I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” My approach is simple — to get real answers, you got to ask a lot of questions. Now, I’m going to ask you some. Help us understand how you listen to this show and others by filling out a survey at NYTimes.com/swaysurvey. And now to the show. [MUSIC ENDS] Last week as we were all hitting refresh on our browsers and doom scrolling Twitter, a new face started popping up. It was John Fetterman, the Lieutenant Governor of my family’s home state of Pennsylvania. He was suddenly all over my feeds and on every TV channel I flipped through.
- archived recording (john fetterman)
The only irregularity we had was the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia… The president can sue a ham sandwich. He can send 1,000 lawyers to Pennsylvania… No tweet coming from a Pennsylvania elected official on the Democratic side is ever going to require a warning like a pack of cigarettes on Twitter…
At a time when most Democrats were urging patience, Fetterman was no holds barred. He had the in-your-face social media savvy of Trump, but with a whole lot less lying. The lieutenant governor was new to a lot of the nation, but he’s been a fixture of Pennsylvania politics for the past decade. And he’s hard to miss — 6 foot 8, tattooed, shaved head, and, of course, a goatee. He also has a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard. Before he became lieutenant governor, he was the mayor of post-industrial Braddock, Pennsylvania. Throughout, he’s built a reputation for being able to sell progressive politics to Rust Belt voters. And in a divided country, that skill is very much in demand. So I was curious — how can Democrats win back those voters?
I’ve never had to kind of quote unquote “evolve” on any of my positions in that sense. You know, I was always for the $15 an hour minimum wage. I was always for marijuana legalization. Before I took over, marijuana in Pennsylvania was unheard of, this idea. And now, a majority of our state supports it, and New Jersey just legalized it. 40% of our population will be next door to a veritable candy land of legal weed. And why wouldn’t we in Pennsylvania want to capitalize on that? I risked criminal charges performing the first same sex wedding as an elected official in Pennsylvania. I championed the marginalized and police community relations — all of these things, and the party has kind of consistently moved more towards those viewpoints as opposed to gotten more conservative.
So do you have more latitude to share controversial opinions than, say, a governor?
No, I don’t. I wouldn’t say anything as lieutenant governor that I wouldn’t say as governor, in fact. I think it’s important to make these kind of statements and to take these kinds of stands, because you can move the needle. That’s one of the things I always admired about Republicans is that they’ll take an unpopular stand and they’ll move the needle. They’ll just be like, yeah, here it is. Bones on the mass, it’s where I’m at. And that’s what I’ve always chosen to do, whether it was with marriage equality, whether it was marijuana, whether it was with criminal justice. I mean, the ads write themselves — Fetterman wants to get killers out of jail. There’s no more latitude, it’s just backbone. This is what I know to be true, and I’m going to pay us both the complement of being frank with you, and I think people respect that.
Yeah, I think so. Let me talk about your style, because I think it’s very more modern than most politicians, I would say. You obviously use social media. You’ve become a social media influencer. Do you look at yourself that way?
You’re on Twitter a lot. You’re very funny. Your wife is fantastic. She’s better than you are on Twitter.
I deny that I’m funny, and I agree with you that she’s better than me at Twitter.
You deny you’re funny?
Yeah. I didn’t even have a social media account until I ran for my first office, because I’m like, if somebody is interested in what I’m doing, great. If they’re not, that’s fine. I don’t know who actually enjoys wearing a suit. And if you think that you can’t do your job or you do your job better in a suit versus not, then I disagree with you. A Carhartt jacket and shorts is business casual in Western Pennsylvania, especially this time of year. I don’t have — I mean, look at me, I don’t have any style. It’s just —
Oh, you have style, come on.
That beard says style to me. You may not like the style.
My beard says, I need something to break the monotony of no hair and whatever. That’s what it says—
Just a stopping point?
Yeah, I think it’s a placeholder or whatever.
