Peter Thiel’s bid to win two seats in Congress didn’t quite succeed. One of his protégées, J.D. Vance, won his race in Ohio after trailing his Democratic opponent for weeks, while the other, Blake Masters, lost his Arizona senate race by 5 points to Democrat Mark Kelly.
Masters’ and Vance’s policy positions are strikingly similar. They both embrace the White Supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, and are known for their total opposition to abortion. Vance, who argued in 2021 that there was no need for exceptions in case of incest or rape, once said:
“It’s not whether a woman should be forced to bring a child to term, it’s whether a child should be allowed to live, even though the circumstances of that child’s birth are somehow inconvenient or a problem to the society.”
“(Abortion is) a religious sacrifice to these people, I think it’s demonic.”
Vance has voiced support for pro-natalist policies, modeling those of Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, which create incentives for higher birth rates. He has railed against “the childless Left,” targeting childless Democratic politicians:
“Why is this just a normal fact of life for the leaders of our country to be people who don’t have a personal and direct stake in it via their own offspring?”
Vance and Masters have both not been shy about promoting their openly anti-democratic aspirations. Both have ties to right-wing extremist blogger Curtis Yarvin, a raging monarchist. Vance supports the governing model of Caesarism, which has risen to prominence on the American Right in recent years, claiming:
“We are in a late republican period. If we’re going to push back against it, we’re going to have to get pretty wild, and pretty far out there, and go in directions that a lot of conservatives right now are uncomfortable with.”
Masters has publicly echoed Yarvin’s desire to destroy the administrative state by directly referencing an acronym the White Nationalist blogger coined for it—“RAGE—Retire all government employees,” referring to Yarvin as a “friend.” He has also cited the views of Ted Kaczyinski, the Unabomber as influential on himself (though he disavows the bombing).
Vance and Masters dehumanize their political opponents, painting them as fundamentally un-American and inherently evil figures intent on destroying America. In a 2021 interview with the right-wing IM-1776, Masters said:
“The things we were raised to respect—the rule of law, stable families, our faith, having a functional, self-respecting country—the modern left sees as intrinsically evil. They want to destroy everything that’s good.”
Vance echoed the sentiments of his fellow Thiel-protégée and even upped the ante, declaring:
“The white working class loved Donald Trump. As punishment, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will kill as many of their children as they can.”
So why, if their policy positions are so similar—both ran in close elections in Swing States, both were boosted by Peter Thiel’s millions—did Vance win and Masters lose?
There is, of course, no singular explanation. And while both Arizona and Ohio have been framed as swing states, the conditions on the ground were quite different for Masters and Vance: Trump had won Ohio in 2016 and 2020. And, while Democrat Tim Ryan ran a strong campaign, he received little support from national Democrats, who thought the race was already lost. J.D. Vance had the advantage of already having curated a public image—the boy who had grown up in Ohio and Appalachia who had made it to the big leagues, though he initially struggled to make up for his harsh criticism of Trump years ago.
Still, while many Republicans thought Vance had this race in the bag, it proved to be a struggle—Ryan was leading in the polls for months, which meant that Republicans—who couldn’t afford to lose Ohio—spent big money on Vance: Super-PACs aligned with Mitch McConnell spent more than $30 million on the campaign.
While Ohio has moved from swing state to red state over the last few years, Arizona has remained purple. While Trump won Arizona in 2016 decidedly, Biden beat him in 2020 by a thin margin. Masters, unlike Vance, was going up against an incumbent in Mark Kelly—always a disadvantage. Masters’ campaign also made a series of strategic mistakes, lagging far behind Kelly in raising money from donors (even with Thiel’s support), while Democratic attack ads that featured Masters’ bizarre and anti-democratic statements led to negative press coverage. Masters also managed to turn Mitch McConnell against him, by openly claiming that he would not support McConnell’s leadership bid in the senate. Unsurprisingly, McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund spent no money on Masters’ campaign.
Republican donors increasingly saw the race as a lost one—and turned their support to other senate races that seemed more promising. Kelly had raised $81 million by October 2022—Masters had raised only $12 million. Last but not least, third-party candidate and libertarian Marc Victor didn’t help Masters’ chances, and likely lost him crucial votes. While Kelly was already known to voters, Masters wasn’t—and Democrats managed to define him to the public before his own campaign could.
