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The Testosterone Primary of 2024 is ‘Getting Out of Hand’

Francis Suarez is bragging about placing sixth in an Independence Day 5K in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Vivek Ramaswamy, a former nationally ranked junior tennis player, is flexing his weekly pickup victories over former collegiate athletes at a Life Time Fitness outside Des Moines. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the muscle-bound, 69-year-old longshot Democratic presidential hopeful, went viral for doing pull-ups shirtless at a Gold’s Gym.

Even Asa Hutchinson, the 72-year-old former Arkansas governor, is boasting about still playing full-court basketball.

More than a month before the election cycle’s first debates, 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.

Brawn and bravado are in demand, particularly among a GOP base conditioned by a steady dose of both in the Trump era. Thirst traps are a new wedge issue.

“Republican candidates are now needing to play to a base that has really been defined by the Trump presidency and just the Trump persona,” said historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who has traced the ideological and theological roots of masculinity in conservative and evangelical political circles in her book, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” “Now, to win as a Republican, you need to play that game. This kind of masculinity — physical fitness — goes hand in hand with masculine toughness.”

Displaying physical prowess is nothing new for American politicians. Former President Teddy Roosevelt extolled the virtues of the “strenuous life” and practiced Judo in the White House basement. Joe Biden, when he was vice president, posted a video of himself doing arm curls.

But in 2023, as Du Mez put it, “It’s getting out of hand.”

“Are they just so in this alpha male competition that they lose all sense of reality?” she asked. “And if you’ve got a mediocre 5K, that’s what you work with? Or, are they a little bit smarter, knowing that this is performative and just putting that signal out there, and being perfectly fine when they get kind of ratioed on Twitter because it just elevates their profile just a bit?”

It may all just be kayfabe. But it also underscores undercurrents in modern politics; chief among them, a discomfort with the top of the presidential contest, in which the leading candidates are a septuagenarian and octogenarian. With polls showing voters want a pugilistic candidate, a premium is being placed on testosterone by the modern GOP — one that at the moment seems more obsessed with the idea of being ripped than the ideas of the Ripon Society.

Masculinity has become a major point of focus for the party. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who ultimately decided against his own presidential campaign, tackled the topic earlier this year in his 248-page meditation on the matter, “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.” Last month, not long after straddling a Harley-Davidson in a leather vest at Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride and then announcing his own presidential campaign, Mike Pence made a stop at Gridiron Men’s Conference in Alabama, an Evangelical gathering with the mission of “BUILDING UP GODLY MEN TO BE CLEAR. BOLD. STRONG.” Former President Donald Trump attacks his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as “Tiny D,” a swipe at the Florida governor’s figurative and literal manhood.

“The Republican party is becoming more the party of the strong man,” said Mike Madrid, the Republican strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “And that’s what these candidates are trying to convey. It’s Tucker Carlson talking about tanning your testicles. It’s this constant show of bravado, even among women like Marjorie Taylor Greene firing automatic weapons. This is about power dynamics. And that’s what they’re trying to convey is ‘we’re strong.’”

The competition has spawned whole rounds of skirmishing among the candidates and their supporters about the legitimacy of their athletic achievements. Suarez issued a flex over his 5K pace on Twitter, despite clocking in at a little under 8 minutes a mile.

“Name another presidential candidate who can place 6th in a 5K with a 24-and-a-half minute run time. Go,” he said.

A number of people took him up on the offer, pointing out that he actually placed 87th overall and 6th in the 45-49 age group. They offered up former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 21:44 time in Houston’s 2022 pride run and Pete Buttigieg’s 1:42 half marathon in Afghanistan. A Ramaswamy staffer pointed out that her boss had a 5K time that was nearly a minute faster than Suarez’s.

In an interview with POLITICO, Suarez, who launched his campaign with an ad featuring him running, didn’t repeat his boast about his time. Instead, he downplayed it, saying he had not been training and that he “surprised himself” with his pace.

Told of Ramaswamy’s faster finish, he said: “Oh, I could definitely beat 23 minutes. There’s no doubt about it.” Then he challenged Ramaswamy to a 5K duel before adding that his best personal record actually came in the CrossFit challenge known as the “Murph,” consisting of a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 bodyweight squats, followed by another mile run while sporting a weighted vest.

Suarez declined to give his time, saying, “I don’t want to put it out there, and then [have] people say that it’s too good or too bad.” He told POLITICO he is contemplating a future ad in which he goes shirtless.

“I think physical fitness should be considered an asset for a president in terms of someone who has a comprehensive sense of what it is to be healthy,” Suarez said. “And I think that’s something we should want in our candidates. I’m not sure if my wife would let me be without a shirt on film, but you know, I’m working on it.”

In an interview, Ramaswamy declined Suarez’s 5K challenge, citing his weekly tennis matches with former college tennis standouts. He said that even though he posted a faster 5K time than Suarez, “that’s not something I wanted to beat my chest about.” But he did not exhibit the same restraint when talking about his recent run of tennis match wins on the trail, saying “I’m probably about the level of somebody who was, if they were a Division 1 college tennis player, but they were like, maybe five to 10 years out.”

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2016, there was only one candidate who seemed outwardly gleeful about discussing his record of physical fitness and that of the field. When he first announced his 2016 presidential campaign, Gary Johnson promised he would be “the fittest president of the United States ever.” Days after the announcement, he brought a journalist with him for a run down Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. “These guys were like, ‘What the fuck? This is serious’” he once recalled. “It was extreme.”

In an interview with POLITICO, the former Libertarian presidential candidate and New Mexico governor turned self-described “ski bum” (he now skis 110 days out of the year in Taos, N.M., he says) declined to criticize others’ athletic accomplishments. But Johnson was quick to tout his own, including a 2:47 marathon (a per-mile pace across 26.2 miles that is nearly two minutes faster than Suarez’s pace over 3.1 miles), and a 33:45 10K pace.

“Politicians,” Johnson said, “are all narcissists.”

As for the recent rash of physical stunts posted by candidates, Johnson said he, too, had taken notice.

“It’s all about the alpha candidate,” Johnson said.

But this year, Johnson said, it’s legitimate for candidates to tout their physical health. And it’s not like anyone could stop them, the way machismo is coursing like a vein in a swole bicep just beneath the GOP primary’s skin.

“It does take discipline to run an eight-minute mile,” Johnson said of Suarez’s time. “That does take some effort. You can’t just do that. I think it relates to your calmness, your demeanor, your whole makeup. Somebody who is physically fit is better off than somebody that’s not.”

After an initial interview, Johnson called back minutes later. He’d forgotten something important, apparently, in modern politics — it involved the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each continent.

He said he’d scaled them all.