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Josh Mandel Lets the Mask Slip, a Little

He doesn’t believe what he’s saying, at least not all of it. And that’s sad.
by Jim Swift
August 20, 2021
Josh Mandel Lets the Mask Slip, a Little
(Screenshot from Mandel's interview with Josh Rultenberg)

When I watched this interview with Josh Mandel by Josh Rultenberg, a local reporter for Spectrum News 1 in Ohio, it made me a little sad. Here’s the clip:

I’ve written about kayfabe before, the professional wrestling term for the understanding on all sides, participant and spectator, that what’s being watched is scripted drama. I am not a wrestling fan, but the term is perfect, because the performative fakery of wrestling is also true in politics.

Rultenberg asks Mandel about kids under the age of 12 being carriers of COVID-19 and whether or not they need to wear masks. Mandel is known for his hatred of masks—he has both performatively burned them and also refused to wear them with a vehemence that is, frankly, a little weird—so his response is not particularly surprising:

Well, the premise of your question is completely immoral and unethical. You’re asking the question of . . . putting kids as human shields to protect adults. That’s completely immoral, that’s completely unethical. Our kids only get one childhood. And over my dead body am I gonna allow journalists like yourself or politicians to advance the argument that kids should be used as human shields for adults. That’s insane. [Awkward pause.]

The pause was awkward because Josh was repeating himself and it sounded like (and he probably was) going off focus-group-tested talking points. That’s why he’s beating J.D. Vance, another fellow Marine who lacks the message discipline of Mandel even if he’s his equal in crazy tweets. Rultenberg asks him if he’s got anything else he’d like to get off his chest, as Mandel previously called Rultenberg “fake news.”

Mandel responds: “Uh, no.” To which, Rultenberg responds that he wasn’t sure why Mandel felt the need to take another personal shot at him.

“Listen man, you’re a professional, I’m a professional,” Mandel replies. “You shouldn’t take that personally. I just thought the premise of your question was immoral.”

Rultenberg interrupts:

The last time we spoke, when I went to Strongsville, you called me “fake news” so . . . I just didn’t understand that, either. I was just literally doing my job as a local journalist. Not doing anything crazy here.

And Mandel responds:

Listen man, the premise . . . the way you ask questions is . . . and frame questions is completely biased, and is totally in line with fake news, but listen. I’m gonna . . . I’m glad to continue doing interviews with you anytime, but if you just want me to just be nice to you and, you know, kiss your butt like some of these other candidates do, I’m not gonna do it. Because I think the mainstream media like yourself, you guys are the enemy. You guys have been pushing this fake news on COVID, fake news on impeachment, fake news on January 6th, and I really believe in my heart of hearts that you guys are the enemy, and you guys have created so many of the problems in this country.

At which point, Rultenberg shrugs and says “thank you for making the time.” Mandel responds: “Anytime, I appreciate it.”

And Mandel will make the time, because he’s basically become a performative political wrestler, devoid of principle. He doesn’t think the reporter should take being called an immoral peddler of fake news using children as human shields personally because Josh Mandel doesn’t mean it. He just thinks it’s what his potential constituents want to hear from him.

It’s Mandel’s “because he fights” moment.

It wasn’t always this way.

I met Josh when I was a 16-year-old in high school, volunteering at the Cuyahoga County GOP office with my young Republican friends. Josh was an upbeat, positive guy, a hard worker, not one to go negative. He was inspiring and uplifting. But that was Josh Mandel 1.0. The kind of guy who would knock on every door and talk to everyone, hanging his beaten dress shoes on the wall as a totem, of the power of the people who elect people to office. After he got on the city council and into the statehouse, Josh ran for treasurer, and he took a decidedly more negative turn.

Perhaps it was his 2012 loss in the Senate race against Sherrod Brown that turned those shoes into a reminder about people: You only need 50 percent-plus-one to win. Six years later, in 2018, Josh would run again, only to suddenly drop out due to an ill wife. Josh began to show his love for Donald Trump around the time, but we never got to see him in full Trumpist bloom until he announced he was running, a third time, for the U.S. Senate to fill the seat of the retiring Republican Rob Portman.

This time around, Mandel is a horrific candidate, and I would encourage nobody I know to vote for him. But I do think that Mandel let the mask slip a little when he started talking about journalists and candidates being professionals and not taking the cheap shots personally.

Weirdly, Mandel showed a modicum of decency here by suggesting that, hey, this is all fake, right? But he is still committed to being the craziest, rightist, most-MAGA candidate in the race.

Josh Mandel is a lost cause and a lost man. But he still may be Ohio’s next senator. Let’s hope not.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.