Yeah, it’s not something that I’ve actively cultivated or anything, it’s just who I am. My image has been in a national training program on inherent bias. I’ve had dozens of people over the years tell me this. In fact, just recently someone said, hey, I just saw — so I make the joke that everywhere that I’m not recognized, I’ve never been mistaken for the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, you know? And it’s real. People can be afraid of me, or they think I’m going to mug them.
What do they think, you’re a bouncer?
Or a mugger, or whatever — I mean, any number of these things. And I laugh at it, because I mean there’s nothing else you can do about it. There’s nothing I can do to change — I’m not met in the aisle handsome. There’s nothing I can do about it. And it just is what it is.
But it works a lot. You have gone viral, no matter how you — you have become — you don’t think you’re the face of Pennsylvania Democrats right now?
What I think I am is just somebody that sat in front of a laptop for a week making the arguments that needed to be heard, that vote by mail in Pennsylvania is 100% safe, it’s 100% secure. And it’s going to be true, and that all proved to be accurate. But I also said that we need to watch out, because Trump is going to be popular here. He is doing things that were unprecedented in Pennsylvania’s recent political history, and you can’t poll for that. And it turned out that that was accurate.
When you’re thinking about your becoming this political— not just social media sensation, but political sensation— you use Twitter, you are yourself. The combination of stuff is that you are genuine, which is I think a lot of people who do well — people are genuine to themselves, whatever their selves happen to be. Is that sort of the same formula that Donald Trump uses? Or how do you look at being a political sensation these days?
Oh, you don’t think about sensation.
No, I reject the whole thesis. I’m not a political sensation. I’m just the guy that sat in front of you, just like this, and I started spouting off truths about what just happened to be a really, really important election, and tried to convey it in a way that was accessible and relatable and needed to be heard. At least that’s what I felt. Because what was happening was so absurd and so disingenuous on the other side that it just fueled a level of indignation and outrage with me that just because you don’t like a result doesn’t mean that it was fraud. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, Trump would have a more Merry Christmas. But there’s no basis in reality at this point. And what you’re doing now is harming your own reputation, to the extent of what’s left of it in many people’s eyes, but you’re damaging the very democratic fabric of our nation.
Take me inside the past few days in Pennsylvania. What were you hearing that we weren’t when the votes are being counted in the first couple of days after the election? And you tweeted pretty early you thought Pennsylvania would go for Biden, and the math was saying he was the winner. Take us into where it is right now in the last few days.
The last few days, it’s just been acceptance. The Saturday, the day it was called, I was on CNN basically daring them to call it. I’m like, why wouldn’t you call it? It’s math. You need to understand — the thing that I don’t think the American people understood, and that’s not a criticism, it’s not their state, is how predictive mail-in ballots were — like, predictive. I joke it’s as predictive as driving a Subaru. If there were 100,000 Subaru drivers’ ballots out, it would have been the same level of predictive. So there was no path for Donald Trump. And early in October, I formulated that the president’s agenda was twofold. It was, one, to foment chaos and to provide the grounds, which they’re doing now, to these nuisance lawsuits, but then also to get in the heads of Democrats to say, your mail-in ballot’s garbage. It’s not going to count. You can’t trust the mail, duh duh duh duh. And that it would create this surge of Democrats trying to spoil their ballot at the poll. And that would blow up the lines. So I was really pushing this message, bank your ballot. Bank your ballot.
Get it in early.
Don’t play into that. That’s exactly what they want you to do. And thankfully, that number was low. I think we ended up with 100,000 provisional ballots, but that’s a lot given the margin. But as soon as I saw the number of provisional ballots, I’m like, those, I guarantee you, are going to break hard for Biden, because it’s Democrats that were spooked by the mind games that the Trump campaign was playing that you can’t trust it, so they went to spoil their ballot that day. And if you don’t bring everything, and I mean everything, you can’t use it at all, and you have to use a provisional ballot. So it was early on, once you saw the overall number scheme — I anticipated a giant red tsunami, and it hit. And then it was like, OK, here comes the counterpunch. It’s like, now we’re going to start counting the mail-in ballots, which we could have done and had the results to America election night. But the Republican — please let me say this very clearly — the Republican legislature blocked any attempt by the governor to just even get an extra 24 hours to begin pre-canvassing the ballots. And all that means is you’re opening the envelopes, getting them ready to count. You’re not counting. 24 hours — it would have made a radical difference. Not one — they orchestrated this. This was all designed to look chaotic when, in fact, there was no chaos. It just played out because we couldn’t start a minute before 7 o’clock in the morning on Election Day.
