What John Fetterman Owes Donald Trump
The Democrat is covered in tattoos, favors hoodies, and just had a stroke. Will Pennsylvania voters send the anti-politician to the Senate?
INDIANA, Pa. — They trotted him out for nine-and-a-half minutes. All 6’8” of him. Up there in front of this wall of black and white FETTERMAN placards on this makeshift stage in the entrance of a nondescript building on a little university campus an hour east of Pittsburgh. One of his supporters, in a union t-shirt, shouted: “John doesn’t wear the uniform!”—meaning he didn’t wear suits and ties, meaning he was always in a hoodie, with the jeans or shorts, and the goatee. Which was the uniform.
It had been more than four months since a stroke nearly killed John Fetterman, the 53-year-old lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and Democratic nominee for the United States Senate. He insisted he was getting better every day, but he still sounded off. His cadence, his word choice, the malapropisms, the awkward pauses.
Now, he and his GOP rival, Mehmet Oz, aka Dr. Oz, were in the final stretch of the race—early voting began September 19—that will help decide who controls the Senate come 2023.
Indiana, Pennsylvania is Trumpland. In 2016, the county backed the Donald over Hillary Clinton 66 percent to 31 percent. In 2020, Trump won 68 percent. But here we were on a recent Tuesday, early evening, and Fetterman had managed to draw a crowd of nearly 500. He won’t win Indiana, but his margin will be narrow for a Democrat—and that, coupled with overwhelming support in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, makes him competitive.
Anyway, he looked a little surprised to be standing in front of the crowd and the reporters and cameramen and volunteers and security. He said almost nothing about what he’d do if elected. There was no talk about inflation, crime, the January 6 committee, Ukraine.
Instead, he made fun of his opponent, Dr. Oz—the New Jersey carpetbagger stuff, the ten houses. He flicked at abortion and the federal minimum wage (now at $7.25, which Fetterman wants to raise to $15) and this town’s favorite son, Jimmy Stewart. (He did not mention that the star of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was a Republican.) He said it was wonderful to be here. He riffed on the stroke. He had a Borscht Belt-World Wrestling Federation kind of rhythm.
“Did you ever know what crudité was before Dr. Oz?” Fetterman said. He was referring to the infamous Oz video. The point of the video had been to talk about inflation and how expensive things like a platter of vegetables (or, as Oz put it, “crudité”) were getting, but it flopped. Oz got the name of the grocery store wrong and used a fancy French word. It reinforced the caricature of the Republican as an out of touch out-of-stater. “I didn’t—I swear,” Fetterman continued. “In fact, my team sent me video, texted it, and he’s like, ‘Look at their crudité video,’ and I said, ‘Crudité?’ I actually thought it was the stroke.”
The crowd loved that.
“I never heard that word,” he added.
It was his new post-stroke stump speech. It worked pretty well. Lots of rah-rah-rahing, lots of reassuring the crowd he was feeling better than ever, zero substance.
When Fetterman wrapped up, he shook some hands and posed with supporters for selfies. Then, his bodyguards and a few staffers nudged him out a side door. He looked spent.
But the headlines wouldn’t go away: The Washington Post observed that, on the campaign trail, Fetterman “stammers, appears confused and keeps his remarks short,” and slammed him for agreeing to just one debate in October, long after early voting begins. CNN reported: “This lingering issue isn’t going away for John Fetterman.” ABC reported Republicans were worried Fetterman wasn’t fit to serve. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called on Fetterman to release his medical records and suggested his handling of the stroke could have led to a constitutional crisis in Pennsylvania.
On top of that, the whole Fetterman campaign was coming across as more than a little cocooned. For a candidate whose motto was “Every County. Every Vote,” he seemed to spend a lot of time surrounded by political allies who stood to gain a great deal if he won: the United Steelworkers, Philadelphia city council members, Democratic officials, the people who wrote him checks.
It seemed safe. And John Fetterman was supposed to be anything but safe.
More to the point, it seemed a little like a replay of the Joe Biden 2020 playbook: maintain the lowest-possible profile, stick to the script, let the other guy embarrass himself. But unlike Biden, Fetterman didn’t have the excuse of Covid. What he had, like the president, was a great personal story.
