A month ago, Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania posted a selfie to X, formerly Twitter, that would shock America — and kick off weeks of feverish, unfounded claims that he had been replaced by a lookalike. The caption read, “Lost a bet to Karl.” The outcome of that wager with his teenage son was immediately obvious: instead of the trademark goatee he’d sported from his earliest days as a national political figure, he had… a mustache.
The senator later explained that Karl is an avid chess player, and that the two agreed to a match with a lot riding on it. If Karl lost, he would have to make his dad a dozen deviled eggs, “because he makes great deviled eggs,” Fetterman told GQ at the time. “He said that if I lose, I’d need to have a mustache for two weeks.” And, while Fetterman didn’t hold back on the board, his son “beat the brakes off” of him.
To a less paranoid person, this is the kind of lighthearted, wholesome family humor that makes a member of Congress refreshingly relatable. But commentators on the far right took the photo as evidence of a nefarious scheme — orchestrated by someone or other — to replace Fetterman with a body double. Brian Cates, for example, who has written for conspiracist media outlets, including the Epoch Times and the X22 Report, suggested on X that the mustachioed man could not have been the real Fetterman, owing to a supposedly obvious tell: the ears. Cates has nearly 200,000 followers on the platform, a number of which took his implication seriously. “Who is this new guy and where did the old guy go?” one asked.
“They seem to be very thrown by a simple change in facial hair,” Fetterman’s Chief of Staff, Adam Jentleson, tells Rolling Stone. “And it’s pretty hilarious. It’s like Clark Kent. No one can tell he’s Superman when he puts on a pair of glasses.” Fetterman’s look is not “easily replicated,” Jentleson points out, given that “there aren’t many 6-foot, 8-inch men of his size lying around.”
“It’s like he literally put on a fake nose and a mustache, you know?” Jentleson says. “And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, he’s a different person.’” He also alludes to the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles,” in which the rap duo asks, “Fucking magnets, how do they work,” asserting that the Fetterman conspiracy theorists are similarly confused about photography.
This isn’t the first time Fetterman has been accused of being a Fetterman decoy, either. After spending weeks in the hospital for treatment of clinical depression, attributed in part to the effects of a stroke he suffered during his Senate campaign last year, conspiracy theorists insisted that the man who checked out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was someone else. The false rumor even prompted the senator to release a video in which he “accidentally” revealed his doppelgänger, who asks what event he’s supposed to be doing that afternoon. (Fetterman, of course, portrays both himself and his own stand-in.)
For those keeping score at home, that would make this latest fake Fetterman the second replacement, or “Fetterman 3.0.” (Other memes, however, maintain that we’re only on version 2.0.) All sorts of spurious evidence is cited to support this baseless notion, from deceptive screenshots and videos purporting to show that tattoos on Fetterman’s arms have “disappeared” (they haven’t) to clips in which Fetterman gives articulate answers to questions from the media — an alleged impossibility given how Fetterman’s stroke initially affected his speech. (Stroke patients often recover from aphasia, a common resulting disorder that disrupts the ability to communicate, in a matter of months.)
“The man has recovered from a pretty serious episode,” Jentleson says. “And his recovery is amazing and remarkable, and a testament to the work he’s put in.” But the conspiracist right, he says, “don’t want to see it in any kind of sympathetic light. So they have to invent something nefarious. There’s no real sense to it, but you simply can’t fill this space in their perspective. They can’t fill this space with passion and understanding; they have to fill it with insanity.”
Indeed, a solid core of Fetterman truthers don’t even bother with “proof,” believing that the unmistakable senator so clearly doesn’t resemble his former self that no reasonable observer could fall for the switcheroo. Superficial changes in his appearance, from the mustache to his glasses, facial expression to formal clothes, seem to have thwarted their sense of visual continuity. The slightest difference in camera angle or lighting has them convinced that the current Fetterman is an impostor. Paralyzed by the need to keep pointing this out, they don’t even bother to explain who is behind the alleged body swap or what it is meant to accomplish. The “why” is left entirely up to the reader.
The Fetterman clone conspiracy posts have become so rote, repetitive, and lazy that they’ve morphed into a mocking meme from the left, with shitposters writing “This is not Fetterman” on side-by-side images of the senator and familiar bald characters including Mr. Clean and Walter White from Breaking Bad. (“Not Fetterman” became a trending topic on X on Tuesday.) Fetterman, for his part, answered a question from HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic about the phenomenon with a Simpsons reference, calling himself “Senator Guy Incognito.” It’s the name of a random, one-off character in the show, a dandily-dressed double of Homer Simpson, who is mistaken for Homer in disguise.
While Fetterman’s office has not yet been bombarded by direct accusations of a conspiracy or materials meant to demonstrate one, Jentleson says, “I bet we will soon,” considering “a lot of people seem to actually believe it — which is, you know, kind of a terrifying commentary on how we’re in the Upside Down.” Chatter around the topic has even “broken through” on Capitol Hill, he says.
Asked whether the senator agrees that a person may appear nonidentical in two or more photographs given a range of factors, Jentleson says Fetterman has always “proudly supported [the] position that sometimes people look different in photos from different angles with different lighting. And he will not back down.”
As for whether Fetterman might take steps to verify his identity to the American public, Jentleson says he’s not sure how that would work. (It’s not like President Obama put the “birther” movement to rest by releasing his birth certificate.) The best Fetterman can do, Jentleson jokes, is “to never be seen in the same place as his body double.”
And the mustache, he confirms, will stay around longer than originally planned, thanks to a recent X poll in which nearly two-thirds of respondents voted that Fetterman keep it. “He’s not like Elon Musk, he actually made a commitment to abide by the results of the poll,” says Jentleson. “And he did.” Yes, whoever it is in this picture, he’s a man of the people — and his word.