So when all is said and done, will the state be subject to more lawsuits and recounts?
It doesn’t matter. That’s the beauty of it — it doesn’t matter. I said online, and I just said on Twitter, it’s like, they can sue a ham sandwich, it’s not going to change anything. Because you can’t litigate math. Math doesn’t respond well to opinions.
So what do you imagine having — because now Fox News talking heads are suggesting that Pennsylvania’s state legislature, which is controlled by the Republicans, could ignore the results, which they’ve said they’re not going to do and send electors for Trump. What would stop them? How do you look at that?
It’s just not going to happen. Because at the end of the day, they know — there is not one person there that believes any of this. It’s just singing for their dinner, because they saw how popular Trump was. And Trump delivered and preserve their lead in the majority. So I’m sure they feel like they owe him this last full measure of devotion to the president to kind of go through the theatrics of this. And no matter what the Pennsylvania legislature does with this doomsday scenario, which I know won’t come to pass, math is math. And math was favorable to the president in 2016, and math was his ultimate undoing in 2020. And that’s the state of play, whether it’s in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.
Right, but you feel like it’s going to end nowhere. What do you think he’s going to do next?
I know it’s going to end nowhere.
Is there any other move from them?
It doesn’t matter. And that’s the point. It’s so disingenuous on so many different levels that it’s hard to grasp it. There is protest beliefs. In other words, they’ll say it, but they know it’s not really true. And I think that’s what a lot of this is. Because for you to reject it now would require you to reject Trump’s winning Pennsylvania and four years ago, because we had a Republican legislature, the same governor, the same everything. And even though Pennsylvania didn’t deliver to the PA legislature, Donald Trump, Donald Trump delivered the Pennsylvania legislature to the Republicans. So there is a debt there, and all this is is just some song and dance to appease the president and his campaign team to show them. Because there was talk of the Democrats flipping the state legislature, and we actually lost, I think, eight seats. And we were going to tie up the Senate, of which I’m president, and we actually lost one maybe two seats in the Senate. And that was simply because of the flex that Donald Trump employed in the final months of the campaign in Pennsylvania. It paid handsomely.
Are you worried about the Supreme Court?
No. None of these votes are touchable. There is no enchanted village in Pennsylvania full of 50,000 Trump voters that we haven’t heard from already. It doesn’t exist. And that’s the only thing that would save him. And it doesn’t exist.
So you’re not worried.
No, I’m not worried, simply because no one on the other side genuinely believes it. No one in an actual position of power or authority believes it. Even the president knows he’s lying. That’s what’s reassuring to me. And whatever end game posturing motivation he may have, he knows too. That’s the thing.
So 2024, in other words.
Yes, exactly. And let me just say, it’s bizarre to me, because the president knows he’s lost. If he would have handled this with more dignity and grace, he would have been teed up perfectly to run again in ‘24. His flex jammed up any number of state houses across the country. He packed the Supreme Court, which was ultimately their end game anyway, and will likely deliver a Senate that is not going to allow some of this agenda to pass. And not one Republican would come within a country mile to challenge him in ‘24. They’d get incinerated just instantly. This is just not very alpha to claim and cry about fraud and cheating when you have no — just say, you know what? They said it was a fluke in ‘16, and look at what I did in ‘20, and we’ll see you in ‘24. And that could have been dignified, and that could have been powerful.
That would require a different person.
Yeah, I don’t know. But even your own enlightened self-interest would dictate that’s how you should handle it.
That’s not how he rolls. When you think about some of the other things like fracking and some of the other issues, did they become big issues?
