The recent story of the American Right, as told by the hard left, has been that Donald Trump was inevitable. Old-school conservatives, this story goes, trafficked in racist dog-whistles against former President Obama and his administration, divided the country into a makers-takers dichotomy, and set the stage for a political order where overt bigotry would be acceptable. Without Paul Ryan’s defamation against people on public assistance, this argument went, or Richard Nixon’s 1968 obsession with “law and order,” the GOP — and, by extension, American politics — would never have started running a shell game for a sort of white ethnocentrism that buries itself in euphemisms to sound more respectable.
I’m bringing this up because the Senate could very well seat its first Muslim member in January 2023 — Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania — and I’ve only heard it talked about sparingly in conversations about his campaign against the Democrat, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Yet, Fetterman’s entire campaign seems to be that Dr. Oz is not like us in some deep and intolerable way: The doctor’s not from Pennsylvania, Fetterman says, which is more or less true — Oz went to med school at UPenn, but he’s operated in and around New York City since the 1980s. Dr. Oz is, furthermore, Dr. Oz, which is to say that he once hosted a TV show where he pushed bogus cures and fad diets. Finally, Dr. Oz is rich, stupid rich, the kind of rich that allows you to buy nine houses across multiple continents and nary a room in the state you hope to represent in the 118th Congress.
Dr. Oz, potentially the first Muslim ever to sit in the United States Senate? He’s not like you and me, as the author Rick Perlstein would say. When you put it like that, it looks like something of a dark road, doesn’t it?
Add to that Oz’s opponents’ insistence on calling him Mehmet at every opportunity, instead of the name by which he’s known to the vast majority of Americans, and the crusade against him — among the most passionate in the country, supposedly because Pennsylvania’s so close — smacks of Islamophobia. (I thought he was right to call out the Philadelphia Inquirer over their refusal to call him “Dr.” last December, and I haven’t changed my mind since.)
I’m not necessarily disturbed by the attacks on Oz themselves: Politicians catch heat for being wealthy all the time, and Dr. Oz might be the least pretentious carpetbagger to run for the Senate since Alan Keyes threw himself at the mercy of then-State Senator Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. But the ferocity and consistency of the Oz-is-different argument makes me wonder how it would be received if the shoe was on the other foot… well, multiple other feet.
In a lot of ways, John Fetterman looks like a third-party protest candidate from a decade ago or so: He usually wears hoodies and shorts instead of the traditional suit, and his tales of transforming Braddock from a glorified shooting gallery to an up-and-coming industrial town largely bounce past the fact that he’s a UConn MBA with a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard. He’s got as many degrees as the last three House speakers combined, and the room he shoots his ads from looks like a cross between a CMAs dressing room and an IKEA display in Monte Carlo. Yet, he doesn’t talk about any of those things; Dr. Oz doesn’t even talk about any of it, because the Oz campaign is obsessed with that clip of Fetterman waving his arms above his head like (admittedly) a crazy person. (Their loss.)
“Hoping no one notices you have a Harvard MPP” is a luxury afforded to a very specific crop of political candidates. Fetterman wants us to know that he doesn’t look like a normal politician, because he doesn’t look like a normal human being, and that would be fine — only, he looks like a certain kind of human being, who might have an easier time getting away with the hoodie-and-shorts getup than, say, Obama and Alan Keyes. Add the fact that Dr. Oz has been playing catch-up with Republicans, not Democrats or independents, and suddenly the crudité crusade looks less like good-natured ribbing — and more like something a little darker than politics as usual.
Do I want Dr. Oz to win? Not really. He’s being blown by the winds of party politics in a way that belies whatever “outsider” status he’s selling, and his bog-standard Republican bromides on crime, abortion, and COVID make me think he’ll be more influenced by a certain fellow TV presenter than his doctoring day job. Oz’s decision to mock Fetterman for having a stroke didn’t exactly buoy my confidence in his character, nor did his embrace of Donald Trump, who added “threatening the life of the Senate majority leader” to the ledger of his mediocre-mob-boss-caliber rap sheet. And, let’s not forget that Oz, a literal doctor, spent his first weeks on the campaign trail dipping his toes in anti-Asian foment, a poison that I’ve written in excess of 5,000 words about elsewhere on this site. There are a lot of candidates for high office who I’d argue are worse than Dr. Oz — starting with the Republican nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano — but that speaks more to the bleak state of American politics than it does to any merit on his part.
But it goes without saying that the GOP wasn’t exactly apathetic about the prospect of a President Hubert Humphrey, either. And that’s good! We need two healthy, competitive, political parties if we want a healthy democracy. We need competing groups of politicians to hold each other’s respective feet to the fire, and we need them to have some incentive to make their voters’ lives better, safer, and more secure. Liberals have a point when they say that the Republican Party tailored their rhetoric to the anxieties of segregationists in the South, and the once-beatified Party of Lincoln has been sliding into dangerous places ever since. But that’s the problem with a slide, whether right or left: You’ve already moved a heck of a lot before you even notice you’re in motion.