When Donald Trump set his sights on overturning the results of the election in Pennsylvania, there were a few things working against him. First, the margin of Joe Biden’s victory put it beyond the need for a recount. Second, Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, and they take this stuff very seriously. Third, John Fetterman.
Fetterman, the burly lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, has been a constant thorn in the side of the Trump campaign’s efforts to undermine the election in his state. In doing so, he has emerged from the chaos of campaign season with a new legion of fans.
He was a familiar presence on television throughout the state’s arduous and pivotal ballot count, often on hand to swat away Trump campaign attacks against the integrity of the counting process. At 6ft 8in tall, tattoos on his arms, a long goatee and often in short sleeves, he stood out amid the parade of suits. He once said of his appearance: “I do not look like a typical politician. I do not even look like a typical person.”
He doesn’t talk like a typical politician either. His Twitter feed is full of dry humour, memes and barbs. In the weeks since the election, he has continued his crusade against disinformation and played down any talk of a Trump longshot coup. While others have cloaked themselves in sober and diplomatic language, he has been Pennsylvania’s anger translator.
“Everybody, including and especially the president, knows how this movie is gonna end,” he tells The Independent by phone, on a break from his day job presiding over the Pennsylvania state senate.
“They are just these little Twitter storm freakouts. It's just sad and pathetic that the president of the United States has become just some sad internet troll.”
Fetterman has been pretty clear from day one that there is no way Trump can overturn the will of Pennsylvanian voters (“math doesn’t care about your feelings or lies,” is one of his favourite refrains), but he is also stark in his assessment of the president’s norm-shattering behaviour.
“I've said this time and time again, the media needs to turn its back on the president's reckless claims of voter fraud. He is and has been for some time now yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. This is not free or protected speech. This is dangerous and damaging speech. And it really just comes down to that,” he says.
He is fiercely proud of the job that Pennsylvania did in pulling off an extraordinary election, coming as it did in the midst of a pandemic, with a record number of mail-in ballots, and in the face of daily attacks from the White House.
Trump singled out Pennsylvania early on for a campaign of falsehoods about the integrity of mail-in ballots. The president claimed without evidence that voting by mail was susceptible to fraud, and that Pennsylvania would be the centre of that fraud. He famously remarked during one of his presidential debates: “Bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
I don’t know who needs to hear this but there’s not one single suit that can stop legal votes being counted + PA going for Biden.
SCOTUS could gift every “late ballot” to the President. 🥱
That’s what happens when you sue a ham sandwich, it’s still well, just a ham sandwich.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 16, 2020
“This was a campaign of misinformation from the biggest microphone in the world,” says Fetterman. “And it was [my job] to push back against that. This idea that there was any fraud, well actually, no, there were exactly three cases of documented fraud in Pennsylvania.”
“We pulled up the biggest election in Pennsylvania history, and there wasn't any of that, none of that, and this idea that it was anything other than a fair, free and full accounting of the democratic will of Pennsylvania voters has been widely debunked in every courtroom at every juncture,” he adds.
Fetterman has used his Twitter feed to refute some of the wilder claims of voting fraud from the president. “The President just tweeted this article and said “DEAD PEOPLE VOTED” and in Pennsylvania he’s RIGHT. In Luzerne County, a Republican attempted to vote for the President for his dead mother,” he wrote in response to one of Trump’s tweets.
He also tried to claim a reward from his Republican counterpart in Texas, lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who offered a $1million for reports of voter fraud that lead to a conviction. Sharing the same two examples above, he asked for his reward to be paid in gift cards for Sheetz — a Pennsylvania convenience store.
Hey, Governor Patrick- it’s your counterpart in Pennsylvania.
I’d like to collect your handsome reward for reporting voter fraud.
I got a dude in Forty Fort, PA who tried to have his dead mom vote for Trump.
I’d like mine in Sheetz gift cards pls.
ps. The Cowboys blow. https://t.co/Y21Q3ZkSEH
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 10, 2020
Fetterman, a self-described democratic socialist, began his political career in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. He won his first election by one vote to become the mayor of Braddock, a gritty former steel town, and won two more times after that.
In Braddock, Fetterman championed a community-led approach to tackling crime and poverty, both of which blighted the town. He took the job seriously — very seriously. On his right arm he has tattooed the dates of murders that took place in Braddock while he was mayor. He currently has nine dates and is due to add one more. On his left arm he has the town’s zip code.
He made an unsuccessful run for the US senate in 2016, before eventually winning election as lieutenant governor in 2018. During that campaign, he was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, who called Fetterman the "candidate of the working people". After he won, he refused to take up the residence his position afforded him, and chose to live in a converted car dealership.
It’s tempting to look at Fetterman and wonder where he sits in the Democratic Party nationally. There isn’t an easy answer. He is liberal on most issues: he is an advocate of a higher minimum wage, the legalisation of cannabis and campaigned for the US to accept more Syrian refugees during the height of the crisis there.
And while he is a proponent of fighting climate change head-on, he has also advocated a transition to a carbon-free future that takes into account the impact on places like rural Pennsylvania — one that goes beyond asking miners to learn to code. He has said previously that Democrats need to “get honest” about energy and advocated for a “bipartisan Marshall Plan” to battle climate change.
It was former mining towns in western Pennsylvania that sent Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, and where he still retains support today. Fetterman’s time spent in the working-class communities of Braddock has also given him an insight into Trump’s unique appeal in those areas. In fact, he was sounding the alarm bells long before November.
“I said this from before the election, he is a uniquely distinctive and popular individual in Pennsylvania. Don't ever make the mistake of underestimating his appeal. I warned our party that this was going to be a brawl. And that's exactly what it turned out to be,” he says.
“He was a transformative figure in American politics. I mean that pejoratively,” he says. “He speaks to and engages a segment of our population that is intensely loyal and that's what's going to make him relevant and dangerous going forward because he is just not planning to go quietly into the night.”
But how do you reach those voters who turned away from Democrats and embraced Trump in the last two elections — the people who made this one a nail-biter?
“Some of them aren’t reachable,” he says. “But there is an extraordinary number of thoughtful Pennsylvanians that care very deeply about good, solid public policies. We've demonstrated that,” he says.
“Right now we're at a point in Pennsylvania where we all have to come together because we're headed for a tough winter with these record high Covid cases. We have to recover from this pandemic.”
He is also not quite ready to take his eye off Trump just yet. He believes the outgoing president will run in 2024 without much opposition from Republicans.
“We need to be mindful,” he says. But, he adds, “you can only run on chaos for so long before it collapses on itself."