The Republican Body Politic
Athleticism in the GOP primary is embarrassing, but not for the reasons Politico thinks.
If you’ve ever run an eight-minute mile, you might have what it takes to run for president. That is Politico’s take, at least, on the sort of logic they imagine determining the Republican side of the 2024 ticket.
In a piece this week that has by now earned some appropriate lumping, a Politico writer detailed the rather pathetic athletic achievements of a few long-shot candidates for president on the right—Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Francis Suarez—and those of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is to the political establishment the other right, under the headline “The testosterone primary of 2024 is ‘getting out of hand.’”
The phrase “getting out of hand” comes from the mouth Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a frequent critic of masculinity in right-leaning evangelical circles, and author of Jesus and John Wayne, a book to the same effect. Du Mez, despite noting the unimpressive nature of the athletic feats in question, fears “this kind of masculinity — physical fitness — goes hand in hand with masculine toughness.” These two words are apparently fearsome enough on their own to need no further explanation. A day later, MSNBC re-shared a 2022 article in which a columnist drew a red thread connecting gym gurus and Nazism.
“Being fit is far right now, apparently,” replied writer Katherine Dee over at UnHerd. Dee argued against what she rightly identified as “the bizarre politicization of being healthy, which is slowly becoming coded as ‘Right-wing.’” This applies not merely to fitness, but also to any show of real or imagined masculine strength, as Du Mez’s comment suggests.
Putting aside tin-foil hats about Nazism, however, we should not disagree with the underlying premise of what the left-leaning commentators identify. Health is, at several levels and especially today, squarely the domain of the right, and a man’s physical fitness has long been a symbol of his fitness to govern.
That health is becoming “right-wing” is at least partly due to the deeply unhealthy pathologies that have taken root on the left—some ideological, while others, like gender-affirming surgeries and other medical solutions to psychological problems, are unavoidably physiological. So far from the national politics of previous generations, in which disagreements were over the means to be taken to the shared end of a good life, ours have come down quite literally to a divide between a way that leads to life and one that leads to death. In this sense, when the left calls health “right wing,” it is saying something true, albeit distorted by the ever-present fascism goggles.
If someone tells you who he is, listen; if the propaganda arm of the regime says it is opposed to strong men and healthy citizens, we ought to believe it.
But beyond the sickness that has saturated the left, there is another, older reason why the right should be proud to call physical strength our domain. Kennedy, Ramaswamy, and Suarez vaunt athleticism because each hopes to capitalize on an image of small “r” republican virtue: physical strength, athletic prowess, and a general vitality. This has less to do with so-called “extreme” masculinity than it does with self-governance.
Such vitality is, after all, the natural condition of a man whose loves are well-ordered, and whose lifestyle does not treat either body or spirit as a separate thing, but instead treats both in the incorporated whole. Which is to say, when Slate wonders, under the headline “A Governing Body,” if Kennedy’s “pecs are presidential,” it is a legitimate question.
It is natural that men, especially American men, should seek to demonstrate their ability to govern others by showing how they have governed themselves. It is also natural that voters should prefer a candidate for the same reason. Contra Du Mez, this is not a bad way of judging candidates, any more than judging them by the successes or failures of their marriages might be. Both look to a man’s priorities, and thus present in miniature a view of his ability, or inability, to put the first things first. The voter can be relied on to register the difference regardless, even if only at a sub-rational level, between a man whose public appearances include bench pressing and one who only ever appears outside to eat ice cream in a mask.
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Hyper-masculinity, meanwhile, is a far cry from what is actually happening in the GOP camp. Mike Pence’s athleticism begins and ends with riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a leather jacket. Ramaswamy, staying true to his elitism, has repeatedly posted a supercut of himself playing tennis against former college athletes—athletic enough, but hardly the chosen sport of the aggressive American male. Meanwhile, Francis Suarez, the Miami mayor, boasted about running a five-kilometer race with a mile time that, it gives me no pleasure to report, is just a few seconds faster than my own. Suarez also candidly admits to the reporter, “I’m not sure if my wife would let me be without a shirt on film, but you know, I’m working on it.”
Needless to say, this is not the bogeyman Du Mez and others are looking for: It is closer to feebleness than fascism; to dandyism than masculinity. It is also, unfortunately, a far cry from the republican virtue the candidates have, consciously or otherwise, been attempting to convey. Still, the Politico article’s tone is clear that even this minimal display of masculine strength is unacceptable; perhaps Chris Christie alone is sufficiently domesticated for our feminized era.
For this precise reason, such breast-beating among candidates should not be discouraged. But neither should we stop at three-mile races and the occasional tennis match. The lack of physical fitness among our presidential candidates says much about the health of our nation, and the fitness of our elected representatives, both physically and otherwise. Indeed, the field remains wide open for a man of real strength to reveal himself.