The Survivor Vote

How John Fetterman’s stroke helped deepen his everyman appeal among some supporters

John Fetterman speaking in front of a podium
John Fetterman speaking at a rally on October 15, 2022, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela / Getty)

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John Fetterman wants voters to see his stroke as an asset, not a liability. Some of them absolutely do.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


A Relatable Crisis

The past several months can’t have been easy for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Before his stroke in May, stories about the Senate candidate centered on his aesthetic: his startling height, his casual hoodies and shorts, his arm tattoos. Despite his relatively privileged upbringing, Fetterman came across as the consummate everyman—the guy who told it to you straight. Now, though, most stories about the Democrat, including the one I wrote this week, revolve around his health and his fitness for office. He is struggling with speech and auditory-processing issues while an entire country watches, taking note of his every stumble.

A candidate’s health is, of course, a legitimate election issue. It’s fair for voters to have questions about Fetterman’s ability to do the job of a senator. But the interesting thing I’ve learned while reporting on this is that, for many Fetterman fans, his stroke doesn’t seem to have given them any pause at all. That might not be surprising; partisanship is a powerful thing. But for these supporters, the fact that the man had an ischemic stroke—something nearly 700,000 Americans experience annually—actually makes him even more relatable than he already was. Again and again, when I asked at a recent rally in Pennsylvania about the candidate’s health, people in attendance launched into detailed descriptions of their own health scares and struggles—their father’s heart attack, their sister’s cancer—and how they’ve managed to bounce back. So what? these voters told me. It can happen to any of us.

“I’ve had a hemorrhagic stroke, which is worse,” Jeanette Miller from Bristol Township told me when I asked whether she worried about Fetterman’s health. Rob Blatt, a retiree from Feasterville, shrugged when I asked the same. “I’ve beaten cancer and a whole bunch of other stuff,” he said. Andrew Moore, from Bristol, told me that at first, he was concerned when he heard about Fetterman’s stroke. “But I’ve [known] people that have gone through strokes,” he said. “I’ve seen how they come out on the other side and how vibrant [they are] and how much they still have to offer.”

Which is to say that Fetterman’s just-like-us appeal before his stroke may have only increased in its wake—that knowing what it’s like to go through a major health challenge, to live with a disability, and to navigate the thorny thicket of the American health-care system is actually an asset in voters’ minds, not a liability. The Fetterman campaign is banking on this being true. Nowadays, before rallies, Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, introduces her husband as a “stroke survivor.”

Fetterman begins his stump speech with the same question every time: “How many of you have had your own personal health challenges?” And every time, nearly every hand in the audience goes up.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Russia attacked Kyiv with Iranian-made drones, killing at least four people.
  2. Georgia’s Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker acknowledged that he sent $700 to a woman who claims the money was for an abortion, but Walker denies that the check was sent for that purpose. Early voting began in Georgia today.
  3. The Biden administration has launched the beta version of a new website for Americans to begin applying for student-debt forgiveness. Applications will start being processed when the site officially goes live, which is expected to happen later this month.

Dispatches

Evening Read
A photo montage showing Rudolf Vrba and Auschwitz
(Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Bettmann / Popperfoto / Getty; FDR Presidential Library; Sky News)

The Unheeded Warning

By Jonathan Freedland

In the summer of 2020, video footage emerged showing long lines of prisoners, bound and blindfolded, sitting on the ground at a railway station. The pictures were taken by a drone, and the captives, many of them wearing high-visibility vests, appeared to be Uyghurs. They had apparently been shipped by train to a location that analysts placed in southeastern Xinjiang. Standing over the men were Chinese police in black uniforms. In the short video, which was posted anonymously on YouTube, some of the captives were being led away, their heads bowed, their eyes still covered, their destination unknown.

Perhaps it was the trains, the aerial shot of the sidings, but the visual echo was immediate. To anyone steeped in the imagery of the Holocaust, when Jews were transported in cattle cars from all across Europe to mysterious camps in the east, the association was hard to avoid. But I also made another connection with the Shoah, one that I imagined gave me a glimpse into the mind of the unnamed leaker of the Xinjiang footage and the hope that drove them to make these images public.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
The five main characters in "Derry Girls" walking somberly down a neighborhood street
A still from Netflix's Derry Girls (Netflix)

Read. “Chrystie Street,” a poem by Janelle Tan.

“last year, when we bought mace en masse, / i made an altar of my grandmother. / tonight, chrystie street is dripping / in the same prayer.”

Watch. The third and final season of Derry Girls (Netflix), a show that understands the process of growing up better than a lot of other recent TV series do.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

This summer, Daily readers really came through for me with some absolutely elite recommendations for summertime spritzes. (Lesson learned: Substitute Campari for Aperol.) For the cozy autumn season, I’d like to make another request: I’ve always liked war history, and I recently got very into the Netflix series Greatest Events of WWII in Colour. So far, I’ve learned a lot about the Battle of Midway and how the Blitzkrieg was partly fueled by meth (!). But to help complete my transformation into my father, I’d love to hear about your favorite World War II documentaries and TV series. What else should I be watching? Let me know at egodfrey@theatlantic.com!

— Elaine

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.