The Comical Fetterman Mystique
The Democrats love to play pretend.
“Not all of the white working class struggles,” writes J.D. Vance, Ohio Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Across his state’s eastern border in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman epitomizes this assertion, to the extent he can be called “working-class” at all. Fetterman, with a net worth of $800,000, would have to be elegized as a kind of “Main Line,” if not exactly “Beverly” Hillbilly.
LARPing as a steelworker cum coal miner, Fetterman has been elevated by the key Democratic establishment institutions—the media, corporate world, academia, and Hollywood—to the status of demigod; one might call it the Zelensky treatment. Having ignored the white working class for so long, these institutions are dedicated to the illusion Fetterman can restore these benighted voters to the Democratic fold. Fetterman allows Democrat elites the deluded self-assurance that they still speak for the working class and align with its interests. Now, after a debate performance that will enter the annals of American political blunders, they are doubling down in support of their man.
Part of Fetterman’s appeal likely derives from the idea that he is a leftist answer to Donald Trump. His six-foot-eight, 300-pound frame is Trumpian, as is his reputation as a political brawler. Even before the 2020 presidential race concluded, Fetterman made national headlines for his trash-talking toward Republicans.
Despite his “working-class” posture, Fetterman did not struggle, at least financially. His tattoos and Carhartt apparel don’t conceal his graduate degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School. His family’s wealth has allowed him to maintain his hobby of the mayoralty of a minuscule municipality, which didn’t fare well under his watch. Contrast him with North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, who worked in a factory before his political career. Fetterman is a giant of a man who wears the right clothing and sports the right facial hair and tattoos, but he isn’t “blue-collar Pennsylvania” any more than Mehmet Oz.
The message seems not to have reached the coasts. Rebecca Traister wrote a rambling love letter in an October New York magazine cover story. “An enormous white man who had played offensive tackle in college and appeared to be built of all the XXL parts at the Guy Factory, Fetterman made arguments for a higher minimum wage and prison reform and abortion access and legalizing weed at a frequency that could be heard by Rust Belt voters, and he had been regularly reelected mayor of his majority-Black town before becoming lieutenant governor,” she gushes in the piece. Last year, Politico hailed him as “one of the most photographed rising stars in the Democratic Party.”
The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey did her utmost to call the candidate’s serious stroke a non-issue in another October fluff piece. The campaign trotted out Dave Matthews on stage at a Pittsburgh concert venue the day after the candidate’s disastrous debate. Actor Paul Rudd headlined a recent fundraiser. Pennsylvanians hear rumbles that Fetterman’s wife, activist Gisele Barreto Fetterman, might be the actual candidate. This idea might not have any substance, but her darling media treatment does. Based on the fawning media presentation of the Fetterman mystique, one might have thought a Kardashian were running for Senate. Democratic candidates in states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire undoubtedly would appreciate a similar spotlight.
Establishment righteousness went into overdrive after Fetterman botched the debate his campaign had avoided for months. “He could’ve refused to debate like some candidates have. Instead, he went out there and let voters see his challenges and healing process,” tweeted commentator Ana Navarro-Cárdenas. “Few would have [Fetterman’s] courage to recover so publicly,” asserted USA Today’s Connie Schultz. MSNBC’s Liz Plank lamented the idea that Oz’s “side is so bad [he] has to rely on ableism to win.” Pundits at both MSNBC and ABC called Oz a “bully.” The Democratic establishment seems to be perfecting the ability to keep a candidate in the basement and showcase him publicly only the bare minimum number of times.
The strategy might work again. The U.S. Senate race in the Commonwealth is a tossup. Oprah’s television doctor, Mehmet Oz, seems to have convinced Republicans to come home. The alternative offers they/them indoctrination of kids, unrestrained abortion, a law-and-order environment that will make police officers’ jobs more difficult, and—most importantly to voters—more of the same economic frustrations of the past two years. Pennsylvania voters have the privilege to decide. Many already miss the milquetoast Pat Toomey, who is vacating the seat in question.
Regardless of the outcome, Fetterman will not be the Democratic Party’s ticket to winning back the white working-class. The values of the party and its allies are too far out of touch with those voters’ concerns; the insults—from Obama’s voters who “cling to guns or religion,” to Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” to Harris’s doubts that rural Americans are capable of photocopying identification documents—are too plentiful to ignore. No amount of Fetterman folklore will change that anytime soon.
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