Fetterman’s story is well known in Pennsylvania: he’d grown up in a comfortable family outside York, and he’d played football in high school and college. After getting his MBA, he landed a job as an underwriter at an insurance company. Then, his best friend was killed in a car accident, prompting an abrupt change of course. Fetterman went to work for AmeriCorps in a rough neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Then he got his master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. When he finished, he moved back to Pittsburgh, to Braddock, the broken, itsy-bitsy steel town on the edge of the city. For $1, he bought a loft—from his sister—in the center of town. And in 2005, at age 35, he was elected by one vote to his first of four terms as mayor of Braddock. The job paid $150 a month. For many years—until Fetterman was elected lieutenant governor, which pays $217,610—his family covered his expenses.
The working-man visage, Republicans liked to say, was a front. The inked-up arms, the hoodie, the gruff-hulking-dude-from-a-former-steel-town persona—that was a brand. And it traveled well: Fetterman turned himself and his town into icons. He spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival, was profiled in Rolling Stone, was one of The Atlantic’s “25 Brave Thinkers.” Levi’s released a whole ad about Braddock, a town of 2,000 people.
This was Fetterman's superpower. He could toggle between worlds—hobnobbing at a Hamptons fundraiser while adhering to his Born-in-the-U.S.A., working-stiff-trying-to-do-right-by-his-people persona. He made Democrats feel as if they were still the party of the working class.
In case anyone doubted his sincerity, Fetterman had tattooed on his arms Braddock’s zip code and the dates of the shootings of all his constituents killed on his watch. “That shows me he cares,” said Ron Airhart, a campaign volunteer and retired coal miner parked in front of the stage where Fetterman was about to speak in Indiana. “He has a heart.”
Fetterman had taken to leaning into the stroke, joking about missing words or mushing them together. But that happened in the context of a speech—controlled, packed with one-liners that had been tested, worked over. When he was done, he didn’t field questions from reporters.
“He can’t do gaggles,” Rebecca Katz, a campaign adviser, told me. She meant groups of reporters throwing rapid-fire questions at the candidate. He was still having trouble, as Fetterman put it, with “auditory processing.” That was why, Katz explained, Fetterman didn’t have time for a one-on-one interview with me. He was too busy doing other interviews with other reporters, one at a time. His priority, she said, was local press, which is what campaigns used to say when there were lots of local reporters. (His spokesman said he’d done 15 interviews since the stroke. I struggled to find local-news clips.)
The campaign’s approach to debating Oz mirrored that of the rallies: Do it, to preempt accusations of not doing it, but make sure it was as inconsequential as possible. Fetterman has agreed to a single showdown, on October 25—by which point thousands of Pennsylvanians will have already voted.
The strategy sort of made sense. He had been ahead from the start of the general campaign. But Fetterman’s lead was narrowing. According to a poll released Friday, he was up by just two points—within the margin of error. The plan seemed to be to scale back the retail politicking, keep saying the candidate was feeling great, better than ever, getting stronger every day—while letting Oz Oz. The question was: could they count on the Republican to torpedo himself?
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Mehmet Oz had been born, in Cleveland, to Turkish parents, and he had dual citizenship. He’d gone to Harvard, and then he’d received his M.D. and his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, and then he’d become a heart surgeon. He loved the spotlight, and in the fall of 1996, he was one of the surgeons who performed a heart transplant on Frank Torre, the brother of New York Yankees’ manager Joe Torre. The operation coincided with the Yankees winning the World Series, and the media lovefest was explosive—precipitating the transformation of Mehmet Oz into Dr. Oz, and then meeting Oprah, and launching the Dr. Oz Show, and then stardom.
By that point, he’d found his niche: pseudoscience. Homeopathy, fad diets. He didn’t portray himself as peddling snake oil, of course. He preferred to say he was bucking the establishment. More recently, he touted the effectiveness of the malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in treating Covid. He’d made a bundle, and he had a lot of real estate, including two apartments in Manhattan and a sweet pad in Palm Beach. The Senate bid felt like one of those rich-guy things—something he just had to have.