No, not at all. This was 100% straight up referendum on Donald Trump, for both sides.
In Pennsylvania. And this idea that people were sitting around their kitchen table debating these obscure — I just don’t believe that it was the case and that was borne out that way. It was kind of rally the troops. You’re with us or you’re against us. Do you want four more years of this or do you want a fresh start? And that’s what motivated people. I fundamentally believe that.
And their down ballot that didn’t work as much — Republicans gained seats in the state House and Senate.
Down ballot, it was punishing for Democrats in Pennsylvania, because that’s how robust the Trump campaign was. And I’ll say it now, and I’m glad he didn’t do it, but I’m convinced if the president legalized marijuana back in August or September and did it for the right reasons, he very easily could have won, because that would have energized an entire —
Yeah, that certainly did well across the nation in terms of —
And I said, the president’s team is dicking around with fracking as a wedge issue, when no one cares about it right now with the pandemic and everything going. And they’re leaving alone the bazooka of legal weed. And that would have been a supernova of publicity, of good policy. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re going to be talking about 200,000 odd votes spread over a couple of states made the difference. And if you don’t think legal weed is worth many multiples of that in terms of votes and engagement, you’re mistaken.
All right, well, that sounds like possibly your platform going forward. But one of the things you’ve talked about, and I’ve read a lot of your interviews, is this idea of when you were in Braddock and you watched President Trump come through and bring through these rallies and things like that, which was not abandoning it, not ignoring what was happening in small towns like yours.
Well, he didn’t come to Braddock, I want to be clear.
No, he didn’t. No, on his way through.
He came to a town called Monesson, which is very much like Braddock. And it’s just further down the Monongahela River. And he came there in June of ‘16. And I was struck by this idea, like, why would he come to Monesson? And I said, either he’s crazy, or they’ve figured out something that we don’t know. And the latter was right — is this outreach to these marginalized places. And it turns out that that message and that presence resonated. And ultimately, as we know, he carried Pennsylvania by a slim margin. Even though I am vehemently opposed to much, if not most, if not all of Mr. Trump’s policies, you have to admire that ability to weaponize that kind of just as a political practitioner, that level of savvy. And I immediately started to warn people that it’s starting to really stick and it’s really starting to grow and put down roots.
Well, that’s one of the messages that you have a lot is this idea of powerlessness — the powerlessness of a lot of people who have been abandoned feel, and tapping into that idea, whether it’s in a hopeful way or a fearful way.
Yeah, absolutely. And when you show up and you’re running for president and you promise things, you articulate a vision, just the act of showing up, it’s like, wait, Donald Trump came to Monesson? No one listens to me. Or we lost our last fill in the blank 15 years ago, but here he is? So it’s very powerful. And I think it’s unconscionable to do that to people knowing that you have no intention of actually trying to help. But that it was effective is, I think at this point, beyond question. [MUSIC]
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear more, hit subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you’ve missed, like my spicy conversation with Hillary Clinton. And you’ll get new ones delivered to you. More with John Fetterman after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the country, in many ways. You are a progressive candidate. Can a progressive candidate that has nuanced opinions about things win with white working class voters or anybody else?
Sure. The challenge for anybody is nuance. People don’t do nuance anymore. It’s become all very binary. It’s just like you’re this or you’re that or you’re this and you’re that. And it’s really a challenge. But I’ve always maintained that I’m going to tell you my truth, whatever that is. And if you think that two people, regardless of their gender or how they identify, don’t deserve to be married and love each other, I don’t want your vote. I’m begging you, vote for somebody else, because I would rather have —
You spend a lot of time begging people not to vote for you.
