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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

What the Roman Empire can tell us about the GOP primary

The masculinization of Republicans has dangerous online precedent.

A Republican debate stage is pictured.

A Republican debate stage is pictured.

As Republicans vie to earn their party’s presidential nomination in 2024, the lack of an incumbent president means there is a wide-open field with many candidates trying to assert their superiority. In this campaign cycle, Republicans are turning to new avenues to relate to voters and gain national appeal.

As President Joe Biden continues to receive criticism for his old age and mental gaffes, and as former President Donald Trump, now 77 years old, is currently polling the highest among Republicans, the GOP candidates are desperate to prove their physical and athletic fitness and show that they have the mental and material fortitude to handle the stresses of the presidency.

Moreover, this athleticism is a way for candidates to demonstrate masculinity and a macho image — even for female candidates like Nikki Haley. Traits associated with masculinity, such as dominance and decisiveness, are seen as favorable qualities for a leader of the free world. Therefore, when asked about preparations for the second Republican debate, largely a test of wit and intelligence, many answers revolved around physical activity: Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy plans to play tennis (his social media is already filled with videos of the sport and miscellaneous exercise) and candidate Tim Scott will be “in the gym,” likely playing “a game of pickleball.” Candidate Doug Burgum doesn’t even have anything to prove; the injury that almost took him out of the first debate resulted from a game of pickup basketball, ironically demonstrating an arguable lack of physical fitness.

These displays of masculinity through sport could be related to the political right’s conception of the (currently trending) Roman Empire. Online, the far right has long had a fascination with Ancient Roman and Greek society, utilizing the aesthetics of Spartan culture, Greek architecture and philosophers like Socrates. These aesthetics are important because they allow the right to create an image of history that fits their narrative based on prior notions of those societies.

For most, surface-level knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome focuses on their philosophy (household names like Plato and Socrates), their culture (art, architecture and religion), their expansive empires and their physical fitness (considering the warrior society of Sparta and the Olympic games originating in Greece). These create an image of Greeks and Romans as strong in both body and mind and having an incredibly successful civilization because of it.

However, by glorifying antiquarian society, right-wingers also glorify two underlying characteristics: its perceived whiteness, aided by the fact that Greek sculptures with faded paint appear white and its subjugation of women (ironically making homosexual relations noble in the view of some). Though this seems like a trivial criticism, it is almost definitely an intentional subliminal choice.

When Republicans bring up these qualifiers of masculinity and physical strength as a reason to run for office, they are converging with this damaging online rhetoric. This has a few important implications.

First, it makes it more likely that the party will get more extremist, as illustrated by current culture war battles that are taking center stage, particularly for candidates like Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy. In keeping with the principles of conservatism, Republicans want to conserve culture from the past. Unfortunately, this means that extreme Republicans could be biased toward some of the principles of sexism and discrimination that dominated these areas.

Therefore, Republicans may get more extremist, further extending the principles of masculinity and the subjugation of women that were dominant in the past into the future. Already, with the issue of abortion, Democrats are presenting the issue as one of women’s rights and bodily autonomy. It is possible that Republicans will get more exclusionary in their policy choices as the culture war rhetoric progresses.

Next, it also signals to extremist groups that their rhetoric is acceptable. Infamously, Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and told them to “stand by.” Regardless of his intention with this statement, silence on many fronts has spoken volumes. It is sure that when Republicans take a more active role in definitionally conserving culture, there will be a greater encouraging signal to these groups.

Either way, this shift away from policy and towards personality is damaging for electing leaders who will create policies that best represent their constituents and is likely to increase the proliferation of hateful discourse. Democrats must continue to demonstrate issues as important to the fundamental rights of equality.