A Tale of Two Senate Campaigns: John Fetterman and Herschel Walker

What the Fetterman and Walker campaigns say about modern masculinity in America.
Photo courtesy of John Fetterman's Facebook Page.

I don’t typically write about campaigns, especially Democratic campaigns, but I’m fascinated by John Fetterman’s press blitz this past week. Given that polls in the race have tightened, it makes sense for Fetterman to proactively reassure Pennsylvania voters that he’s healthy enough to serve as their US Senator (even if he shouldn’t have to), but the way his campaign has gone about it feels different.

It started with a profile in New York Magazine from Rebecca Traister. The Vulnerability of John Fetterman. Vulnerability is not a word most campaigns would want associated with their candidate, especially less than a month from Election Day. But Fetterman is clearly leaning into it. In interviews with Traister, Kara Swisher, and NBC news, Fetterman was open about his recovery and the ways he’s had to adapt since the stroke. As Traister wrote, “Fetterman is banking on the hope that voters will see in his vulnerability a new way to appreciate his strength.”

This is not the campaign closing argument Fetterman would have made had the stroke not happened. His alpha-dog persona and the way he presented masculinity was his superpower against the masculinity-obsessed MAGA machine. And it was particularly effective against his opponent, daytime TV celebrity Mehmet Oz, who had trouble landing effective attacks. But I think Fetterman’s Brené Brown approach makes a lot of sense.

America is still reeling from an ongoing pandemic that killed over a million people here. 1 in 20 of those infected with Covid is struggling with long covid (a disability) 6-18 months after being initially infected. That’s on top of the various chronic health conditions, struggles with addiction, and disabilities that were killing us and driving down American life expectancy before Covid even existed. It’s also something we’re clearly not having enough public conversation about, as NBC News’ ableist treatment of Fetterman’s story shows. Fetterman’s stroke and recovery should be something all of us can relate to. Either from our own experience or someone in our families.

I’m also just interested in this presentation of masculinity and how it counters the toxic view of manhood embraced by the Right. Because, again, Fetterman is saying his vulnerability is a strength, telling MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “I thought I was a very empathetic person, and I really understood what it was like for people dealing with these kinds of challenges. But this has made me ten times more empathetic.” Fetterman’s demeanor and presentation hasn’t changed at all, really, but making empathy and vulnerability focal points in his closing argument offers a much broader view of what manhood can and should be.

It also stands in stark contrast to another Senate candidate who’s been in the news this past week: GOP Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker. Walker has, of course, made news for the revelation that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion and urged her to have a second abortion a few years later. Walker’s eldest son has also spoken out against his father’s campaign and questioned his “family values.” In spite of overwhelming evidence, Walker continues to deny that he paid for an abortion.

The GOP overall has made it clear they don’t care if the accusation is true or not or the hypocrisy; they’re still all in on supporting Walker’s campaign. MAGA feels no need to appease its anti-choice base or save the party’s reputation. I’m not surprised. MAGA stuck with Trump after the Access Hollywood tapes came out and never forgave Republicans who attempted to distance themselves from Trump after that. MAGA also stuck with Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation process. Trump won, and Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment. The only time a GOP candidate lost after similar allegations surfaced in recent memory was Roy Moore in the Alabama special Senate race. But Joe Trippi, the opponent’s chief strategist, has said that the allegations actually tightened the race and helped Moore because Republicans fell in line to support him.

Walker has taken a slight dip in the polls, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up helping his campaign rather than hurting it. The Right believes that men (well, their men) should be able to do whatever they like, say whatever they like, and harm anyone they’d like without facing consequences. Domination and abuse of others is viewed as a strength rather than a moral failing. They aren’t expected to live the moral values they want to force everyone else to live by. It is the definition of toxic masculinity. And nothing pisses MAGA off more than the suggestion that one of their own shouldn’t have the right to be an abusive asshole.

Compared to Walker’s tried and true strategy, Fetterman’s vulnerability feels like an even greater risk. I really hope it pays off. Both because we need to keep the Senate majority and because I’d like to see more of Fetterman’s version of masculinity represented in our media, politics, and culture. It’s a much-needed anecdote to the harmful view of masculinity we get from the Right on a daily basis.

This is an excerpt from the newsletter Ctrl Alt-Right Delete. It was republished with the author’s permission. Subscribe HERE.

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Melissa Ryan

Melissa Ryan Ctrl is the author of Alt-Right Delete, a newsletter devoted to covering the rise of far-right extremism, white nationalism disinformation, and online toxicity, delivered on a weekly basis to more than 16,000 subscribers. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Progressive, Buzzfeed News, Refinery29, NowThis, and Media Matters.

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