J.D. Vance’s Misogynist Dog Whistle

The “Hillbilly Elegy” author turned Ohio Senate candidate is speaking a private language to pander to Trump voters he once scorned.

The following essay is reposted from Jeet Heer’s Substack newsletter, The Time of Monsters.

On Sunday, Paul Krugman tweeted out:

There are many ways to respond to Krugman’s thread. One could note that the case for natalism doesn’t just have to be economic but could rest on a broader assertion of reproductive freedom: in a well ordered society people would be free to have as few and as many children as they want, which can be hampered in either direction by lack of access to birth control and abortion of lack of financial and social support for childrearing.

J.D. Vance, author of The Hillbilly Elegy and current aspirant to the Republican senatorial nomination in Ohio, wasn’t able to make any of the reasonable objections to Krugman. Instead Vance resurrected an archaic insult by suggesting Krugman was a weird cat lady:

Some people on Twitter, including the Washington Monthly‘s Timothy Noah, were puzzled by the “weird cat ladies” jibe. In context, Vance is clearly alluding to Krugman being childless (which, as I understand, is true enough, as is Krugman’s cat ownership). From that small foothold on reality, Vance jumps, in a real logical leap, to the idea that Krugman is a partisan of the childlessness.

“Crazy Cat Ladies” is a phrase that pops up in venues like The American Conservative as short-hand for, roughly, “modern career-oriented women who are so bewitched by feminism that they’ll never marry and have kids but instead doomed to be lifelong pet owners.” (There is also an echo in Vance’s tweet of the long-standing homophobic slander against John Maynard Keynes suggesting that the fact the great economist was gay and childless meant he had no concern for posterity.)

The jibe is rooted in centuries-old shaming of childless women. The affinity of spinsters with cats was a stereotype already in the Middle Ages. In 1880, the Dundee Courier argued, “There is nothing at all surprising in the old maid choosing a cat as a household pet or companion. Solitude is not congenial to human nature, and a poor forlorn female, shut up in a cheerless ‘garret,’ brooding all alone over her blighted hopes, would naturally centre her affections on some of the lower animals.”

William F. Marriner drew a cartoon for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that ran on January 14, 1900 on the theme of “Woman’s [sic] craze for animal pets vs. babies.” (Ironically, Marriner also did cartoons have been credited with inspiring Felix the Cat).

Despite its long roots, “weird cat lady” or “crazy cat lady” are fairly esoteric insults in modern times. They largely have currency in the world of incels, pick up artists, and other hardened misogynists.

That in itself is suggestive of where J.D. Vance and the Republican Party are right now. In using “weird cat ladies” in a tweet, Vance was making a very targeted dog whistle to the misogynist right, letting them know “I’m one of you.”

When Vance came into prominence with Hillbilly Elegy in 2016 he was marketed as a native informer, the hillbilly who went to Yale. He was someone who was from Trump country but not a Trumpist who could explain Trumpian thinking. Of course, much of that was as scripted as a minstrel show (Vance in fact grew up in Ohio and only summered with his Appalachian family).

Having been a pretend hillbilly for the book, Vance is now doing more LARPing as a Trumpian candidate echoing misogynist memes. This despite his earlier, now disowned, posturing as a Never Trump conservative.

Vance is mainly useful as a weather-vane. Lacking all principles, he’s at least shows us which way the wind is blowing. As I keep insisting, the GOP continues to become Trumpized. Vance’s nasty little tweet is further evidence.

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Jeet Heer

is a national affairs correspondent for the Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles.