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John Fetterman vs. the Jagoffs
John Fetterman lives rent-free in a lot of people’s heads.
Republicans are big mad at John Fetterman because he can now wear hoodies on the Senate floor. Some newspaper editorial boards are, too. And a couple of Democrats. But hoodies aren’t the only thing upsetting folks. Far-Right conspiracy theorists are now convinced Fetterman has been replaced by a body double.
Fetterman’s response to all of it is mockery. His campaign website now sells hoodies that say “I vote in this hoodie” and “John Fetterman’s body double.” There’s also a t-shirt with outraged quotes that figures like Donald Trump and Majorie Taylor Greene have said about Fetterman, a shirt that could probably be updated weekly.
The pearl-clutching over wardrobe and the conspiracy theories are all a proxy for the real issue. John Fetterman doesn’t fit the mold of what an elite politician is supposed to look and sound like. That’s clearly pissing some people in DC off. He’s authentic. People can relate to him. It turns out you can be an elected official and a relatable human being. Who knew?
Fetterman is also an effective communicator. And did I mention he’s good at mocking the opposition? This recent video of Fetterman reacting to news that the House plans to open an impeachment inquiry into President Biden is a perfect example of what makes Fetterman so good at this. His mocking laughter and feigned fear say what many of us feel.
Like many of us, Fetterman has little patience for the concern trolling and political theater that so many of his critics love to engage in. He’s offered to wear a suit if House Republicans can reach a deal that would avoid a government shutdown (He also called them jagoffs.) Referring to Rep. Lauren Boebert’s own recent scandal, Fetterman remarked, “I figure if I take up vaping and grabbing the hog during a live musical, they’ll make me a folk hero.”
I wrote about Fetterman’s Senate campaign last year. As a candidate, Fetterman was best known for masterfully trolling his GOP opponent Dr. Oz, until he suffered from a stroke on the campaign trail. MAGA went on the attack, immediately declaring Fetterman an invalid and making the argument that a stroke meant he would be unable to serve, with Dr. Oz leading the charge. The political media was happy to pile on, especially after the first debate, with a stream of ableist commentary about Fetterman’s performance.
But John Fetterman proved to be just as masterful of a communicator about recovering from a stroke as he was in constantly reminding Pennsylvania voters that his opponent is from New Jersey. Fetterman did multiple interviews, opening up about the stroke and what had changed for him and his family. He was vulnerable in a way we aren’t used to seeing from men on the campaign trail.
I had a hunch that the attacks on Fetterman would backfire. Most of us know someone who has suffered from a stroke or some other form of illness, and it wasn’t hard to see Fetterman and think of someone in your own family who had gone through something similar. My instinct was that at a certain point, voters would start to see the attacks and ableism as bullying. But Fetterman’s ability to share his story in the face of that hostility is what sealed the seal and won him the election.
As a Senator, Fetterman’s strategy hasn’t changed. He was equally as forthcoming about his challenges with suffering from depression earlier this year, taking time away from the Senate for treatment and sharing his experiences upon his return. This week, a clip of Fetterman went viral on social media. He was speaking about his auditory processing struggles at a hearing on access for people with disabilities and mentioned those who continue to mock him for using an aide to communicate, asking the witness, “How can we become more empathetic, more responsive, and more effective senators?”
Going back to Fetterman’s hoodies, it’s been fascinating to see a straight white man’s clothing become such a topic of discussion. Especially since we don’t yet live in a world where a woman or a man of color could wear only hoodies and shorts and win a Senate race. As much as I enjoy Fetterman’s style, I also realize that being a straight white male is what makes his persona possible in the first place. (It’s also part of why it’s so difficult for MAGA to attack him effectively.) But to Fetterman’s credit, I think he realizes this currency and uses it for good as much as he’s able.
Fetterman’s detractors can obsess about what he wears on the floor of the Senate as much as they want. It won’t hurt Fetterman with his constituents, his popularity online, or his campaign merch sales. It will only show Americans who they are and just how out of alignment their priorities are with our own. Personally, I think America needs more politicians like John Fetterman, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Which is probably what the people trying to force him back into a suit and tie are actually afraid of.