Sign Me Up For the Cult of John FettermanPhoto by Mark Makela/Getty Politics Features John Fetterman
The best part about John Fetterman is that he seems to give a shit. My main hesitation in writing this piece is that I don’t want to fall into the liberal trap of casting politicians as comic book superheroes based on some quip at a debate or a snide look or something else that has absolutely nothing to do with policy. (See: Nancy Pelosi clapping at Trump’s state of the union.) It’s politics as a sugary snack mixed with smug virtue signaling, and I hate it. I would not be singing the praises of Fetterman, or anyone else, just for looking the part. But the fact is that beneath it all, this guy endorses and has always endorsed healthcare for all, a higher minimum wage, drug decriminalization/legalization, openness to refugees, immediate climate reform, same-sex marriage (he officiated a same-sex wedding on the threat of being arrested), and more. He had the guts to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016 when he ran for the U.S. Senate—the only statewide Democratic candidate to do so in Pennsylvania—and he calls himself a democratic-socialist. There are no half-measures here; he has the courage of his convictions, and is happy to succeed or fail on those merits.
Now, let’s talk about the man himself: The tatted-up 6-foot-8 shaved-head goateed razor-sharp son of Yinzer country. His story has some similarities to Bernie Sanders, most notably that he won a mayoral election in Braddock, PA—a former steel town fallen on hard economic times—by a single vote to kick off his political career (Sanders won his first mayor’s race in Burlington by ten votes). He wears work shirts that look like perfect squares hanging from his massive shoulders. He displays fierce loyalty to the gas station Sheetz and has a vendetta against Wawa, all of which seems to be a very Pennsylvania-centric beef. And he takes no guff.
If you were glued to cable news for the past two weeks, you probably have your own formative Fetterman moment. Mine came when he was asked about Republican senator Pat Toomey, who said publicly that Trump’s claims on fraud were “not substantiated.” Normally, this is the spot where a capital-D Democrat would bend over backwards to praise the Republican, even though he was speaking out far too late, and only because he decided not to run for another term in 2022. But Fetterman didn’t mince words: “It would’ve been nice if someone had FedEx’d him that backbone four years ago”
Hell yes. You could tell right off the bat that this guy implicitly understood that decades of conceding political and rhetorical grounds to Republican was not only cowardly, but also ineffective. And it’s most definitely not his speed.
Watch how effectively, for instance, he shoots down the ridiculous accusations of voter fraud:
“Math doesn’t care about his feelings” — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman about Trump pic.twitter.com/enLMcfaPOL
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 12, 2020
On that same topic, he showed his ability to cut right to the heart of an issue in a quote from Rolling Stone:
“When you understand how grossly disingenuous every last thread of their argument is, you can’t help but be outraged by it, because there isn’t one true sentiment, idea, concept, accusation coming out of their mouths.”
If you’re looking for other election week clips of Fetterman, including him encouraging Trump to “sue a ham sandwich,” this is a good start.
He’s sharp, he’s witty, he’s good at social media, and I think what makes him so appealing to people like me is that his personal style is robust. He refuses to apologize for his beliefs, and though maybe in a perfect world this kind of thing shouldn’t matter, he projects strength. That’s not just a masculine thing, either; it’s an uncompromising attitude that’s far too uncommon on the left. It’s sometimes hard to envision how America’s working class could ever get behind a progressive agenda, because even though the policies would benefit them materially, Republicans have been too effective at painting leftists as the cultural enemy, and the Democrats themselves been too successful at abandoning their worker base. How do you bridge that gap? I’m convinced that John Fetterman is the answer. Or people like him, anyway; people who can speak to that community, who have credibility, who have shed the weak sauce talking points of both party establishments. In short, someone authentic.
Here’s how he described his upbringing, again from Rolling Stone (it probably goes without saying, but the interview is excellent and worth reading in its entirety, and I could post about 15 different excerpts):
I was an unplanned pregnancy between two teenagers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and they ended up getting married. They started out struggling.
My dad was a union grocery worker in ShopRite in Reading. That helped keep the family together while he went to college. He ended up graduating and got a job as an underwriter and then transitioned into the agency side in York, Pennsylvania, and eventually became successful, at least certainly in comparison to his parents.
He got his political start in AmeriCorps, became the mayor of Braddock, where he tattooed the city’s zip code on one arm and the date of every homicide while he was mayor on the other. (He also appeared twice on the Colbert Report in that capacity.) He ran for Senate in 2016 and lost, and won his lieutenant governor spot in 2018. One of his first acts was to refuse to move into the lieutenant governor’s mansion, ask the state to sell it for revenue, and then open the pool to the public.
His actual home is an incredibly sweet converted car dealership, he has three kids, and his wife—whose family emigrated from Brazil when she was young—is just as smart and funny:
I’m glad America is discovering the “joy & delight” my husband is but I just walked into my kitchen and he left it like this. The man does not understand how drawers work pic.twitter.com/J4moOrhXMZ
— Gisele Barreto Fetterman (@giselefetterman) November 8, 2020
You guys really wanted a wedding photo and this is all I could find. Yes, he is in shorts We drove to Burlington, VT – I found my dress for $13 at a thrift store, we called a random justice of the peace and were married in her backyard @JohnFettermanpic.twitter.com/3lArJJsgZk
— Gisele Barreto Fetterman (@giselefetterman) November 7, 2020
Just a behind the scenes of that on for ya pic.twitter.com/Mg81c1DFAG
— Gisele Barreto Fetterman (@giselefetterman) November 6, 2020
More than anything, Fetterman understands his people on both the cultural and political level, so much so that he was one of the few leaders sounding the alarm about how close the presidential race would be in his state. The down-ballot travesty of Democrats in Pennsylvania and elsewhere didn’t surprise him, because he had his finger on the pulse and he knew that the energy of Trump’s base is something you can’t poll. That insight is a rare quality in a politician, and when you find someone like Fetterman in the wild, it’s almost always the case that he fell through the cracks by narrow margins at the start of his career, earned the respect and trust of liberals and conservatives, and became an unstoppable force. That’s what we call a diamond in the rough, and his value can’t be overstated. There’s an excitement behind him that supports greater ambitions, and while the secondary stuff is fun and interesting, at root this is about integrity.
“I’ve never had to evolve on one of my positions,” he told RS, “because I’ve always said what I believe is true…run on the truth. And if you win, great. If you lose, great. But I will always run on the truth.”
These are the leaders we need. All hail John Fetterman.