In the last few months, Sen. John Fetterman has returned to the place where he’s most comfortable: as a highly skilled troller. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
John Fetterman’s had a rollercoaster of a year.
In January, he was sworn into office as Pennsylvania’s new Democratic senator despite suffering from a debilitating stroke on the campaign trail. In doing so, he managed to flip the only seat in the upper chamber during the 2022 cycle. Six weeks after assuming office, he checked himself into a hospital for clinical depression.
Fetterman emerged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as an unlikely evangelizer of mental health treatment, something medical professionals applauded as a stigma-busting move that could save lives.
But in the last few months, Fetterman has returned to the place where he’s most comfortable: as a highly skilled troller. Only this time, his targets have often been allies in the progressive movement who have long seen him as an icon. In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Fetterman has emerged as
one of the most vocal supporters of the country in the Senate.
We sat down with Fetterman earlier this month to talk about his disagreements with the left, his beef with Democratic strategist James Carville, why the app formerly known as Twitter is no longer on his phone and his predictions for 2024. Fetterman used a service on his phone that instantly transcribed our conversation as he continues to deal with auditory processing challenges from his stroke.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you surprised that so many progressives disagree with you on Israel?
I mean, of course I expected that there will always be a diversity of opinions, and that as long as things go that the Democratic caucus might splinter more. … I would be the last man standing to be absolutely there on the Israeli side on this with no conditions.
I grieve, and it’s awful the incredible civilian deaths and the suffering. It’s awful. War is hell, as they say. But only one side has used civilians as human shields. Only one side has broken the cease-fires. Only one side will systematically rape, torture and mutilate Israeli women and girls in the most unspeakable, awful ways. … Without destroying Hamas, there will be no enduring peace and a stable, two-state solution.
What about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Should he remain in power?
He’s the leader that we have. And that’s the leader that we’re working with.
Even some Israelis are frustrated with him.
To me, it’s not a referendum on Netanyahu. It’s just what we have to do to stand with Israel. And I do agree with the prevailing opinion that Hamas must be destroyed.
But should Netanyahu stay in power, yes or no?
I don’t have a vote in that. That’s for the Israeli citizens. They have much more at stake. But what I can say [is] I believe that an overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens would want a senator standing with them and their right to destroy Hamas [and not] somebody that would splinter or peel away when things continue and as more and more antisemitism continues to go across college campuses, across our nation.
You have some newfound fans on the online right because of your views on Israel. What do you make of them?
I don’t spend any time on Twitter and that’s the truth. I encourage you — you can check my personal phone. I couldn’t even get on Twitter if I had to.
When did you decide X, formerly known as Twitter, wasn’t worth it?
It was not very helpful to promoting mental health.
Is this something you realized in the last year?
Very much so.
[Editor’s note: A Fetterman staffer said he still drafts “all the memes” on his social media accounts, but he tells his aides to press send.]
Biden’s campaign hasn’t yet announced any battleground staff in Pennsylvania. Should the campaign be more built out in the swing states at this point?
I don’t give anybody advice unless on fashion. … All I do know is that the president will win Pennsylvania. And I do believe if he wins Pennsylvania, and I believe he will, he will be a second-term president.
We’ve talked about this a few months ago, and you told me then you thought Biden would win Pennsylvania and win the overall election. But things have gotten worse for him since. Trump is now ahead in many polls.
But that doesn’t really matter. There’s a whole lifetime in politics between now and next November as well. I’m not worried about that. And I’m very vocal about this, too, while there are Democrats that are being very critical about the president. … I’ll use this [as] another opportunity to tell
James Carville to shut the fuck up. Like I said, my man hasn’t been relevant since grunge was a thing. And I don’t know why he believes it’s helpful to say these kinds of things about an incredibly difficult circumstance with an incredibly strong and decent and excellent president. I’ll never understand that.
(Editor’s note: Asked if he’d like to respond, Carville said other Democratic senators “apparently haven’t gotten the memo yet” that he’s not relevant. “His colleague Sen. Casey asked me to host a fundraiser with him last week,” he said. “Sen. Brown asked me to go to Cleveland to campaign with him.” Of Fetterman, he added: “I’m glad he’s feeling better.”)
When I talk to voters, they’re worried about inflation. They really don’t like the economy. Are you not hearing that?
To me, it’s going to come down to good and evil and personalities and everything about this, too. It’s going to be a gut check kind of a situation where it’s just like, really? Really, really, as you’re going into the voting booth, do we want chaos and somebody that is in three or four criminal hearings? Is this somebody that you want to be their finger back on the button? Or do you want to have a decent and very effective president that has gotten us through the pandemic, addressed inflation and has been a real masterclass of diplomacy with Israel?
And that’s the thing. And if you want to be more pissed off about a $16 McDonald’s extra meal, I don’t know.
Is Biden the only Democrat who can beat Trump?
I really am not worried about that because he is my guy. And he is going to be the Democrats’ guy, and I’m proud to campaign with him.
What do you think of Dean Phillips, the Democrat who’s mounted a longshot primary campaign against Biden?
I really don’t believe anyone can honestly think that the gelato guy is going to beat Trump. And he has the right to spend his money to figure out that thesis, but I don’t think it’s going to end well for him.
You traveled to Iowa recently, where you were very critical of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying he is “running for president right now” but doesn’t have the “guts to announce it.” Why?
I wasn’t so critical about Newsom. I just simply said that it seems kind of strange to challenge a candidate of a race that you’re not involved in. … It’s also strange that you are going to make a very splash visit to China when the leaders are actually coming to your very own state … a couple of weeks later. Or making donations to obscure South Carolinian politicians.
Do you think he’s laying the groundwork to run in 2024 if something happens to Biden?
I think that he’s a great governor. And he’s an incredible part of the Democratic Party. That’s it. Two things can be true at the same time.
What about you? Would you ever run in 2028 for president?
Fundamentally, about politics, you never go get high on your own supply. And I’m not thinking about 2028. I am only making sure to prioritize 2024.