Hey Republicans (and RFK Jr.): Nobody wants to see you do push-ups

RFK Jr. and other GOP stooges think their fitness videos are impressive, but it's really quite sad

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 19, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Tom Cotton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Chuck Grassley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tom Cotton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Chuck Grassley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There is a great deal that is upsetting, watching Robert F. Kennedy Jr. make a phony run for the Democratic presidential nomination. There's the way he's using this as a platform to push vaccine disinformation that has led to many deaths, and not just from COVID-19. For instance, his anti-vaccine campaign in Samoa led to a measles outbreak that killed 32 people, mostly children. There's the shame he brings upon his family, especially his murdered father and murdered uncle, who spent their time in the Justice Department and White House promoting vaccination. There's the way his conspiracism has metastasized, leading inevitably to anti-semitic mutterings blaming the pandemic on Jewish people. There's also the recent revelation that most of his big donors are Republicans who are trying to rat-f*ck the Democratic nomination process. 

So yeah, he's either evil or delusional to the point of not understanding that he's evil. But Kennedy is also embarrassing himself by putting out photo and video content meant to prove that he, at age 69, is some kind of Apollonian model of physical perfection. 

No one tell him that such a debate, if it were even to happen, would involve talking with words instead of stripping off shirts and doing push-ups. 

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Kennedy has denied that his large and muscular frame is the result of steroid abuse, instead insisting he merely works out 35 minutes a day and "I take testosterone replacement, which are appropriate to my age, and then I take a big fistful of nutrients." People who actually work out regularly are skeptical of these claims, as it's hard for someone in their 20s to get that big with such a lightweight routine, much less a man in his Social Security years. The video only added to the doubts, since he barely manages eight push-ups, something that should be easy for someone supposedly in the totally-natural great shape Kennedy is claiming. 

The Trump years have created a widespread GOP obsession with beefcake that is so over the top that Tom of Finland would suggest toning it down.

But there was one group of people swooning over this content: MAGA Republicans.

Redhats both fetishize feats of strength but also seem to have no real understanding of physical fitness, a combination that makes them just gullible enough to be impressed by Kennedy's cringey display. The culmination of the self-own may be in this fawning Fox News interview, where host Steve Doocy raved about "sheer masculinity."

Alas, this MAGA fixation on muscular male bodies is not limited to Kennedy's shirtless displays. The Trump years have created a widespread GOP obsession with beefcake that is so over the top that Tom of Finland would suggest toning it down. It goes all the way up to Trump, who has a habit of insisting he's a "perfect physical specimen," despite the fact that everyone who can see registers him as a tubby old man. To somehow demonstrate this alleged peak physical fitness, Trump has a habit of sharing drawings or photoshops portraying him as a muscleman, and even trying to sell "digital trading cards" with such imagery. Remember when he posted this?

Most other Republicans are just self-aware enough to know that such photoshops fool no one. But they still fall right into that trap of trying to impress the MAGA base by bragging, often unconvincingly, about their manly physiques. Such as that time Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas started doing push-ups together in front of a crowd in Iowa, drawing mostly criticisms of their form. 

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As Adam Wren wrote in a recent Politico article, "the 2024 presidential contest has careened into a kind of testosterone primary, a frenetic fit boy summer sidequest in which candidates are drawing fewer contrasts on policy and proving more keen on comparing feats of strength." Along with Kennedy's video, he points to how Miami mayor "Francis Suarez is bragging about placing sixth in an Independence Day 5K" and "Vivek Ramaswamy, a former nationally ranked junior tennis player, is flexing his weekly pickup victories over former collegiate athletes at a Life Time Fitness."

Dehumanizing people as weak or sickly is a first step towards arguing they must be culled or controlled.

As happened with Kennedy, the efforts to prove manhood through fitness end up only inviting mockery. Suarez's 5K claim, for instance, was immediately discredited when people pointed out he didn't get 6th overall, but only in the 45-49 age group, which only had 16 runners. It's all very silly, but that doesn't change the sinister implications. For one thing, it equates strength with masculinity, a notion that gets even harder to fathom during the Women's World Cup season. 

Worse, it equates masculinity with merit, portraying manhood as a necessary quality to be a leader. These attitudes are a big red flag for fascism, which has a long history of fetishizing physical fitness as a justification for dehumanizing other people. That came up a lot during the pandemic, when far-right figures tried to justify letting COVID-19 kill spread by falsely claiming physical fitness was shield enough against the disease. 

First of all, the claim that working out prevents COVID-19 is not true. But even if it did, the implications of this are deeply sinister. Plenty of people can't do pull-ups: Disabled people, elderly people, babies, pregnant women, and the huge numbers of Americans who don't spend hours at the gym a week. Are they just expected to die because Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., thinks they're weak?

Such nonsense also lays the groundwork for other fascist arguments about who does and doesn't count because of their bodies. Women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, and disabled people are often targeted with stereotypes of bodily degeneracy, as a pretext for stripping them of basic human rights. There's a reason that Trump and his acolytes like to portray immigrants as diseased or drugged-out, implicitly comparing them to supposedly pure-and-strong white Americans. Dehumanizing people as weak or sickly is a first step towards arguing they must be culled or controlled. There's a reason that the discredited theory of eugenics laid the foundation for the Holocaust.

Toxic masculinity and fitness fetishization also do lesser but real harm to the authoritarian personalities that get caught up in it. Right-wing websites and influencers like Alex Jones and Joe Rogan are always grifting their audiences by pitching useless supplements with false hopes of physical perfectability. People who believe Kennedy's silly claim about 35-minute workouts might get frustrated when it doesn't work out for them and develop eating disorders or other bad health habits response. And, of course, there's all the people who believed that only "weak" people need vaccines, and ended up either very sick or dying from COVID-19.

Working out is a good thing to do and being fit is a fine goal to have. It just turns to poison in the hands of fascists, who conflate fitness with moral superiority. Your push-up count says nothing about your character or fitness to lead. But your choice to post cringey workout videos as campaign fodder proves that you're bankrupt in both departments. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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