Skip to content
Go to my account


A political odyssey.

Democratic Sen. John Fetterman speaks to members of the press at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

We’ve all gotten used to politics being strange, but only with respect to a certain kind of strangeness. When a spray-tanned game-show host rants about immigrants poisoning the national blood to wild cheers or a dimwit radio star fantasizes about buying Confederate-cemetery statuary and moving it to Phoenix, that’s objectively strange—yet no longer strange at all.

The political evolution of Democratic Sen. John Fetterman has been strange even by the standards of our strange times.

There’s been no harsher critic of Democratic Sen. Bob “Gold Bars” Menendez in Congress since Menendez was indicted than Fetterman. Normally a senator will pull his punches when scolding a colleague from his own party, assuming he’s willing to do so at all. Fetterman has done so gleefully in Menendez’s case, comparing him unfavorably to George Santos and even enlisting Santos himself to mock him:

As the Senate inches toward an immigration deal, the most noteworthy comments about the urgency of tightening border security haven’t come from a Republican. They came from Fetterman, the “progressive” choice in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary last year and a man who once supported Bernie Sanders for president. “I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” he told reporters earlier this month. “You essentially have Pittsburgh showing up there.”

There are many outspoken Republican supporters of Israel in Congress—and more than a few Democratic ones—but since October 7, no one has distinguished himself with his enthusiasm for the Jewish state more than Fetterman has. He attended a rally in Washington last month draped in an Israeli flag, and has seemed to relish challenging leftists who view the Israeli military as a more depraved entity than Hamas. The lengths to which he’s gone to taunt members of his own base for their moral bankruptcy border on amazing:

He’s even attacked TikTok, more of a Republican boogeyman, for having “warped” the judgment of young Americans as they choose sides with the Palestinians against Israel.

Last week, Fetterman was confronted by reporters about his many recent breaks with leftist orthodoxy and threw down the gauntlet. “I’m not a progressive,” he told NBC News. “I just think I’m a Democrat that is very committed to choice and other things.” That came as news to actual progressives, who remembered him having no qualms about using the P-word when he was begging them for donations during his 2022 Senate campaign.

All very strange. But strangest of all, perhaps, is that a guy whom many on the right have derided alternately as a socialist, a slob for the way he dresses, a “vegetable” following his stroke, and possibly even a body-double imposter(!) has quickly become one of the most admired Democrats in politics among the right-wing commentariat. Strange new respect, one might call it.

In the span of a few months, he’s morphed into a legitimately interesting political figure and is getting more interesting by the day. What on earth is up with John Fetterman?

For once, I’m asking a question here earnestly, not rhetorically. I’m genuinely curious about what’s going on.

The popular explanation on social media among left and right is that the blood clot in Fetterman’s brain has affected his intelligence, increasing it or reducing it depending upon whether one approves of his turn toward the center or not.

All I can offer you is a theory, that nothing has changed for Fetterman—and that everything has.

The “nothing has changed” argument rests on the fact that some of his “new” policy positions aren’t actually new—and that they aren’t that incompatible with traditional leftism even if they were. For instance, his supposed transformation on Israel turns out to be nothing of the kind: He made his opinions on that subject clear long before Election Day 2022. His progressive fans may have assumed, not unreasonably, that Fetterman was only mouthing pro-Israel platitudes during the campaign to stay on the right side of the majority in Pennsylvania. Once he was safely elected to the Senate, then his pro-Palestinian true colors would show.

Turns out he meant what he said all along. Oops.

When the New York Times asked him this week how he reconciles his leftist politics with support for the Jewish state, Fetterman replied with a point made frequently by right-wing defenders of Israel. “I do find it confusing where the very left progressives in America don’t seem to want to support really the only progressive nation in the region that really embraces the same kind of values I would expect we would want as a society,” he said. That’s grossly inconsistent with fringe-left morality, which chooses sides in conflicts based on how they fit stereotypes of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” not on the social values of the respective parties. Israel, the “settler-colonialist” state, is necessarily in the wrong, which is how we get absurdities like “Queers for Palestine” running political interference for a hateful outfit like Hamas.