And yet, Masters’ and Vance’s policies and their extreme stances are similar, sometimes interchangeable. So apart from differing conditions in both states, part of the answer may lie not so much in their policies, but in the different types of fascism that they espouse.
Their style—while similar rhetorically—is actually quite different. Vance has embraced a brawly kind of strong-man persona, a burly guy you can imagine out with the guys, drinking a six-pack and hunting on weekends . An everyman, who looks like he might’ve been a jock in high school and has since put on a few pounds. He has a bullish air about him.
Blake Masters presents in a strikingly different way: Lanky and angular, with sharp features that fans liken to Caesar, a distinctly creepy vibe, and an apparently very specific gun fetish. And while it isn’t hard to imagine Vance going hunting with the boys, Masters used a campaign ad (!) to ensure that voters know that hunting is not why he owns guns. Standing alone in the Arizona desert, he speaks to the camera:
“This is a short barreled rifle. It wasn’t designed for hunting. This is designed to kill people.”
Believe it or not, this was not Masters’ creepiest, most violent ad. In another, Masters, is once again alone in the desert, in what looks like an abandoned quarry, shooting a gun—with a silencer. He points his gangly arms, admiring his gun, a Walther PPK—a German gun, as he repeats twice. In the background, his BMW is parked. (Staying on the German theme.) Masters quietly states that silencers get a bad reputation, then shoots the gun before stroking it while murmuring:
“Whisper-quiet. Very cool. Made in Germany. Just a little bit warm.”
The ad makes your skin crawl and might as well be the start of a thriller where we see a loner in the desert, cradling his gun, softly whispering about the joys of silencers. It looks more like opposition research, yet Masters chose it as an ad. Let’s also not forget the context of the race: Masters was running against Mark Kelly, whose wife Gabby Giffords was nearly killed when she was shot in the head in an attack during which 17 were injured and six died. Which adds another layer of cruelty to the open threats of violence that lies at the heart of his ads.
New York magazine once called Masters “Nazi-adjacent”—which is putting it quite mildly—and indeed, his focus not simply on guns, but on German guns; his use of a quote by Nazi leaders; the aesthetics of his ads; and his endorsement of White Supremacist author Sam Francis who wrote that the US must “oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind” (and this isn’t even the full list); have a distinct whiff of Nazism. And that was likely the problem. Author John Ganz has proposed a theory on two different types of fascism—not in philosophy, but aesthetics:
“I have been doing a lot of research and want to briefly share one observation: Nazism has weird loser creep vibes, but Italian Fascism has douchey jock vibes, fascism was at its heart a nerd-bully alliance. The ideal type fascist is the dorkus bully, a really insufferable douche who also has like historical delusions of grandeur and is obsessed with “strategy”.”
This makes a lot of sense when one applies it to compare Vance and Masters. Ganz writes:
“Applying my theory of jocks-nerds fascism to blake masters: Americans seems to like Italian-style jocky-douchey fascism a la Trump way more than than German creepy-nerdy Nazism.”
While the historic versions of Italian fascism and Nazism differed quite a bit in policy and structure, the echoes of their aesthetics are distinct in Vance and Masters. Vance might have been funded by Thiel, but he doesn’t present as the “intellectual” fascist, like Peter Thiel does—even if Vance does play in the same social circles. Masters, on the other hand, fully leaned into a very niche market: the far-right fringe who like to play with German guns, think silencers are a normal thing to have lying around, and fashion themselves the intellectual tip of the spear of American fascism. Which is very, very niche, and unlikely to sway an independent voter.
While Vance had already established a brand—the boy from Ohio who lived the American dream but is still rough around the edges—Masters didn’t have that advantage. And the image that he chose to draw for himself was not to the liking of a majority of Arizona voters.
Turns out, the American public is much more susceptible to what Ganz calls “Italian-style jocky-douchey fascism a la Trump,” who Vance has echoed in every step of his campaign. That’s not reassuring in the slightest (just like the fact that Masters still managed to get 46.5% percent of the vote), but it could explain why Masters’ campaign failed, while Vance managed to win Peter Thiel a senate seat.