It’s just that simple. It’s equal protection under the law. It was promised everyone. And as our country continues to evolve, it’s a march towards granting that. And in Pennsylvania, our legislature blocks equal protection under the law for the LGBTQIA communities in Pennsylvania. And I don’t know why. Florida voted for a $15 an hour minimum wage — Florida, the land of Ron DeSantis and a convincing Trump win just voted for — and we can’t get our state legislature off $7.25 an hour. And I say to people, would you work for $7.25? And they’re like, well, no. Well, then why would you want your neighbor to? Why would you be OK with anyone doing that? I don’t know why it doesn’t bother anybody. I don’t know why it’s political. If they would have tied the minimum wage to an index, it would be well above $15 an hour.
Right. So when you think about all the things that are coming up like that, because there’s a dozen issues among the Democrats alone — ditching Medicare for all, defund the police issue — you had just recently Conor Lamb, who’s from Pennsylvania, and AOC going back and forth over something. He thinks progressives push the party too far left — very different from you. How do you look at these differences and how are they going to get resolved in the Democratic party?
Well, I think our party needs to stop seeing each other as the enemy. I don’t take any umbrage with any of Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s beliefs anymore than I take it with Representative Lamb’s views. They are their own people, and I respect their own views. Everyone’s district is different. And I would never judge any rep from representing to their best ability the views of their district. It’s the joke — it’s like, you had one job. Well, that is your one job.
But how do they reconcile that? How do you see — because you were arguing about keeping jobs in fracking at the same time.
I want to clear that up. I’m not pro-fracking. I signed that no fossil fuel pledge before the cool kids were doing it back in 2015. I don’t take money from any industry, because I would never want anyone to accuse me of having my judgment clouded by an industry paycheck. I just would never do that. And I won’t take marijuana money either when I run, simply because money does have a corrupting influence. And I want you to trust what I have to say. But this idea — I believe we can’t all work at Google or in Pittsburgh, Duolingo. I’m a 51-year-old man, and I would not respond well if someone who didn’t live in my district or live in my state said, hey, John, go learn how to code.
So I would never say that to anybody. And the fact that we still need to be a manufacturing powerhouse is something that I believe in.
So how do you reconcile those differences? Or do they need to be — because —
They don’t need to be —
This is the Democratic party versus the Republican lockstep.
Yeah. That’s one thing that the Republicans have always done well. They fall in line when they need to. And we could learn something in terms of that. But now is not the time to train fire on each other as a Democrat. And one of the things about Pennsylvania that reminds me of the nation is that you can be in Center City Philadelphia and have a very distinct and justifiable world view. And you can be standing in Cameron County in Pennsylvania with 5,000 people and have a very distinct and justified world view, and that doesn’t make either of them bad people or either one right or either one wrong. It’s just an idea that I don’t know if it’s fueled by social media or what, but this idea that compromise is surrender, compromise is whatever. And it’s OK to want something, but it’s also incumbent on you to provide that blueprint and the means in order to achieve it as you keep pushing. So we shouldn’t train our fire on anybody at this point. Our country needs to heal. I firmly believe that.
So when Joe Biden says he wants to be the president for all Americans and not just the folks who voted for him, do you feel like that’s going to have resonance in a state like Pennsylvania?
Yeah, absolutely. Because let’s talk Pennsylvania politics. The governor and I won by 852,000 votes less than two years ago. He and I banked more votes than any governor or lieutenant governor team in the history of Pennsylvania by far — by far more than he did in 2014 when he won too. So what does that tell you about Pennsylvania? It tells you that there’s actually a lot of people that consider what they really believe in, who they want in their leaders. It’s not this monolithic, raging mass of people. It’s this idea that they have different viewpoints, different considerations based on where they live, what their experiences are. And one isn’t necessarily more valid or invalid than the other. And that’s what I always try to remember. I joke that I’ll be the first Democrat that my parents vote for, hopefully — hopefully.
Did they vote for you?
Yes, they did. At least that’s what they told me. But my point, though, is that with Pennsylvania, how do you explain a 44,000 for Trump, then an 800,000-vote swing for the governor and I, and then you have a fistfight down to votes and a slight Biden win?
How do you explain it?
I would call it purple churn. It’s purple churn. And I don’t see Pennsylvania’s demographics changing anytime soon. And that’s how I describe it to people. It’s purple churn. And we’re not going to be a breakaway blue state, and we’re never going to certainly be a breakaway red state.
