In April 2022, during his Senate primary campaign in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman spoke enthusiastically about his unqualified support for Israel and said he did not consider himself a “progressive” when it came to his views on the Jewish state.
“Whenever I’m in a situation to be called on to take up the cause of strengthening and enhancing the security of Israel or deepening our relationship between the United States and Israel, I’m going to lean in,” Mr. Fetterman, then the lieutenant governor, told Jewish Insider at the time. When it came to far-left Democrats who harshly criticized Israel, he added, “I would also respectfully say that I’m not really a progressive in that sense.”
So as the left has turned against Mr. Fetterman in recent weeks, branding him #GenocideJohn for his unequivocal support of Israel’s fierce retaliation against Hamas in response to the group’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, the senator has dug in.
Once a darling of progressives who positioned himself as a champion of the underdog and highlighted his association with Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, Mr. Fetterman now has a less rosy view of the left and says the label of “progressive” does not fit him anymore.
“What I have found out over the last couple years is that the right, and now the left, are hoping that I die,” Mr. Fetterman, who suffered a near-fatal stroke during his campaign, said in an interview on Wednesday. “There are ones that are rooting for another blood clot. They have both now been wishing that I die.”
Mr. Fetterman has rejected calls for a cease-fire, filled the walls of the hallway outside his Senate office with photos of the hostages taken by Hamas, draped himself in an Israeli flag and even waved one provocatively in the face of pro-Palestinian demonstrators. A large Israeli flag even hangs on the wall behind his desk, positioned to be visible in his Zoom shots.
In forcefully inserting himself into an issue that has exposed a deep divide in the Democratic Party as the death toll in Gaza has risen, Mr. Fetterman has shattered any lasting perception that he is a progressive warrior in lock step with the left.
He has also publicly encouraged Democrats in recent days to engage in border negotiations with Republicans, talks that have outraged progressives who object to efforts to clamp down on migration through the United States border with Mexico.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have a secured border,” Mr. Fetterman said in the interview, conducted over Zoom. “I would never put Dreamers in harm’s way, or support any kind of cruelty or mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people. But it’s a reasonable conversation to talk about the border.”
It all marks a shift in Mr. Fetterman’s image, even if the “progressive” label was never a perfect fit for him. In 2018, Mr. Sanders called Mr. Fetterman an “outstanding progressive” as he endorsed his campaign for lieutenant governor. Mr. Fetterman, an early backer of Mr. Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, used to introduce himself at political events as “a Democrat and a progressive.”
The Pennsylvania senator said he still aligns with many progressive goals, including a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, legalizing marijuana and abolishing the Senate filibuster.
But he said he no longer relates to the overarching label of “progressive” — especially as the left has become more interested in demanding what he described as “purity tests.”
“It’s just a place where I’m not,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve left the label; it’s just more that it’s left me.
“I’m not critical if someone is a progressive,” he added. “I believe different things.”
Such stances have given his former critics — some of whom routinely called him a vegetable after his stroke and accused him of pushing a “radical socialist agenda”— a disorienting sense of whiplash.
“What multiverse is this?” the right-wing website Breitbart posted on social media, with a link to Mr. Fetterman’s recent appearance on CNN where he claimed that TikTok was responsible for giving younger Americans a “warped” view of the Israel-Hamas war.
Mr. Fetterman is shedding the “progressive” label at the same time his health has markedly improved, after his 2022 stroke and a six-week stay this year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for clinical depression.
He still suffers from some auditory processing problems that are a side effect of the stroke, but his speech is notably improved even from a few months ago, and he has emerged ready for action.
These days, the freshman senator who arrived in Washington struggling to interact with colleagues and journalists appears to relish the limelight and the give and take with the press. He said he tries to ignore the criticism he sees online, which he said creates a “warped and twisted perspective,” and instead focus on the positive interactions with voters who approach him at coffee shops for selfies and to chat. And while he still maintains that his goal is to provide his party with a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, Mr. Fetterman thrives in moments when he can position himself as an independent thinker.
He said he is mystified that anyone on the left would have expected a different response from him on Israel. “I’m not really sure what part of any of this would be a surprise if anyone’s been paying attention,” Mr. Fetterman said.
Still, the backlash has been blistering. Demonstrators have shuttered streets in front of his district offices demanding his support for a cease-fire. A group of former campaign staff members wrote an anonymous letter calling his support for Israel a “gutting betrayal” of what they had believed to be his values. And progressives have expressed frustration that Mr. Fetterman, of all people, has rallied to support Israel rather than the Palestinians whose plight they have made their cause.
Melissa Byrne, who worked on Mr. Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and is now an organizer for liberal causes, accused Mr. Fetterman of “trying to have it both ways,” claiming to be a progressive only when it helped him electorally.
“He’s here for the vibes,” she said. “You should at least be honest and say, ‘Hey, I called myself a progressive because we wanted to raise more money. We needed to win.’”
Ms. Byrne said she always had her doubts about Mr. Fetterman’s progressive bona fides, ever since he proclaimed Pennsylvania to be “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” and said it was impossible to win the state in a presidential election while supporting a ban on fracking.
These days, she said, “he’s aligning himself with Likud,” the right-wing governing party in Israel, and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Why is he not critiquing Netanyahu for not cracking down on settler violence?” she asked.
In the interview, Mr. Fetterman was unchastened. He was tempered in criticizing Mr. Netanyahu, whose government’s failure to prevent the Oct. 7 attacks has led to backlash at home and abroad, and who has come under criticism from President Biden for his response.
“I’m not suggesting that he is ideal any more than someone might think Trump is ideal,” Mr. Fetterman said. “But that’s the leader that we have.”
Mr. Fetterman, for his part, said he has always prided himself on passing his own internal common sense test before bowing to the demands of his party or his base. Outside his Senate office, for instance, he displays a flag honoring American prisoners of war and another proclaiming L.G.B.T.Q. pride. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only senator that has both,” he said. “Can’t it be possible that it’s really appropriate to stand for both?”
But it is on the issue of Israel where Mr. Fetterman is as flummoxed by members of the left as they are by him.
“I do find it confusing where the very left progressives in America don’t seem to want to support really the only progressive nation in the region that really embraces the same kind of values I would expect we would want as a society,” he said of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
As for the gripes of anonymous former members of his campaign staff, Mr. Fetterman said that “it’s difficult to respect somebody’s opinion if they’re not going to attach their name to it.” None of his current Senate aides have raised concerns about his political stances, he said.
Still, Mr. Fetterman said he is not completely surprised that he is not satisfying the same Democratic voters who were outraged in 2016 when he endorsed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy after Mr. Sanders left the race.
“This bizarre purity thing, where people were offended that I was embracing Secretary Clinton when we have Trump on the other side?” Mr. Fetterman said. “How did that work out for you?”