Twitter makes a candidate’s personality hard to hide.
About the author: Molly Jong-Fast is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Wait, What? She is also the host of The New Abnormal and a columnist for Vogue.
Mehmet Oz should be a good Senate candidate. He was an accomplished surgeon, performing complicated cardiac procedures at some of the most prestigious hospitals in America. He attended an Ivy League college and an Ivy League medical school. And Dr. Oz is no media neophyte: In 2004, he was plucked from relative obscurity by Oprah, appearing—sometimes in blue surgical scrubs—more than 60 times on her show as “America’s doctor.” His own show ran for 13 seasons (its final episode aired earlier this year). Largely as a result, Dr. Oz has an enormous digital footprint of 3.8 million Twitter followers. That’s more than most of the other Republican Senate candidates combined.
And yet, almost every day seems to bring some new social-media humiliation for the doctor in his campaign race for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Oz has had great success as a television doctor, but the traits that make someone a successful television doctor are not the traits that make someone a successful political candidate. Twitter gives politicians an opportunity to interact directly with voters, allowing them less filtered access to candidates and more of a flavor of their personality. One of the things that excited Donald Trump’s base about his Twitter account, when he still had one, was that they felt they were connecting with Trump himself, especially when he retweeted supporters.
If Trump showed everyone what a powerful tool Twitter, in particular, could be to amplify his message, Oz has demonstrated that for a less adept social-media user, the platform can be a liability, betraying the hidden flaws of a political candidate. (Whether Oz personally does his own posting to Twitter is unclear.) The problem for Oz, which Fetterman has taken full advantage of, is that Twitter amplifies Oz’s humorlessness.
Read: Pennsylvania becomes the land of Oz
Back in April, Oz posted a short video for Twitter about how inflation was making food more expensive. In it, Oz goes supermarket shopping to buy vegetables to make a platter of crudités. Straight off, he appears awkward in his surroundings and unfamiliar with food shopping. He piles vegetables in his arms instead of using a basket or cart, and he seems to have trouble figuring out what goes on a crudités plate. He picks broccoli and asparagus—neither of which tastes great uncooked—and then adds containers of ready-made salsa and guacamole. As ill at ease as he looks in the store, he seems to be struggling with a deeper confusion: uncertainty about whom he’s trying to be.
Oz knows how to play a masterful authority figure as a TV medical expert, but he seems clueless about how to be someone you’d want to have a beer with. Oz is good at playing one role—unfortunately for him, that role is not “popular Republican senator” but “know-it-all heart surgeon.”
Oz’s difficulty is compounded by Pennsylvania’s strong blue-collar identity. It’s a state that puts a high value on unpretentiousness—and one where beer is generally not served with crudités. The doctor seems to want to promote a healthy eating choice, because that’s consistent with his brand, but it comes off as out of touch and elitist. Fetterman has no such authenticity deficit and knew exactly how to quote-tweet Oz’s crudités video: “In PA we call this … a veggie tray.”
Fetterman’s camp later said it had raised half a million dollars off the Oz video. Instead of taking the loss and moving on, Oz’s senior communications adviser, Rachel Tripp, compounded the clumsiness of the video with pure meanness: “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.” Fetterman responded with the statement, “I had a stroke. I survived it. I know politics can be nasty, but even then, I could *never* imagine ridiculing someone for their health challenges.” Tripp only dug herself deeper by tweeting an emoji of an apple, which met with such a flood of scathing responses that she apparently felt forced to limit replies. Even Oz tried to distance himself from Tripp’s comment, telling a Pittsburgh radio station, “The campaign’s been saying lots of things … I can only speak to what I’m saying.”
Tripp’s debacle was a reminder that the only person who can really do Trumpism and make performative trash-talking work is Trump himself. Other Republicans who try to imitate him tend to look petty and vindictive, even to committed GOP voters.
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Then came the controversy about how many houses Dr. Oz owned. At the Carbon County Fair, in Palmerton, Oz was asked by a Democratic activist how many houses he owned. “Legitimately, I own two houses,” Oz replied. He actually owns 10. Fetterman ran wild with Oz’s fib, posting videos that poked fun at how many houses Oz had. Oz tried to shift the discourse back onto Fetterman, suggesting that he’d had a lot of help from his parents, who have money, but the attack didn’t stick—perhaps because Oz’s punch line, “Get off the couch, John,” made him sound like a lifestyle-advice scold again.
Another problem with Oz’s 10 houses was that it drew attention to the fact that he’s a latecomer to Pennsylvania. His primary residence was in New Jersey until late 2020, and when he first claimed Pennsylvania residency, he registered at the address of a house owned by his in-laws. He didn’t purchase his $3.1 million house in Pennsylvania until February 2022—well after declaring his candidacy for the Pennsylvania Senate seat—and that has created further opportunity for Fetterman to troll the doctor. In July, Fetterman started a petition to induct Dr. Oz into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and made fun of Oz for being a tourist in Pennsylvania. (Oz also has two houses in Turkey, where he voted in the 2018 election.)
Fetterman takes his jovial ribbing offline too. At the end of July, his campaign rented a plane to fly a banner over the Jersey Shore welcoming Oz home to the Garden State. The stunt paired well with his Twitter account’s humorous cameos by the celebrities Snooki and Steven Van Zandt hailing Oz as a fellow New Jerseyan. Oz has tried to retaliate by posting a Photoshopped image of Fetterman and Senator Bernie Sanders in matching sweater vests. Fetterman mocked Oz’s attempt to create a viral meme by posting a deliberately corny picture of a cat with the caption “Graphic design is my passion.” In July, Oz’s campaign posted a meme based on the drama series Lost that featured Fetterman standing in front of a dark sky. Fetterman retweeted it with the comment, “Dr. Oz, would you allow me to give your social media manager a raise?” Fetterman’s wit makes Oz’s social posting appear all the more flat-footed.
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Fetterman has also made more substantive critiques of Oz’s reputation. In early August, he held a press conference titled “Real Doctors Against Oz,” at which the Montgomery County Commissioners chair and doctor Val Arkoosh told voters that Oz had made “his fortune as a TV scam artist providing reckless medical advice” and hawking “miracle” drugs. Oz has tried harder-hitting attacks too: This week, he tweeted out a link for a site called “inmates for Fetterman,” saying they “support John Fetterman because he’s on the side of murderers, not victims.” So far, this effort at casting Fetterman as soft on crime has gained little traction. According to RealClearPolitics’ polling average, the Democrat is holding a lead of more than seven points.
Twitter has a reputation for being a place where liberal elites talk among themselves, but Trump showed that non-college-educated voters will engage with the platform and that a big following on Twitter and Facebook can generate national media coverage and help win votes. Pew Research Center found in 2016 that 62 percent of Americans got their news from social media, and after the election that year, Trump told CBS: “The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera, I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent.” Social media was his “method of fighting back,” he said.
But Trump’s command of the medium—and his discovery that utter shamelessness was his superpower—obscured its risks for others. It provides people with an X-ray of your personality. Even Tucker Carlson made fun of Oz’s crudités video. Amid signs that Oz has an enthusiasm problem among Republican voters, The Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race from “toss up” to “lean Democrat.”
The very things that at one time made Oz a good surgeon—an obsession with detail verging on the pedantic and great assurance in his own authority—make him seem like a mean snob on Twitter. Oz could win non-college-educated Pennsylvanian voters on social, but first he’d have to learn how to relate to them the way Fetterman does.