Sen. John Fetterman’s recent public appearances have reignited a fringe ring-wing conspiracy theory that the Pennsylvania Democrat has a body double.
Fetterman suffered a stroke last May that hindered his auditory processing, causing him to stumble over words and require closed captioning assistance in interviews. Nearly a year and a half later, Fetterman’s speech has improved, allowing him to give more interviews and to travel to Detroit over the weekend to support the United Auto Workers strike.
While such developments seem to be clear signs of Fetterman’s recovery, some have interpreted them, inexplicably, as proof that there are actually multiple 6-foot-8, bald men with facial hair posing as the senator.
“What happened to his slow, incoherent speech?” wrote one conservative social media account in response to an interview Fetterman gave to MSNBC on Monday. In one viral repost, another user wrote: “The new Fetterman doesn’t have those problems.”
Others scrutinized apparent differences in his physical appearance. One right-wing account posted screenshots of Fetterman that claimed to show inconsistencies in the placement of his arm tattoos. (A fact check by AFP noted the ink is visible in the full video.) Another viral post displayed six different photos of Fetterman, with varying amounts of facial hair (he recently pivoted from sporting a goatee to a mustache), and suggested that they were not all the same person.
Fetterman and his team have taken a mocking tone in response to such claims, with the senator making a reference to “The Simpsons” when asked by reporters Tuesday about the body double theory. Others on social media have joined in the fun, posting split screen images of Fetterman alongside other famous bald men, such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bryan Cranston, with the message: “This is not John Fetterman.”
Origins of the body double theory
This is not the first time Fetterman has dealt with such claims. When he returned to the job earlier this year after six weeks of treatment for clinical depression, right-wing conspiracy theorists first began propagating the rumor that his team had hired a body double to replace him.
“It’s a miracle … In only 3 weeks, John Fetterman got a total head replacement,” read one message with an image of Fetterman from the middle of his treatment compared to an older image. “Man, he has some good doctors.”
After he was released, Fetterman addressed the claims — while poking fun at them — in a video.
"You know, during my time, during the hospital, the fringy fringies really came up with a conspiracy theory that I have a body double,” said Fetterman, wearing a black hoodie. “And I just want you to know that's just crazy. That's not true.”
The video then cuts to a shot of Fetterman entering the room in a white hoodie — playing the alleged body double — to interrupt and ask what’s on his afternoon schedule.
The belief in the use of body doubles is a popular throughline in many conspiracy theories, including QAnon, whose followers have also claimed replacements for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and NFL player Damar Hamlin among others.
An alternative explanation
Fetterman’s chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, offered his own theory for the most recent wave of body double claims.
“The right has always tried to conflate Fetterman’s speech processing with cognition,” Jentleson posted on social media Tuesday. “His cognition was always [100%] but now that his speech is visibly improving (as we said it would), the right is melting down, going all in on the body double theory.”
Darlene Williamson, president of the National Aphasia Association (aphasia is a disorder that affects speech), told Yahoo News that it was “encouraging to see Senator Fetterman speaking in public with such comfort, conviction and fluency.”
“He reflects the continued progress that is possible following a stroke and is a source of hope for post-stroke survivors, especially those with aphasia, that good management of your symptoms, including depression, allows for full and successful participation in life,” Williamson said.
Fetterman’s rise to prominence and other attacks from the right
The former lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania became a top target of right-wing attacks — including millions of dollars in negative advertising — during his 2022 campaign against Dr. Mehmet Oz for retiring Republican Pat Toomey’s Senate seat. Fetterman’s stroke took him off the campaign trail for months in the immediate aftermath of the May primary, raising questions about his fitness to serve in addition to criticism of his approach to criminal justice reform. However, Oz’s positions on issues like abortion and the fact he lived in New Jersey proved too much to overcome and Fetterman won by five points, taking the only Senate seat to switch parties last year.
Fetterman has also been the target of recent criticism from some circles about a new change to the Senate dress code that will allow him to eschew the previously required suit for his preferred hoodie and shorts.
Conservatives like former Fox News host Tucker Carlson have also directed attacks toward Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, who was a prominent fixture on the campaign trail before his health issues and served as a surrogate candidate at times while he recovered. A Brazilian immigrant who was part of the Dreamer program, a popular right-wing belief was that Gisele was forcing her husband to stay in the race, either to be near power or to eventually take over the seat herself.