

[Vance, 2017]: “The opioid addiction is arguably the worst public health crisis that has existed in this country for 30 or 40 years.”

[Vance, 2021]: “gasoline, food, used cars.” 

[Vance, 2021]: “If you’re paying more for energy, everything is more expensive.” 

[Vance]: “The elites in the ruling class of this country are robbing us blind.”

But now that he’s running for office, what would a Senator JD Vance actually mean for working Ohioans? We can tell by looking at how Vance got to this point. It’s a story of comically evil billionaires, the people responsible for the opioid epidemic, and even killer robots. 

For my next collaboration with The Class Room team at More Perfect Union–make sure to subscribe to them too–we looked into what side JD Vance is actually on: the working class world he came from, or the elite Silicon Valley billionaire world he moved “up” into? 

[Vance]: The elites in the ruling class of this country are robbing us blind. 

Vance’s donors, past work, investments, and the personal beliefs he admits to out loud make it clear: Vance is using the working class narrative as a way to enrich himself and the powerful people supporting him — all at the cost of the people he says he’s helping, like you. 

Let’s dig in:

How JD Vance Got Rich

Part of JD Vance’s story is how he managed to rise to ‘elite’ spaces, from an upbringing in working class Kentucky and Ohio. His mother struggled with addiction, and he was raised by his grandparents. 

[News clip]: For the most part by his grandmother, “ma-maw.” Did I pronounce that correctly?

But he joined the Marines and got into Yale Law School, and today he is very, very rich: he owns millions of dollars of assets and brings in a venture capital salary ten times that of the average Ohioan–and that’s just the cash salary, not including his investment gains. 

A lot of that is thanks to a 2011 lecture that Vance calls “the most significant moment of my time at Yale Law School.” The speaker? Peter Thiel–Silicon Valley billionaire of “PayPal Mafia” fame, look at any big tech company and Thiel’s fingerprints are probably on it.

[Vance]: I met a guy who was a VC, Peter Thiel, when I was at law school. One thing led to another and I found myself in Silicon Valley working for him.

Vance yadda yadda yaddas over a lot there – 

[Vance]: One thing led to another and I found myself in Silicon Valley working for him.

But, Thiel took Vance under his wing and gave him the network he needed to build a massive investment portfolio with several different funds. Thiel was one of the first people to read early drafts of Vance’s memoir, and even blurbed the book. 

[JD Vance]: The first person I asked for a blurb is this guy Peter Thiel who I was working for at the time, he’s an investor in Silicon Valley, and remains involved in a lot of projects I’m working on.

And Thiel is still taking care of JD. He was an early supporter of Vance’s Senate campaign, pouring millions of dollars into a pro-Vance SuperPAC before Vance even announced his campaign. In fact, Thiel has donated more to Vance than any one has ever donated to a single Senate race. Yeah, you heard that right: Thiel has spent more money trying to get this guy elected than anyone has ever spent on a single candidate. 

Who Funds Vance’s Campaign? Union Busters, Big Pharma, and Gas Companies

Why would Thiel–a man who made his billions in tech and was on the board of Facebook until February–want this guy in office?

[Vance]: It’s time to stop complaining about big tech. It’s time to start writing them strong letters, and it’s time to start doing something about it.

And it’s not just Thiel donating to Vance. Vance’s top donor list looks like the guest list for a union busting seminar at Davos. The job title among Vance’s donors that donated the most total money isn’t nurse or construction worker, it’s CEO. Which is concerning, because I thought I heard someone say: 

[Vance]: The elites in the ruling class of this country are robbing us blind.

But really, why would America’s elites support someone who claims to be fighting against…America’s elites?

Looking at some of the specific issues Vance talks about makes it clear. Take the opioid crisis. Vance blames everything from immigration to low church attendance, but never points the finger at the people most responsible: Purdue Pharmaceuticals. The Class Room team made a full video on Purdue’s role in creating this epidemic.

Vance’s charity, Our Ohio Renewal, promised to work with Ohioans affected by the opioid crisis, and he brought in an expert, Dr. Sally Satel. Sounds great in concept, but Satel was from the American Enterprise Institute, which took money from Purdue. Satel herself had cited Purdue-sponsored research in papers about opiate pain relief. 

That’s a trend for Vance: he points out a problem, then allies with elites linked to causing it. 

Like how Vance talks about gas prices. 