Of all the candidates Donald Trump endorsed this election cycle, Dr. Oz was probably the least ideological. He had been too busy building his career to worry about immigration or foreign policy. But his career, his ability to transform headlines into money, his willingness to swap old political opinions for more expedient new ones—that was very Trump. So was his willingness to play voters off each other. (When I asked Brittany Yannick, Oz’s spokeswoman, about the partisan divide that had engulfed American politics, she replied by noting that her boss would fight “the extreme policies of the radical left or the pro-crime radical liberal John Fetterman.”)
It wasn’t just Oz who was a boon to the Democrat. There was also the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race.
The GOP nominee, Doug Mastriano, was aligned with antisemites (his campaign had paid Gab, the social-media platform rife with Jew-haters, $5,000 for “consulting” services), and he believed the last presidential election had been stolen, and he pledged to make sure the next one wasn’t—prompting conservative columnist George Will to warn that Mastriano was a threat to the republic. Which allowed Democrats to cast Republicans as traffickers of white supremacy.
Thing is, Fetterman was careful not to go too far. He didn’t get involved in any nasty back-and-forths about hate. He wanted to be the mayor of the former factory town that had turned into a burned-out husk of its former self. He wanted to talk about how to repair the class divide. He seemed to get that that’s how elections were won now.
If there was anyone who intuited the political-ontological bridge between Donald Trump and John Fetterman, it was Gisele Fetterman, who had emigrated from Brazil to Queens when she was seven, met Fetterman when he was mayor, and amassed nearly 43,000 followers, becoming something of an Instagram influencer. Her Instagram was mostly photos of her family, and it was a little punchy and a little irreverent and always in sync with her husband’s agenda. Pro-weed, pro-choice, pro-immigration, and free of the preachiness and tone-policing of the identitarian left. She liked to poke fun at her husband. “Wishing João”—in Portuguese, John is João—”congratulations for being married to me for 13 years,” she posted on her wedding anniversary in 2021.
She was utterly unlike the candidate: she smiled a lot, and she had a sense of style, and she seemed to like being on the stump. She said that she hated politics, that it was mean, that it should be “fun.” She called herself the SLOP. As in: Second Lady of Pennsylvania.
Like her husband, and unlike many (if not most) Democrats, she seemed to grasp what Republicans had known since 2016: everything was broken. What was needed was a new species of elected official who refused to play the same, tired game—the one that no longer worked.
In this way, Fetterman owed something to Trump. It was Trump who had blown up the old parameters, who had upended or blurred the old left-right configuration. It was Trump who had scrambled the old compartments. Before Trump, Republicans were supposed to be buttoned-down supply-siders who hated gays and abortion and didn’t trust the Soviet Union (sorry, Russia) and loved rich people and family values. Remember Paul Ryan? But then they weren’t. Then they became crass, and they loved Russia, and they hated supply-siders, and they still liked money—who didn’t?—but they also talked about the working man a lot. They couldn’t be so easily caricatured any longer.
Nor could Fetterman, who was hardly a progressive elite in the mold of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, and wasn’t really an old-fashioned liberal like Mike Dukakis or Howard Dean or Bill Bradley. You could be a Fetterman voter and believe, as Fetterman did, in guns and roach clips and trans rights and fracking. Point is, it was impossible to imagine him without the former president—without that scrambling of the old compartments. Which may explain why Fetterman’s first Senate bid, in 2016, went nowhere, and two years later, he was elected statewide, to lieutenant governor.
When he announced his bid for lieutenant governor, in November 2017, he posted a video that opened with a clip of Donald Trump talking about forgotten places like the one Fetterman had been mayor of for twelve years. Then, it cut to Fetterman driving and talking about the unfairness of it all and the way that politicians like Trump used towns like his as “props.” He didn’t dispute anything Trump said—he seemed to be in agreement with the president (who, in 2016, had won Pennsylvania). He just didn’t like Trump, or any other politician for that matter, using a place like Braddock, rotting away on the ash heap of history, to get a few votes.
“We deserve better than just managing the decline, and I have to believe that we are better than that as a country,” Fetterman said in the video. It was a striking turn of phrase—managing the decline. It was what people like Steve Bannon had been saying for years. “These places matter,” Fetterman continued. “They deserve to be believed in. They deserve to be helped. Fundamentally, as an American society, we have to believe that things can get better.”