The most recent stop of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s psychedelic presidential campaign was the Gold’s Gym of Venice Beach. On June 24, Kennedy, who’s made surprising headway in his quest to secure the 2024 Democratic nomination—albeit on a platform that pretty much starts and ends with vaccine skepticism—loaded up an incline bench and cranked out a few sets for the crowd. In a video that immediately went viral, RFK Jr., dressed in blue jeans and no shirt—under a bright and distorting Los Angeles sun—struggles to clear what looks to be about 120 pounds of plates, across eight reps, with an assist from a spotter looming behind the rack. The clip is the first moment Americans have come up close and personal with RFK Jr.’s beguiling physique: yoked, oily, and uncanny in a distinctly pro-wrestling way. At 69, he has a head that appears to be photoshopped onto a much younger, more vascular body. It’s both enviable and distressing at the exact same time.
Kennedy was clearly feeling himself in the afterglow, and continued to showcase the rest of his workout on official campaign social channels. “Getting in shape for my debates with President Biden,” he tweeted, attached to a video of him rutting through a series of shallow, breathless pushups—while still inexplicably dressed in jeans. Kennedy’s fitness capacity doesn’t look to be particularly extraordinary—as someone who’s lifting-community-adjacent, let me be the first to tell you that 120 pounds sounds a lot heavier than it is. Still, on the cusp of his eighth decade of life, Kennedy asserts himself well. He’s probably the most jacked candidate in history to sniff a White House bid, which says more about the inherent beta-ness of the average D.C. creature than it does about the hopeful himself. But with a voting base that consists primarily of aggrieved Roganite gamers and shrill almond moms—who are all in on wild psychosexual conspiracy theorieslike that seed oils deplete your sperm count—Kennedy’s ropy old-guy musculature is a perfect accoutrement to Antivax Thought. If you avoid the foibles of Big Pharma, then perhaps you too can spend your golden years with a weird, deepfaked body.
Naturally, people loved it. Several even posted on Twitter that they were considering “switching” to RFK Jr. on account of his grizzled, leathery abdominals being “badass.”
I don’t think I need to reiterate how Kennedy’s vaccine platform is bunk. All of the grifters in his camp have glommed on to one deeply felt American truth—that the health care industry is a miserable cartel—and they’ve refracted that consensus in a variety of self-interested directions in order to buttress their own brand. (It is, to put it plainly, ridiculously selfish to argue that doctors are prescribing autism with postnatal vaccines, rather than to advocate for a more humane wellness apparatus in general.) This is the same perversion you see within the leadership of the QAnon contingency, which has managed to morph another undebatable precept—that the government is corrupt and dysfunctional—into nonsensical sex-cult allegations. Kennedy, of course, belongs to a legacy that’s central to modern conspiratorial thinking—QAnon folks still believe that his cousin JFK Jr. is alive and well—and I do think his “Schwarzenegger lite” frame belies the role he’s taken in national politics. This man, with his glistening pecs and blue-blood bona fides, surely understands how power really works in America.
It’s hard to think of many other presidents who were on Kennedy’s corner historically. I guess you could say Teddy Roosevelt—another man with a famous last name and a Chad-ish countenance—is honestly the only person who comes to mind when I try to recall other fit presidents. Roosevelt presided over a similarly protean moment in American history: the dawn of the 20th century, the end of the Gilded Age, and the first federal checks on unchecked commercial monopoly. There is only one photo of a shirtless Roosevelt in the archives; it’s from his youth, and his deltoid development is quite impressive indeed. Obama also has a claim here, if only because he’s maintained a tastefully smooth dad bod deep into his sundowning years.
The only difference is that Kennedy has now made his fitness a crucial vector of his appeal. His ability to crush questionable pushups is apparently a reason to vote for him, a pitch that hinges on the basis that he is comparatively virile and 10 years further away from death than is the man who currently has the job. In that sense, Kennedy brings to mind a variety of other politicians from this unseemly post-truth era of electioneering, folks who may not believe in democracy or science or—let’s be real—a shared conception of reality, but who do respect the church of the almighty grind. Consider: Marjorie Taylor Greene attacking a CrossFit bar—it’s always CrossFit with these people—and branding it as all-natural COVID-19 protection.
However, RFK Jr. is still ostensibly running on the Democratic ticket, putting him in league with other fitness politicos/psychopaths like Andrew Tate and Mike Cernovich, to say nothing of your run-of-the-mill strongmen like Vladimir Putin. Those men obviously skew right, so it’s fascinating to watch Kennedy attempt to energize liberal society with old-school machismo. Are those fabled “economically anxious” white men ready to vote blue for manly man Kennedy? I’ll believe it when I see it.
In the meantime, we’ll all keep waiting for the spell to break. It is, to put it lightly, worrisome that Kennedy is holding a 15 percent share of early primary polls—which could be interpreted as evidence for Biden’s weakness, or a more glacial, party-independent turn toward conspiratorial thinking. If he does make it to the debate stage, however, I just hope the incumbent doesn’t get baited into an impromptu pushup contest. Biden, I love you, but you might never be able to get back up.