Anti-elite style sparked Fetterman’s surge | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, a horrific mass shooting doesn’t silence McCormick, Oz gun bluster
Of course, journalists like me will piously remind you on Primary or Election Day to go out and vote. But listen: There’s a leading candidate in today’s Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial primary who will throw every monkey wrench possible into your ability to vote again in 2024, and who may not count all the results. In 2022, the fate of democracy is on the ballot. Please take this seriously.
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In 2022, voters want someone who doesn’t talk down. Fetterman got that.
Confined to a hospital room in Lancaster after having a stroke less than a week before Primary Day, Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman has boasted a double-digit polling lead over three rivals. That was before the wave of sympathy and goodwill surely generated by a hospital bed video with his telegenic wife Gisele, promising a full recovery for the fall campaign. As Pennsylvania readers of this newsletter take to the polls today, Fetterman is poised to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
In his statewide debut just six years ago — running for the same Senate seat but as the quirky mayor of a tiny depressed steel town and a champion of Bernie Sanders-style progressivism, beloved by some left-wing pundits but ignored by party establishment — Fetterman placed a distant third. And so the politician’s meteoric rise to the top of the Democratic heap has been nothing short of astonishing.
But even more remarkable is the way that the 6′8′ Fetterman and his iconic Mr. Clean visage made this happen. He did it by embracing a style that increasingly defines the political culture of the vast American middle-class in which a vote for a non-traditional candidate represents a middle finger to arrogant, cosmopolitan elites.
Since launching his Senate bid last year, the lieutenant governor has both defined the anti-elite style in American politics but also refined it for his sometimes clueless fellow Democrats. For Fetterman, who’s seemingly always looked to break free of a bland upper-middle-class origin story, it started with the look. Over a decade, the tattoos of his adopted Braddock’s murder victims and the black Dickies of his 2016 incarnation gave way — after some self-deprecating tweets went viral — to this year’s more outlandish uniform of a hoodie and shorts, even amid the semi-Arctic winters of the Pennsylvania rural “T.”
Fetterman’s extreme fashion statement would have flopped, though, if he hadn’t also embraced the maxim that 85% of life is showing up. He cleverly toured all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties to embrace the great popular cause of the younger, more secular working class — a full legalization of marijuana — and when he returned to ask for their votes he was shrouded in the purple haze of a political rock star.
To read the recent flood of Fetterman profiles in the national media is to be overwhelmed with everyday voters saying stuff like “I feel like I could get a beer with Fetterman and we’d hit it off” (Robert Keebler, 45, suburban Pittsburgh union worker, in the New York Times) or “They think he’s funny and he’s a man’s man. … He’s real to them” (Donna Minton, 46, of Levittown, explaining to The Inquirer why some GOP-voting friends like him).
It’s a safe bet more voters know this candidate’s stance on the great Wawa-vs.-Sheetz debate (where he’s unrelentingly loyal to the inferior western Pa. convenience store) than on the nuances of Medicare-for-All. More so than his earlier races in 2016 and when he was elected lieutenant governor two years later, Fetterman has leaned hard into style. Even his social awkwardness — considered a political liability by the lawmakers he works with, who’ve shunned endorsing him — is spun to his advantage, as he relies on the charismatic warmth and wit of his wife and also his Twitter feed, where he feels more comfortable than in real life.
Fetterman may be on the cutting edge, but he’s not alone — not even in Pennsylvania.
Despite the polar opposites in what passes for substance, the GOP version of the anti-elite style is thriving in the stunning rise of Republican Senate candidate Kathy Barnette, whose simple life narrative — her antiabortion story that she’s the product of her mom’s rape at age 11 has won her that voting bloc despite her fuzzy policy position — may push her past two multimillionaires. Her motto: “I am you.” Voters no longer want to be led by people with gilded resumes. They just want someone they can talk to.
In reality, there is no policy position that a 2022 candidate could take — on inflation, or COVID-19, or Ukraine — that is more important than the average voter’s contempt for overeducated know-it-alls telling them what to do, especially after it became clear they didn’t know what to do about inflation or COVID-19, either.
In the 2010s, as Trumpism began to take root in the modern GOP, writers chronicled the wise of what Wisconsin’s Kathleen Cramer labeled as “rural resentment” and Joan C. Williams branded as “class cluelessness” whenever the college educated dealt with the working class. Williams wrote in her 2017 book White Working Class of the slights everyday people endured such as “the doctor who unthinkingly patronizes the medical technician [or] the harried office worker who treats the security guard as invisible.”
Fetterman’s overarching goal was to travel anywhere and everywhere in Pennsylvania — and not be that guy. It seems to have worked on two levels. Most importantly, he seems to have found a silent, sizable minority of folks in so-called “Trump country” who don’t buy into Christian nationalism and don’t hate immigrants (like Gisele Barreto Fetterman, a now-citizen who came here as a child from Brazil without documentation) and who won’t be stereotyped. At the same time, there are the upscale suburbanites who don’t share Fetterman’s fashion sense but who fantasize that Pennsylvania and the U.S. Senate can be saved by a left-leaning “Trump whisperer” who looks like this candidate.
That said, I’m slightly peeved at the tame ideology that Fetterman seems to have altered to match his new look, dissing the idea that he was ever “a progressive” and running more as a generic Democrat who’ll be a reliable “51st vote” for whatever is left of President Biden’s agenda. For sure, that’s a huge upgrade from what Pennsylvania has endured with the soulless Pat Toomey. But if Fetterman gets six years in Washington, he can and should do more to develop a true multiracial, working-class agenda for Democrats. Sending an XL-sized hoodie to Capitol Hill will be a lot more exciting if there’s something inside.