And is that, do you think, the country in that way — purple churn country?
For the electoral college, I think that’s the way it was inherently designed. We would never have a Republican president again, at least that I could conceive of, if it was majority rule, of course, because California would overwhelm everything.
So would you end the electoral college?
Because I can’t wag my finger at Republicans and say just because you don’t like the results, it doesn’t mean you have to change the rules. The electoral college gave us Barack Obama.
The electoral college gave us John F. Kennedy. Nobody would be talking about the Electoral College if we never had Donald Trump.
So what’s his legacy from your perspective?
Donald Trump’s legacy? Oh my god, it’s incalculable. He altered the DNA of the American political body in ways that historians will be studying for years. One of my all-time favorite movies was “Bulworth.” And it was released as fantasy satire. And every politician dreams of going “Bulworth” and just getting up there and just, ah. Well, he went beyond that. The funniest thing I’ve ever seen him do was he got up in front of an audience and he’s like, “You don’t like me, I don’t like you, but you’re going to vote for me anyway because you need my tax cut.” And they couldn’t even boo him or whatever. And he achieved full-on “Bulworth” in basically 20 years in American politics. And that’s profound. Al Gore was nearly undone because he sighed too loud during a debate, or Barack Obama wore a tan suit or whatever. And you have a guy now that says whatever he wants. And my frustration — I want to be clear, I have enormous respect for the media and the role that they play, and they’ve never been more under siege than they are under the Trump presidency — but at one point, screaming electoral fraud with zero evidence is yelling fire in a crowded theater. And we can’t keep giving that voice. He can tweet, that gets flagged, but we can’t flag him in the media if we keep covering it. And that’s not censoring, that’s saying — that’s not protected speech.
Do you think social media need to do a better job? Do you think they have become toxic?
Oh, yes, undeniably. And I think everybody should have a blue checkmark, because if you don’t put your name on it, I don’t care what you have to say, you know what I mean? This relative anonymity of social media encourages viciousness and meanness in a way that it’s almost like fantasy violence. You can savage someone on the other side and break their heart and just go after them in ways that you just would never do in person most likely — the overwhelming majority of people are much better than their social media would if everyone had a blue checkmark and you were held accountable for everything that you said online. And I think if we could all just take a break a little bit — Twitter puts tweets in impound that have lies, like often the presidents will have. If they could just say, you know what? Two weeks time out, and let everything cool off, because it’s an engine that’s overheating as far as I’m concerned.
That’s a very fair point. So now that you have the national spotlight, which I think you do, what’s your next campaign — governor, senator, president?
Would you be the tallest president?
You know what, I haven’t done that research.
Lincoln was pretty tall.
I don’t know what my plans are. I just want to enjoy Thanksgiving. Honestly, that’s not a schmaltzy answer. I just really do. 2020 has been awful for — my wife lost her father figure from COVID. It’s been brutal. And I think historians are going to look back in addition to the at least quarter million Americans and the trillions in lost — the major tragedy was that the virus isn’t the enemy. Each other became the enemy. You know what? I want to stop arguing about masks and social distancing. And —
Biden had a good quote on that today. It’s not about taking away your freedom, it’s about giving you back.
Exactly. There’s nothing more pro-business than to wear a mask. That’s how we keep businesses open is that if we can control the spread of the virus to keep these open.
100%. Are you looking forward to a Biden administration?
I am. I am. He said it, I’m looking forward to ignoring the president, and I mean that in the best way. Like, how refreshing? We’re going to go back to a time when it’s just kind of like, the color suit you wear is the scandal of the day, not like, take your pick.
Yeah. John, this is really, really great. I really appreciate it.
All right. Well, thank you for having me. And OK.
We appreciate it. Thanks, John.
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Matt Frassica, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Paula Szuchman, with music and sound design by Isaac Jones. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Renan Borelli, Liriel Hega, and Kathy Tu.
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