[Vance]: When energy prices go up, who benefits? Industries that don’t require energy: Wall St., Big Tech, universities.

Even though one of Vance’s top donors is John Addison, a trader for ‘Vitol,’ a Dutch energy company. In 2020, Vitol was accused of organizing an illegal price-fixing scheme, manipulating California’s gasoline markets. They falsely drove up the price of gas for consumers to increase their profits. A lawsuit was filed by California State, implicating Vance’s donor Addison in this conspiracy.

So when Vance asks…

[Vance]: “When energy prices go up, who benefits? 

The answer is his own donors who are literally manipulating gas prices for their own benefit.

Vance is shrewdly addressing the problems facing Ohioans, blaming the wrong people, and then allying with those who are really to blame. 

Vance’s Big Tech, Billionaire Benefactor 

Which brings us back to Vance’s billionaire benefactor, Peter Thiel, and Vance’s relationship with big tech.

[Vance]: When the technology industry censors the sitting President of the United States, when it puts you in Facebook jail for uttering an opinion, we’re not going to sit by and take it anymore; we’re going to go after them; we’re going to break up their monopolies; we’re going to make it illegal for them to steal your data from you and then sell it back to you; and if they censor conservatives we’re going to make them pay.

First of all: Vance really shouldn’t be throwing stones about big tech stealing data. His current venture capital firm, Narya, is invested in Hallow, a Catholic prayer app. Hallow, which again is a prayer app, reserves the right to sell your data, in addition to charging users. Charging users to pray and meditate–Vance wants to monetize sitting quietly and thinking. 

That’s what was missing from your most intimate communion with God: JD Vance getting a cut of it. And that’s just one of many tech companies Vance has a hand in.

Vance claims that his time in the world of big tech makes him uniquely qualified to fight it, but he’s still currently financially reliant on the industry. That VC firm, by the way, is largely funded by Peter Thiel–the guy has basically funded every endeavor JD Vance has ever been involved in. 

And that’s pretty chilling because Peter Thiel is… kinda nuts. 

He’s said that “the US military could run the country better” than the president and congress. Which by itself is horrifying enough but he’s also got a financial motive: an investment in Anduril Industries, a “non traditional” defense contractor that makes “autonomous defense systems.” Yeah, that means AI weapons–aka literally killer robots. 

Anduril just locked down a $1 billion dollar federal defense contract. And oh yeah, sorry, forgot a little detail: Vance also has a huge investment in Anduril, and the CEO and Founder, Palmer Luckey, made a big donation to Vance’s campaign. 

But beyond that wild conflict of interest–the military thing is just one little bit of Thiel’s anti-democratic beliefs. Thiel openly said “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

Vance’s top donor who has funded almost everything Vance has worked on for the past decade wants to tear down the governmental system that makes our country great and free. 

Vance isn’t just aligned with the elite, he’s aligned with the closest thing real life has to a comic book villain. And the rest of his donors are no heroes either. Vance got donations from the billionaire owners of Uline, which you might know from their needlessly giant office supply catalogs. 

The Uihleins are some of the main funders of anti-union laws across the country. They’re joined by Rebekah and Robert Mercer, infamous shadowy far-right donors, who have also led an assault on unions. Vance and his donor base don’t like unions, but Vance also knows that a lot of the working class voters do like unions. 

[Vance]: There’s a lot of good evidence that folks who participate in labor unions are less likely to divorce, are more likely to get help when they fall into addiction, are less likely to start abusing alcohol or drugs in the first place. And so I think there’s an interesting question for those of us on the right to say, how do we reinvigorate labor unions, but in a way where they serve something more like their traditional purpose, and not just basically creating an incredibly zero sum game that sets every worker against every company that they work for?

By ‘reinvigorating’ unions, Vance means he wants unions that will kowtow to management, supporting unions in name while destroying what they’re actually there for. Other top donors include Peter Kleklamp, a major Ohio landlord, and some of the richest people in Ohio, including the owners of both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Reds. 

But despite all of that, he still acts like he is there for the working class. Why? Because he knows appealing to the working class works.

Vance perfected the art of speaking to working class voters while secretly allying with their biggest enemies. But the basic facts of Vance’s career, his donors, and the things he’s outright said make it clear: to him, the working class is nothing but a sacrifice to enrich the elite. Nothing but marks to exploit in his own pursuit of power.

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