Politics

John Fetterman Isn’t Doing What He Thinks He Is With His Meme Roasts of Dr. Oz

I believe Democrats should righteously call out the ridiculous charlatans who end up propped up by the MAGA machine! But I want something bigger from politics.

John Fetterman speaks during a video interview from his home wearing a baggy white hoodie and a banner bearing his name behind him.
John Fetterman speaks during a video interview from his home in Braddock, PA on July 20, 2022. Julian Routh/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

As far as posting goes, Dr. Oz vs. John Fetterman is not a fair fight. Mehmet Oz is a daytime television creature running on warmed-over Trumpian cultural grievances without any of the former president’s charisma, crudity, or semi-intentional comedic timing. Whatever charms Oz possessed that got Oprah to hand him a national platform have so far not translated to the internet. Fetterman, meanwhile, is a six-foot-nine Pittsburgh Steelers fan who entered politics as the mayor of the industrial town of Braddock, Pennsylvania before capturing the lieutenant governorship of the state in 2019. The Democratic nominee is currently off the campaign trail while he recovers from a stroke, but he has invested plenty in his somewhat ground-breaking social media strategy. You can find his campaign in the replies of every stilted, wooden Oz tweet, absolutely roasting the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

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Like I said, it’s not a fair fight. And if anything, it’s getting worse the more Oz tries to engage. Most recently, his campaign attempted to join in on the fun by tweeting a (terrible) photoshop mockup of Fetterman and Bernie Sanders on the poster of Step Brothers. Fetterman retorted with the classic “Graphic Design Is My Passion” meme. Dr. Oz uploaded a bizarrely mythic image of Fetterman looming large under a gray sky and a wall of stone; Fetterman is now using it as the header of his profile. Currently, Fetterman is leveraging his followers to get Oz inaugurated into the New Jersey Hall of Fame—alongside the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patrick Ewing—which is a great burn, considering Oz moved to Pennsylvania in 2020. It’s perhaps the first American political campaign to be disseminated and consumed almost entirely through internet memes—the seeds of the 2016 experience finally coming into full bloom.

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It’s been quite a show. The problem is that with all eyes on Fetterman and Oz, Pennsylvania, and perhaps politics itself, has become an afterthought.

And that’s a shame, because Fetterman is a good candidate for Democrats. The polls have him holding a strong, if not overwhelming lead over Oz, despite needing to take so much time off the campaign trail (certainly one reason why his staff is so focused on the digital warfront). Maybe Fetterman was always going to have a clear path to D.C. due to Oz’s lack of history in the state, but he also has strong progressive bona fides, and has demonstrated a willingness to throw his support behind popular positions that are often ignored by the ossified Democratic platform. (He’s a huge proponent of legalized marijuana, for example.)

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But even while I, like so many other non-Pennsylvanians, have greatly enjoyed the spectacle of Oz v. Fetterman—and in general I believe that Democrats should be far more willing to righteously call out the ridiculous charlatans who end up propped up by the MAGA machine—it has also made me feel somewhat despondent about the political environment we’re all barreling towards.

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While I was writing this story, for example, John Fetterman tweeted that his account was approaching 600,000 followers, and then “humbly” asked for a “RT + follow,” (with a prayer emoji), to clear that benchmark. It was written with a syntax that brings to mind engagement-farming influencers or marathon Twitch streamers, and now it was being parroted in the middle of one of the most important Senate races in the United States. You could say that this is all part of Fetterman’s grand strategy to seize Capitol Hill by sheer force of clout, but there is little evidence that social media resonance has a tangible effect on electoral success. In fact, Democrats who aren’t on Twitter outnumber those who are two to one, which bears out on the ballot all the time. Remember last summer when Eric Adams smoked Andrew Yang in New York’s mayoral race despite having a fraction of his social media footprint? We are just over three months away from November 8, and I worry if enough people are aware of the many reasons to vote for John Fetterman that go beyond the daily carnage in Dr. Oz’s replies.

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I have plenty of empathy for Fetterman’s position, and I wonder if his attempt to become a world-renowned poster has anything to do with the soul-crushing gridlock he will inherit if he’s successful in his race. Democrats across the country have become fully acquainted with the limits of legislative faculty of the past two years. A thin majority, besotted by pro-filibuster malcontents and a positively medieval Supreme Court, has derailed nearly every initiative presented by the Biden White House: The minimum wage hike, the voting rights bill, the codification of abortion, legislation on climate change, and so on. The party has told its constituents that the only way to overcome the steady erosion of our civic integrity is to show up at the polls, without mentioning the institutionalized unlikelihood of ever mustering the 60 seats necessary to consecrate tangible progress. All of this puts someone like Fetterman in an awkward position. It is difficult to promise much of anything in these rickety final years of this Biden term—so maybe it’s no wonder that right now, his campaign has decided it’s better to be best known for its taunts. It’s a nihilistic bit of coalition building, but at least it’s fun to watch.

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If Fetterman is elected, he’ll be entering a world where the agency of political actors on Capitol Hill is at an all time low. I envision him wielding power in ways that have nothing to do with the mechanics of the Senate — by having a lot of Twitter followers, by posting a lot of memes, by doing a lot of dunks. As Matt Christman recently noted, celebrity used to be a by-product of political success, but in America’s asphyxiating, and potentially terminal, stalemate, it’s now maybe the best thing you can count on. Fetterman’s policy proposals are winning issues, and his ascension to office could be a watershed moment for a progressive movement that hasn’t had any good news since Sanders won the Nevada primary two-and-a-half years ago. But currently there is an odd twinge of pessimism in his campaign; a tacit acknowledgement that, in the face of so much opposition, the only thing his victory can accomplish is the humiliation of a celebrity doctor. It’d be satisfying, don’t get me wrong, but I wish it felt a little more inspiring.

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Alas, that might also be an unfortunate reality in 2022. Our politics have changed so much that it feels like the basic tenets of campaigning have gone out the window. It is difficult to imagine Dr. Oz being even remotely interested in the jobs of a senator before 2016. His run seems more like a naked attempt to juice his flagging brand. He’s happily reneged on so many of his previously held positions in order to shamelessly run the Trump playbook: It wasn’t that long ago that Oz was a pro-choice, ACA-endorsing talkshow pundit, dancing with Michelle Obama live on Oprah. Now he’s calling for Dr. Fauci’s head live on Newsmax and breaking bread with Ted Nugent about the 2nd amendment. There is an argument to be made that you can only deal with stunt-politicians like Oz (or Tommy Tuberville, or Herschel Walker, and so on) by regarding them as flippantly as possible. And that argument may even be right! But it leaves a bad taste nonetheless.

Of course, John Fetterman doesn’t exclusively use the internet to dunk on Dr. Oz. He frequently reiterates his pledge to protect reproductive rights, and bemoans the (criminal) $7.25-per-hour minimum wage. But like so many other frequent posters, he’s quickly figured out what works and what doesn’t. Fetterman will continue to play the hits, and I’m left to contemplate the fact that in 2020, I dreamt of universal health care and a humane foreign policy. Now, it seems the best I can get is a savage burn on Twitter.

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