Two weeks ago, it was Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. posting a purportedly impressive video of himself incline-pressing 115 pounds—that’s not a lot of weight—and another of himself doing eight quasi-pushups. (I’m not giving him even quasi-credit for the ninth one, on which his knees appear to touch the ground.) On Tuesday, it was Miami mayor and Republican presidential candidate Francis Suarez asking rhetorically whether any other presidential candidates could register a median-ish 5K time:
Running a 24-minute 5K in your 40s is nothing to be embarrassed about; your author would note that he recently did the same thing, albeit 20 seconds faster than Suarez and during a “guys’ weekend” in Maine during which he’d slept for roughly three hours. Exercise, for regular people, should be about competing against oneself, getting healthier, and enjoying the spiritually centering rush of natural endorphins. There’s no need to shame anyone for finishing a 5K some 20 seconds slower than a middle-aged blogger who was once cut from a 30-person seventh-grade basketball team that advertised itself as an inclusive “no cuts” program.
But Suarez and RFK Jr. before him have invited comparisons to others by behaving as if their admirably average fitness achievements are actually evidence of super-alpha superiority. They’re trying to shame us, or at least their fellow presidential aspirants.
Why? Among other explanations, what we may be observing is an intersection of the timeless political tendency to be full of crap—note that Suarez was sixth in his age group, not in the entire race, as he appeared to suggest—with the macho aesthetic of the right-libertarian movement led by the likes of Elon Musk and Joe Rogan.
Rogan and Musk et al. reject the authority of “elites” and “the woke mob” on issues ranging from hate speech to vaccines to the use of fiat currency, caricaturing their critics—bureaucrats, academics, journalists, and other detestable figures—as twee keyboard warriors who attain social status by criticizing others because they’ve never built anything of their own. Rogan and Musk types, and their supporters, see themselves by contrast as creators, doers, and men of action.
In this context, building physical strength—and otherwise self-optimizing through homeopathic pills and powders that the medical establishment looks down upon—is a means of taking back power and authority. One element of the Musk mythos is that he is “the man in the arena,” which is a reference to a speech about ignoring the haters that was delivered in 1910 by Teddy Roosevelt, one of the most heavily jacked statesmen in our nation’s history. (See also Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s claim that she was protecting herself from COVID by doing CrossFit.)
Getting bulked up is also functioning, in the 2024 primary, as a bid to convey credibility and build trust in communities that otherwise thrive on distrust and paranoia. It’s not the worst idea for these B-list politicians: Being strong is objectively verifiable. It’s the opposite of a vague cancel-culture norm or the simpering advice of a condescending coastal expert. (RFK Jr. is also a vaccine conspiracy theorist, while Suarez is a major advocate of cryptocurrency.)
Really, this premise accounts for some of the appeal of strenuous physical activity to people of all political beliefs—work goes in, reward reliably comes out. It’s hard to posture about being in shape. Hard, that is, but apparently not impossible, especially with an army of bullshitters at your back. (Look at the replies to Suarez’s tweet, and note also that he or his social media manager appears to have “hidden” one reply that suggested the only 5-kilometer race he could have finished sixth in with a time of 24:30 would have been one for children.) MAGA supporters got things started by claiming that Donald Trump was the epitome of peak physical masculinity. Now, RFK Jr. and Suarez are driving home that there is no measure of truth so authentic that it can’t be made useless by contemporary discourse.