Yo, do this
The comedian George Carlin may have died in 2008, but 2022 is already shaping up as one of the biggest years of his career. America’s dangerous political right turn — which accelerated with the report that the Supreme Court looks poised to undo 49 years of abortion rights — has sparked a new following for Carlin’s prescient, anti-GOP diatribes that marked his final years. So what remarkable timing for the two-part, Judd Apatow-led documentary George Carlin’s American Dream, which starts streaming on Friday night (May 20) on HBO Max. This nation could use a laugh, or at least a good rant.
Few voices have done a better job capturing this perilous moment than the Boston College historian and author Heather Cox Richardson. Her “Letters from An American” on Substack has become one of the the most widely read newsletters in America, because it ties together our past and our present in ways that connect for everyday folks who don’t have, or want, a Ph.D in history from Harvard. Richardson’s May 15 missive after the Buffalo shooting ranks with her best — tracing the long and sordid history of “the Great Replacement Theory” from the end of the Civil War through today. She writes: “That theory is based in racial hate, but it is not only about racial hate. It is also about politics, and today Republicans are using it to create a one-party state.”
Ask me anything
Question: Which happens first: the Phillies fielding a good bullpen or the GOP returning to some level of sanity? — Via Brian Rosenwald (@brianros1) on Twitter
Answer: There is something to my Twitter friend and fellow Philly sports sufferer Brian’s query that seems to capture the stifling zeitgeist of the spring of 2022. Everything feels like déjà vu all over again — whether it’s the Phillies’ bullpen collapsing in the 9th inning or every weekend’s mass shootings or the unstoppable downward spiral of an authoritarian Republican Party. I can’t answer Brian’s question but I can say this: Now is not the moment to surrender to despair. Yes, we are powerless when it comes to our ball club’s lack of relief, but when it comes to democracy in Pennsylvania, we have less than six months to get off our rear ends and do something. Don’t blow this save opportunity.
Backstory on Buffalo and the GOP gun fetish
It was Saturday night, and while I tried to amuse my head with a Philadelphia Union soccer game on TV, my heart was weighed down by the horrific news from Buffalo, where an 18-year-old white supremacist had hunted down and killed 10 African Americans in a busy supermarket. At halftime, I was jarred by a TV commercial for GOP Senate candidate David McCormick that starts with his flannel-shirted brother Doug fingering the barrel of a high-powered rifle, saying that “in the McCormick family, the Second Amendment is a way of life.” The candidate’s sibling hangs on his front porch with their mom, described as “Annie Oakley” because she’s such a good shot. Concludes Doug McCormick: “If my brother doesn’t protect the Second Amendment, he’ll have Annie Oakley to deal with.”
Putting aside the question of whether that means a senator’s mom would shoot him for political infidelity, I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t anyone with the McCormick campaign thought to pull the ad amid the shocking news from upstate New York? Of course not. Over these last few fraught days, top Republicans — especially candidates like McCormick, a once-but-no-longer-”respectable”-hedge-fund-CEO, or Mehmet Oz, who’d once embraced sane gun-safety ideas like “red-flag laws” before he sought and won President Donald Trump’s endorsement — have shown no empathy for an American tragedy in Buffalo. To the contrary, they’ve doubled down on a violent gun fetish and, in some cases, even defended the racist anti-immigration theories that motivated a mass killer.
At the same time that the bodies were being removed from the Buffalo supermarket, rock-star-turned-gun-maniac Ted Nugent addressed a Trump event in Austin, Tex., and said: “So I love you people madly but I’d love you more if you went forward and just went berserk on the skulls of the Democrats and the Marxists and the communists.” Roughly 24 hours later, Nugent jumped on the internet for a “tele-town hall” with Oz — whom he’s endorsed in Pennsylvania’s Senate race over McCormick and surging Kathy Barnette — to burnish the TV doctor’s newfound love of firearms and ask voters to “clean up this horrible treachery that we find ourselves in 2022.” The real treachery is political candidates who can’t even stop the blather for one or two days, to ask: What are we doing here, America? It’s not just that our two political movements have become separate planets, but that one of those planets seems to lack the atmosphere for human decency.
Recommended Inquirer reading
The home stretch of Pennsylvania’s primary season — maybe the craziest election cycle I’ve seen in more than a quarter century of political reporting around these parts — has provided too much to write about. In my Sunday column, I hit the campaign trail to try to find the real Kathy Barnette, and what an unconventional candidate’s late, largely unvetted surge says about our strange state of political affairs. Over the weekend, I tried to raise the alarm bells about the antidemocratic campaign of GOP gubernatorial front-runner Doug Mastriano and his assaults on press freedom — a canary in the coal mine for a democracy that’s losing oxygen in the very state where it was born.
Speaking of the slow, painful decline of American democracy, there is one thing that Pennsylvania’s insane primary did not have: an endorsement of the Republican candidates for governor or Senate from The Inquirer. In a piece that’s been drawing national attention, and deservedly so, the newspaper’s editorial board argued it was impossible to evaluate candidates without a baseline agreement on simple truths, like President Biden’s 70,000-vote victory here in 2020. The editorial board asked: “How do you find points of agreement when you can’t reach common ground on facts so basic that they could be used in a field sobriety test?” A healthy community depends on healthy journalism that asks questions and demands answers from our would-be leaders. In Philadelphia, you support that when you subscribe to The Inquirer.