What’s remarkable about Fetterman’s masculinity is how it differs from the genre cultivated by Donald Trump and the GOP. Unlike Trump’s fragile, macho belligerence, Fetterman offers a sense of stoic decency and empathy.
Fetterman’s approach isn’t the only avenue for Democrats hoping to reach white working-class voters. But it’s also true that masculinity is an extremely powerful force in American politics. It’s time for Democrats to stop giving it away to the far right and come up with their own compelling version.
Flip the elitism script
Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and other conservative outlets have long thrived on tapping into blue-collar anger at elite patronizing. Sociologist and writer Arlie Hochschild remembers a gospel singer from southwestern Louisiana who said she like Rush Limbaugh: His “core feeling [was] As Limbaugh defended her against insults, she felt liberals throw at her, “Oh, liberals think Bible-loving Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we are racist, sexist, homophobic and maybe fat. Media scholars Reece Peck and Anthony Nadler have documented how Fox News commentators from Bill O’Reilly to Tucker Carlson have effectively offered a deal: They will defend working-class voters against liberal elites who belittle and demean them. lower in exchange for support for Trump and his allies.
Fetterman cleverly flipped the Fox News script, portraying Mehmet Oz as the campaign’s elite candidate. When Oz attempted to connect with voters on rising inflation by acting shocked at the amount he spent buying “raw vegetables” at “Wegners,” Fetterman tweeted, “In PA, we call it a vegetable platter.” It also didn’t help that Wegners didn’t exist; Oz had mixed up the names of two grocery chains, suggesting a millionaire who doesn’t do his own shopping. Fetterman punched Oz for owning 10 houses and counterattacked when Oz criticized Fetterman for not wearing a suit. “Wearing a suit doesn’t make me smarter,” he said. “This is who I am.” His standard outfit is cargo shorts and a hoodie.
Earlier in his career, Fetterman defended the honor of Braddock, the Rust Belt town of which he was mayor, by comparing it favorably to San Francisco: “In Cambridge or San Francisco, you can’t get a subscription to a gymnasium for what you can get a home from in our community. More importantly, while serving as lieutenant governor, Fetterman visited all 67 counties in Pennsylvania — and listened. “We are a neglected population,” one voter said at a rally in Gettysburg. “We are surrounded by a lot of people who see no value in our point of view. He listens to us. Empathy also breeds empathy. After Fetterman’s stroke, when many thought it would doom his candidacy, PA voters saw his health scare as a reflection of their own struggles.
Fetterman shows respect for ordinary people without compromising his values. This shouldn’t be hard for Democrats to do, but instead, too many leftists insult the intelligence of unqualified voters by calling them gullible (“big lie” believers), stubborn (“deniers of the climate”) and arrears (“I believe in science”). It only pushes many voters further into the arms of Fox News and Trump.
Forge a cultural connection
Fetterman also connected with blue-collar voters by signaling an adherence to blue-collar values. Democrats can do this in many ways, but Fetterman himself did it by appealing to blue-collar masculinity. The irony is that Fetterman himself doesn’t come from a blue-collar background, but he was able to connect with blue-collar tropes and traditions.
We’ve heard so much about the role of race in Trump’s appeal, but much less about gender. This is a major oversight. As I noted on my site, “Bridging the Diploma Divide In American Politics”:
“Endorsement of hegemonic (aka macho) masculinity predicts Trump will vote for both men and women more than racism and other biases. Hegemonic masculinity reflects the ideal that men should be mentally, physically and emotionally strong, tough and in control: so Trump brags about the size of his nuclear button, proclaims ‘dominance’ on COVID, mocks weak men who wear masks or change diapers. In case you missed the post, Trump plays the song “Macho Man” at his rallies. “Men must be men; women should be women, sexism (i.e. hostile sexism) was second only to political orientation in predicting support for Trump for both men and women.
Democrats are fooling themselves if they think they can ignore the power of masculinity. As someone who has spent decades studying gender bias, I don’t like this reality; I recognize that this reinforces the old scripts. But Democrats don’t have to embrace sexism to defeat Trumpism. Instead, they should challenge Trump’s version of masculinity with an alternative when they can, and attempt to woo male voters more constructively than Trump. That’s what Fetterman does.
On the surface, Fetterman embodies the physical ideals of working-class masculinity and toughness: Standing 6-foot-8, “he’s a man who could pass for a Hells Angel,” a POLITICO reporter noted in April 2021. . People said “he looks like a central cast villain or, at least, an intimidating bouncer…dressing like a serial killer in cargo shorts in freezing weather.” He owns one costume which he rarely wears. During his time as mayor, Fetterman drove a pickup truck. He received massive publicity about his nine tattoos listing the name of every person who died by violence during his tenure. A black man Fetterman bailed out of jail (one of many) said, “He looked like an average guy.” An average blue collar dude.