One big reason that Donald Trump won in 2016 and went on to take over the Republican Party is that he didn’t sound like a typical politician. In a counterintuitive way, the most demonstrably lying politician in history came off as genuine. Nobody would say things that offensive, that absurd, that nuts if he didn’t really mean it. Or, to be more accurate, the guy seemed honest about his lying. It was if he were saying, “You know I’m lying and I know I’m lying and I don’t care, I’m going to lie anyway.” There’s a certain perverse honesty in that.
There’s more than a little bit of the same vibe (though I’m not saying he’s a liar) around John Fetterman, who easily won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. If he wins he’ll replace Republican John Toomey, who is retiring, and flip a seat to the Democrats. So, it’s a big deal. (The Biden-backed centrist, Conor Lamb, was actually more my kind of guy, but I’ll take any Democrat who can win in November, such is the threat from the Trumpian GOP.)
Fetterman actually reminds me more of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Fetterman is a hulking, bald guy (he’s six foot eight) who often shows up in baggy gym shorts. His rhetoric is blunt and mostly populist — Bernie Sanders supported him. Yet, he doesn’t come off like a limousine liberal, far from it. And he strategically picks issues that distance him from the hard-left. The most important example is fracking — a big issue in Pennsylvania, especially for blue collar voters who see it as a ticket to more jobs. Fetterman bucks the liberals in his own party by being for the environmentally questionable practice.
That reminds me of another successful liberal politician. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has one of the most liberal voting records in D.C., and yet she has won her statewide races twice, and easily both times. Her high-profile surprisingly conservative issue is the gray wolf. She is for delisting the wolf as an endangered species, a position at odds with her Dane County base but popular north of Highway 8 and among rural voters in other parts of the state. The soft-spoken and put-together Baldwin is unlike Fetterman in almost every other way.
But Fetterman and Baldwin share one other crucial trait: they come off as sincere or to use a word that needs a rest these days “authentic.” And neither is afraid to go into hostile territory, campaigning in parts of their states that are heavily Republican Trump country. That’s crucial because, as I’ve pointed out many times before, Democrats simply cannot succeed by just running up vote totals in big cities and college towns.
I’m coming to think that actual policy positions don’t matter that much. Think about all those Obama/Trump voters. They were looking for somebody who just didn’t look or sound like a typical pol. That could be packaged as an urbane Black man or a crass New York huckster. Just don’t give them more of the same old, same old.
A candidate can wear baggy shorts or pearls. A candidate can be for building a wall on the Mexican border or for a dramatically expanded social safety net. I even believe that a candidate can be a moderate with all kinds of middle-of-the-road views — just so long as those views are presented honestly in plain language.
Voters respect people who pay them the intellectual respect of disagreeing with them. They can smell phony panderers a mile off. The reason they so often end up voting for one is that their choices are limited to two phony panderers. But when they get a choice to vote for somebody real — whether that’s Fetterman or Baldwin or Obama or Russ Feingold in his day or, God help us, even Donald Trump in his own twisted way — they’ll do it.
The future of the Democratic Party can’t be in excessively tall, bald men who look natural in gym shorts. There just aren’t enough of them. The point isn’t the package but the product. And the product is blunt sincerity.
Want to read more unorthodox stuff like this? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.