Why Senate hopeful John Fetterman’s masterful online trolling of Dr. O

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It’s just the latest example of Fetterman’s mastery of the comedic political hit job. His campaign has proven over and about again that, in the right candidate’s hands, Twitter trolling can have a devastating impact and a reach that goes far beyond the platform. While some of his tactics would likely be deemed undignified by Democrats of the when-they-go-low-we-go-high variety, Fetterman is decidedly not of that ilk. Perhaps that’s why he is currently up by six points.

By now, even folks who proudly avoid setting digital foot on Twitter or Facebook are likely familiar with Fetterman’s antics. He earned massive media plaudits for using Cameo to get New Jersey icon Snooki Polizzi to mock Dr. Oz’s all-too-recent move from the Garden State to Pennsylvania. (Fellow famous Jerseyite Stevie Van Zandt cut a similar ad but he appears to have gotten on board more organically.)

The most widely shared of Fetterman’s troll moves, however, was his savvy exploitation or an egregious unforced error. Back in April, Dr. Oz filmed himself bemoaning the rising price of “crudités” at nonexistent supermarket “Wegner’s.” When Fetterman noticed the video months later, what was supposed to be an attack on inflation in Joe Biden’s America turned into a savage dunk contest that drew a sharp contrast between dr. Oz and working-class Pennsylvanians. Fetterman’s many digs at the supermarket video quickly caught fire online. Within 24 hours, his campaign had raised over $500,000—all from crudités and Wegner’s jokes.

Meanwhile, when Dr. Oz has tried to engage in flame warfare, the best he can come up with is photoshopping his opponent into the Step Brothers poster, to make the point that… Fetterman once endorsed Bernie Sanders. dr. Oz is simply not built for this kind of combat. He has successfully made hay out of populist Fetterman accepting money from his parents throughout 13 years as mayor of Braddock—“I purchased my houses with MY money”—but that financial support is something Fetterman has long been open about, and doesn’t seem to amount to a vast fortune. all dr. Oz has as ammunition otherwise is his opponent’s recent stroke, and he’s been tone-deaf about that, too.

Fetterman still comes across as authentically Pennsylvanian as the Liberty Bell or Abbott Elementary, and both his entertaining campaign style and predilection for shorts and hoodies have helped draw a distinction not just with Dr. Oz but with more traditional Democrats.

Trolling as political bloodsport may be a bit unbecoming of a Senate candidate, but that seems to be why it’s working. Fetterman’s frequent battering of his opponent has helped keep dr. Oz’s unfavorable high in the battleground state all year, even if it hasn’t brought more Republicans over to his side. Some undecided voters will surely be turned off by this pugnacious approach, but how many of them would rather vote for an out of touch, Dr. Nick Riviera-type carpetbagger just because the other guy pointed out those flaws in an uncouth way?

Maybe in some races, behavior that’s a bit unbecoming is how you become electable.

For better or worse, the shocking success of Donald Trump’s 2016 primary campaign revealed how hungry some voters are to see politicians eviscerate their opponents in entertaining fashion. Trump bent the rules by leaning on lies, deflections, gross nativist appeals—and worse—but he knocked out his 16 primary opponents mainly by ridiculing ridiculous people relentlessly. Putting aside the fact that Trump himself was a deeply ridiculous and dangerous person, why not use biting humor to call a clown a clown?

It was only a matter of time before a Democrat figured out how to do so without crossing any ethical lines.

Some candidates have indeed tried it before. When Michael Bloomberg enlisted an expensive meme army to attack Trump in a doomed 2020 presidential bid, it rank as falsely as anything Dr. Oz is done. Not only were the jokes sweaty, they came from a candidate who had way too much in common with his opponent. Bloomberg had taken the wrong lessons from Trump’s 2016 campaign. He was mean and extremely online, but in a way that felt detached from its source and without providing an appealing counterexample. By contrast, Fetterman’s darts land not only because Dr. Oz is such a broad and unmoving target—although he is—but because Fetterman is the one aiming at him, even as his digital teams guiding hand is faintly visible.

Fetterman’s campaign is authentic, often funny, and feels relatively effortless. (Less than a day after the Simpsons video, he scored another viral hit.) An election win is by no means certain, of course. The candidate’s recent stroke is 100% a legitimate concern, and could prove a critical liability, depending on whether he appears in control of his faculties over the final stretch of the election, which includes an October 25 debate with Dr. oz. It certainly says something about how effective his campaigning has been, however, that at this point it would appear that only a stroke could take him out.

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