But it’s not inconsistent with mainstream political morality, which does find it important that Israeli society exalts Western values to a much greater degree than Palestinian society does. If you equate those values with social “progress,” as most of us do, it’s no stretch politically to fit support for Israel into a leftist worldview. Traditional liberal Democrats have done it for ages, much to the annoyance of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) weirdos. Insofar as Fetterman insists on rewarding American allies who reflect his commonly held view of progress with his political support, he’s progressive—even if he isn’t “progressive.”

Preferring a stronger border also isn’t unheard-of among leftists.

It’s become unheard-of in the last few decades, which is what makes Fetterman’s apostasy striking. But not so long ago, when class rather than identity was still the touchstone of progressivism, figures like Byron Dorgan and, yes, Bernie Sanders worried that importing huge amounts of low-skilled foreign labor would depress the wages of America’s working class. Sanders later came around to modern leftist orthodoxy on the subject because that’s what political reality required of a two-time presidential candidate hoping to build a movement among young left-wingers. Fetterman is under no such pressure (yet!) so he’s free to go on prioritizing the interests of blue-collar Americans over those of impoverished Central Americans.

Putting workers first is sort of his brand, in fact:

He’s been careful not to go too far in crossing the left on immigration. There’s been no taunting in this case; on the contrary, he told the Times that he “would never put Dreamers in harm’s way, or support any kind of cruelty or mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people.” He hasn’t even endorsed a specific enforcement proposal, saying only that it’s “a reasonable conversation to talk about the border.” His ambivalence seems to consist of nothing more aggressive than an intuition that the unchecked inflow of vast populations into the United States will have some unintended consequences, if only economically, and that not all of them will be good.

Not a wild thing for a left-wing class warrior to worry about. Right, Bernie?

As for his baiting of Bob Menendez, that may be a sin against partisanship, but it’s no sin against progressivism. Menendez isn’t a favorite of the left, being an Iran hawk of longstanding, and his Senate seat in New Jersey will remain in Democratic hands even if he resigns. One recent poll of the state found him at 3 percent in the coming primary. There’s no “Menendez constituency” in the party, liberal or progressive, for Fetterman to offend. At worst, he’s guilty of providing Republicans with free ad material by attacking his colleague; at best, he’s inoculating Democrats from the charge of being soft on Gold Bars Bob by being ostentatiously hard on him.

What, then, has changed about Fetterman, exactly? Which supposedly wild breaks with leftism is he guilty of? He’s still pro-choice, still keen to raise the federal minimum wage, still derisive of Republican critics of Joe Biden. I see no sea change in his worldview.

But I can see how disgust with what the fringe-left has become might be driving his recent behavior.

A notable quotable from his interview with the Times:

“What I have found out over the last couple years is that the right, and now the left, are hoping that I die,” Mr. Fetterman, who suffered a near-fatal stroke during his campaign, said in an interview on Wednesday. “There are ones that are rooting for another blood clot. They have both now been wishing that I die.”

He said he no longer relates to the overarching label of “progressive”—especially as the left has become more interested in demanding what he described as “purity tests.”

“It’s just a place where I’m not,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve left the label; it’s just more that it’s left me.

“They have both now been wishing that I die.” Some progressives have even dubbed him #GenocideJohn on The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter due to his support for Israel.

Is it so hard to believe that John Fetterman watched his base rally behind Hamas after October 7 and found himself horrified by what his allies have become, even though he continues to share most of their policy preferences?

Or that his horror emboldened him to defy them more forcefully when he disagrees with them on policy, as in the case of immigration? Even to taunt them, as he’s done several times with pro-Palestinian activists?

Or that their vicious response to him has deepened his contempt for them to the point where he’s now too disgusted to even share a label with them?

