America! You fat tub of lard, get your morbidly obese ass off the BarcaLounger and put the deep-fried frozen chicken wings away! Pain is weakness leaving the body! Your only limitation is your imagination! The American political system is rigged against regular people outside of the two-party duopoly!
This is no mere plea for personal improvement. This is the platform of the outsider-est of all outsiders in this Year of the Outsider in presidential politics: Rod Silva, the founder of Muscle Maker Grill, a nationwide chain of healthy fast food restaurants.
As Silva, who looks like what would have happened to John Turturro if he gave up acting at 22 and became a full-time cast member on "Jersey Shore," tells it, the primary problem facing America is not widening inequality or a slow-moving economy or a global-warming apocalypse or crime or terror. It is that we shove too much low-grade crap into our mouths, which make us sick, lazy, depressed and unproductive.
“The No. 1 resource that we have in this country? It is not our technology, it is our people," Silva said. “If we get our people at 100 percent, make them the focus? So what are we saying? How do we make us productive as a nation? It still comes down to people. We are still a people, right?"
He went to answer these rhetorical questions, sort of: "We’ve got to be productive. We got to be our best to be a global competitor, that is what I firmly believe. And how we do we be our best? We’ve been neglecting the human resources of the American people for a long time.”
In other words, expect no Mike Bloomberg-type nanny-statism from a future Silva administration. In an interview at Muscle Maker Grill in northern Manhattan (one of 55 around the country), Silva, wearing a tight Muscle Maker polo shirt made larger as it stretched over his bodybuilder-size biceps, said he was against bans on sugar or saturated fats or genetically modified food and didn’t even favor mandatory calorie counts on menus.
Rather, the national transformation from fat to fit will come from Silva himself and his mix of personal-fitness platitudes sprinkled with a dash of post-9/11 America-is-the-bestest bromides. As is the case with motivational speakers everywhere, for him the words themselves matter little and their meaning even less. What does matter is the intensity of the telling, even as one sentence isn’t given a chance to finish before Silva starts in on the next one, only marginally related to its predecessor.
Just witness Silva’s explanation of how he will reorient the priorities of 300 million Americans without the involvement of the federal government: “How do you lead in the world? If you are a leader in the world, how do you lead? When you run a company, how do you lead? That’s expertise. Because without vision, people perish. That is just an age-old thing. If you look at the greatest leaders in the world, they led, you know, storming the beach in Normandy."
He continued: “How did they get them brave men to storm that beach? Great leadership. George Washington — what was the difference about him? Great leadership. Abraham Lincoln — what was his deal? What a visionary. He wanted to abolish slavery, leadership, to lead the North, and keep the country from completely going berserk. If you read the story, he had gotten to Washington, he was close, you know — leadership. Churchill — great leadership. Without leadership the people perish.”
Hard to argue with any of that.
Silva proudly proclaimed his allegiance to that great American religion of self-help. He extolled the virtues of motivational speaker Zig Ziglar and said he decided to run for president after reading "Who Moved My Cheese?" It was, Silva said, part of a reading regimen he embarked on last year after selling Muscle Maker to investors for $6 million, a 1,000 percent profit over what he put in when he opened his first restaurant 22 years ago to sell protein shakes to bodybuilders.
“I’m into the three philosophies of life, which is your spiritual body, your mental body,” said Silva, apparently losing his place after the first two philosophies. “So I was going to read some business books, some spiritual books, some motivational books, just to get a different perspective, because I am a strong-minded person. Sometimes I don’t see my perspective, I like to get someone else their perspective.”
In preparation for public office, Silva said he “dabbled a little bit in history too, but my problem with history is I like to set trends. I don’t like to follow other people, because that’s typically the easy way people do it, but then you end up with the same results that they got, unfortunately, because history repeats itself. So it’s good to know but don’t follow it.”
If Silva’s quixotic bid for the presidency is merely the product of someone seduced by the vapid clichés of personal growth, someone who believes, as his hero Zig Ziglar famously said, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it,” then fine. More power to him.
But it's hard not to wonder if Silva has merely tossed his protein powder into the ring just as a way to get some free media for Muscle Maker’s unique lean-meat, low-carb menu of wraps and protein rice plates. This is a familiar gambit. Presidential politics is so overwhelmed with media — there were 15,000 credentialed reporters at the Republican National Convention alone — that the infrastructure is built in for anyone with the gumption to take advantage of it.
It’s why every campaign season begins with celebrity and political figures just past their sell-by date dipping their toes into New Hampshire’s waters, from actor Warren Beatty and former governor Jesse Ventura to former mayor Michael Bloomberg and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. (Had you ever heard of Republican Herman Cain before he ran for president?)
Silva’s nearly nonexistent campaign operation suggests that this may be the case. So far, he has raised no money, hired no staff and is on the ballot in one state (Colorado). He founded his own political party, the Nutrition Party, a name he picked, he told me, because like Muscle Maker Grill, it is stupid enough to stick in your memory. As his running mate he picked his brother, Richard Silva, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, doctor who, when reached by phone, wouldn’t cop to being on the ticket, only saying that he was a “supporting actor” in the campaign.
“He’s my doctor, he’s my knowledge guy,” Rod Silva said. “I’m the leader guy, the brains guy, the guy who can drive initiatives, who leads, who can lead.”
Silva's personal PR person told me that he first broached the idea of running for president when the two were having a meeting about building out his personal brand. Even though Silva sold to investors the restaurant chain he had built, he still owns shares that he can cash out once the restaurant goes public, as it is expected to next year.
But Rod Silva insisted that his campaign is real — that even if he can’t win he is bringing attention to a cause, much like Sen. Bernie Sanders did with that whole college affordability thing.
“One little spark can start the fire,” Rod Silva said, inadvertently quoting musician Billy Joel. “One thing about America is what makes us different from any other country in the world: Once we get behind something, there is no fury like American fury. We are American strong.”
Added Silva: “And you know what, you say, 'How can you say that?' Well, think about it: When there is anything that can happen in the world, who donates the most money? Americans. The first troops in and the last troops out are Americans. When we get behind something and put our minds to it, it’s home! And that’s how I feel.”
Silva hopes to be on the ballot in Louisiana soon and said he is working on becoming a candidate in other states. No, he hasn’t raised any money, but he has spent $100,000 of his own money. No, he doesn’t have any professional staff working for him, but he does have about 1,000 volunteers, even if most of them, as he admitted, are Muscle Maker employees.
“I’ve done the Food Network," Silva said. "I’ve done 'Undercover Boss.' If those were the avenues I could pursue, those are the avenues, and I don’t mean this proudfully, [they] are very simple to pursue.”
Still, what would he say to Americans who see Silva show up to an interview at his restaurant in his branded polo shirt and lay out a vision for the country that sounds like it was ripped off from motivational speaker Susan Powter?
“Look in the mirror,” he said, choosing his words carefully and slowly for the first time. “Could I do better?"
“And ask yourself, ‘What is my American dream?'”
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