The word “authenticity” is having a moment. In the context of product marketing and prominent consumer brands, one sees countless references to the criticality of purpose-driven marketing and the necessity of brands being perceived as authentic to garner the loyalty of (and dollars spent by) Gen Zers and younger millennials.
So it is with political marketing. Whether on behalf of political parties, campaigns, or specific candidates, political advertising and retail campaigning are imbued with messages reinforcing the relatability of the “product” — of which authenticity forms a considerable part.
President Joe Biden’s regular trips for ice cream as he travels the country, and the endless examples each election cycle of political candidates visiting with “regular folks” at truck stops and diners, all seek to create a connection with voters beyond that of “I support ‘x’ policy, so please support me.” They are a fixture of the political landscape.
These efforts at authenticity are not without peril. I’m old enough to remember George H.W. Bush asking for a “splash of coffee” at a New Hampshire truck stop while running for president in 1988, inadvertently betraying his Connecticut WASP lineage. Given his penchant for the occasional malapropism, who could have blamed Democrats for seizing on a background replete with privilege, with Ann Richards (then treasurer of Texas) noting that “[George] can’t help it; he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”?
All of which brings us to the shape-shifting John Fetterman.
Fetterman prevailed in a closely contested 2022 race for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, a quintessential working-class electorate. In a state that went for Donald Trump and Biden by narrow margins in successive presidential elections, any electoral edge over one’s opponent could prove decisive.
John Fetterman is the Democratic Party’s latest mouthpiece for a collectivist program promoting envy, redistribution, and soulless lives of dependency for the American people.
Many observers have noted just such a decisive factor in Fetterman’s appeal: his attire and physical appearance, which shout “blue-collar authenticity.” Sporting a shaved head, goatee, and tattoos, along with hoodies and cargo shorts, Fetterman’s affect is that of an approachable, down-to-earth sort from central casting. That he is also 6 feet, 8 inches tall and a former college football player adds a touch of glamor to his allure and relatability.
The problem is that this pose is almost entirely a façade. His personal background has been only grudgingly reported by national media: He grew up in a wealthy suburb — the child of parents who founded a successful insurance brokerage — and was financially supported by his family well into his late forties. In addition to having played college football as an undergraduate, he earned a master’s degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
There’s no shame in having wealthy parents and benefiting from their considerable support. But contrast a hagiographic piece (one of many) following the November election from the New Yorker — which describes his bearing and “smart-mouthed sh*t-talking … as displaying a kind of authenticity” — with the media’s characterization of Republican villains like Trump and J.D. Vance, the newly elected U.S. senator from Ohio.
Working-class support — largely white in 2016, and increasingly Black and Hispanic in 2020 — was an essential component of the Trump electoral coalition. Trump never pretended to be working class; if anything, his appeal was more aspirational (“look at me”) than relatable. Google “Donald Trump working class,” and dozens of opinion pieces from outlets both well-known and obscure will lead with some variation of “Donald Trump is no working-class hero.”
The treatment received by Vance from political opponents and the media during his Ohio senate campaign was even more noxious. A true self-made son of Appalachia, as he detailed well before his campaign in the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, he was consistently cast as a carpetbagging venture capitalist and the cat’s-paw of tech billionaire Peter Thiel.
Like Vance, I too am a child of the working class. And perhaps the only thing I find more distasteful than media and Democratic Party hypocrisy is the moral repugnance of John Fetterman’s misappropriation of hardscrabble totems for electoral advantage.
Unlike Fetterman, one raised in a blue-collar household knows when to wear a suit and intuits how best to show respect for the democratic process, fellow citizens, and the seriousness of a political campaign. The son of a machinist, I only saw my father in a suit at graduations, weddings, and funerals. Raised by a single mother who supported three young children while working as a waitress without significant spousal support, I still learned how to present myself publicly in a manner appropriate to the circumstance.
As I was a first-generation college student, it would have never occurred to me that a wealthy, suburban child of privilege (like many of my classmates) with two master’s degrees would dress down to gain political favor. Further, to hear from former President Barack Obama — as he was quoted as saying in Newsweek last October — that part of Fetterman’s appeal is that he has “some sense of how the rest of America lives” feels as to have walked through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass.
Perhaps most outrageous in an era in which the term “cultural appropriation” is used unironically is how someone playacting at working-class bona fides is viewed in comparison to someone wearing an offensive Halloween costume, which would likely get a college student expelled or canceled. And, in Fetterman’s case, it’s not confined to a single day or a special occasion.
Beyond attire, his biography of dependence suggests a lack of respect not only for working people but for work itself. Donning a working man’s costume out of self-interest may not be as bad as wearing blackface, but such fakery is particularly offensive coming from a man in his fifties with almost no actual private-sector work experience.
As the Republican Party continues its serious — if muddled — internal policy debate over how best to secure the support of working-class voters and balance populist themes with more traditionally conservative policies, the other party gleefully lionizes a performative facsimile of a working man and expects its media adjunct to echo its presumably self-evident appeal.
Rather than being a working-class hero, John Fetterman represents nothing so much as the Democratic Party’s latest mouthpiece for a collectivist program promoting envy, redistribution, and soulless lives of dependency for the American people.
Fetterman’s Senate race in some ways evoked Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign for president, in which Clinton spoke of a “New Covenant”: a social contract for the working class.
Then and now, I’ve always found this formulation vaguely distasteful. A genuine working-class sensibility rejects faux populism, asking only for a fair shot.
Or, as John Lennon said, “a [true] working-class hero,” with pride in hard-earned, self-won achievement, “is something to be.”
Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.
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