It’s not hard for me. It’s the story of my life since 2015. Every Trump critic on the American right knows what it’s like to have scales fall from their eyes about putative ideological comrades. Chances are pretty high that you became a member of The Dispatch because you know what it’s like, too.

Fetterman’s challenge, and ours, is to somehow reconcile our belief that our side usually has the better arguments on policy with our burning moral contempt for an illiberal cohort that has too much influence over that same side.

I understand Fetterman’s reluctance to go on calling himself a progressive, not wanting to signal any ideological affinity for that cohort. There’s a reason why I use the terms “populist” and “post-liberal” so often in this newsletter to describe the Republican base even though they could, kinda sorta, be described as “conservative.” They don’t deserve that label. I don’t want to be associated with them. We’re not the same.

I also understand why Fetterman’s righteous contempt might lead him to revisit some of his traditional policy preferences or to confront the left when a preference he’s always held happens to contradict theirs, as may be the case with immigration. My own evolution during the rise of Trumpism has been less a matter of disclaiming traditional right-wing policies than of withdrawing the presumption of good faith that I granted to Republicans for many years when I was younger. When the right gets behind an idea now, I don’t look for reasons why it’s necessarily superior to what the left wants. I look for what sort of obnoxious illiberal impulse is quietly driving it.

Maybe Fetterman’s in that boat too. His discomfort with the status quo at the border might have less to do with the impact on wages of uncontrolled immigration and more to do with disdainful suspicion of progressive motives for insisting inanely that border enforcement is “xenophobic.” Perhaps they won’t get the benefit of the doubt from him anymore on their supposedly good intentions.

If that’s so, it could lead him to break further with modern left-wing orthodoxy and make him an unusually heterodox—and fascinating—political figure.

Heterodoxy is built into Fetterman’s political “brand.” His landslide win in last year’s Democratic Senate primary was frequently attributed to “vibes”—that is, that he sounded like a stereotypical left-wing populist yet looked like a stereotypical right-wing populist. Bald; goateed; 6 feet, 8 inches tall; and always dressed down in shorts and a hoodie; he seemed like the kind of guy who’d have a Trump flag on his car but he sounded like Bernie Sanders. Unable to place him easily on the political spectrum, casual voters who liked his “vibe” may have cast a vote for him for just that reason.

On Election Day, despite the fact that he was clearly a more radical ideologue than his opponent, Mehmet Oz, he took 10 percent of the Republican vote while Oz managed half that much among Democrats. Among independents, Fetterman won by 20 points.

His common touch extends beyond his clothing. With one very notable exception, no one has taken a more trollish approach to politics than Fetterman has. His social media team aggressively mocked Oz throughout last year’s campaign; the senator himself has now taken to taunting political opponents like Menendez and anti-Israel protesters. Even his brief attempt to wear his signature attire inside the Senate chamber was ultimately a matter of him thumbing his nose at political politesse. You may find the trolling distasteful, but I suspect lots of casual voters read a certain authenticity into it.

It seems to me there might be a national constituency for a trollish alpha male with blue-collar appeal who trends liberal on economic policy but is enough of a nationalist to find the modern left radically daffy on subjects like Israel and immigration. That constituency, being heterodox on policy itself, might appreciate a leader who isn’t as programmatic as the average politician in his party.

Come to think of it, the last time I recall a major figure renouncing an ideological label as starkly as John Fetterman has renounced the term “progressive,” it was … Donald Trump. When asked during an interview in 2016 whether he was a conservative, he replied memorably, “This is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party.”

As strange as our politics feels right now, it might be about to get stranger. We may have two formidable third-party candidates on the ballot next fall; divisions on the right over post-liberalism and on the left over progressivism amid the fallout from the election could splinter traditional coalitions in a way that makes heterodox figures more viable politically. Until recently, by dint of his progressivism and his disability, John Fetterman seemed unlikely to benefit. But he’s improved considerably in his ability to process sound and to converse fluently, it seems. And he is, as of today, a progressive no more.

What if this is only the start of Fettermania?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.