With the third debate out of the way, the spectacle of the US presidential election is drawing to a close. Throughout the race Donald Trump has prompted commentators to write of his “strongman politics” or his efforts to “join the strongman club”.
Other political figures associated with the “strongman” style of politics include Russian president, Vladimir Putin, or Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte – characters that rule by force and build a cult of personality. While I can see why the strongman of British music hall and American vaudeville traditions is a fitting symbol for this political posture, it seems to me a gross insult – to strongmen.
Strongman performances, exercise systems and muscle-building programmes are what we refer to as “physical culture”. In the 19th century, you wouldn’t have seen a vaudeville or music hall programme bill without a strongman show. In the September 12, 1891 edition of the New York Clipper we find an ad seeking “A Strong Man for G.W. Donaldson’s Big Fair Ground Show, Reading, Pa”, directly underneath another ad looking for a singer with a “good, strong B-flat.”
While at the time people like Eugen Sandow and Lionel Strongfort were developing systems to push their physicality to new limits, strongman theatre was an important way of disseminating the message to the masses. Sandow sold out the Alhambra Theatre every night, performing feats of strength on stage ranging from simple weightlifting to an act called the “Tomb of Hercules”. Here, arching his back into a bridge with hands and feet on the floor, a board would be placed across his shoulders, torso and knees upon which he’d carry audience members, horses and later even a cars.
At the same time, strongman theatre was viewed with suspicion. Weights could be faked, and some form of trickery was always suspected in the Tomb of Hercules act. But strongman performance was theatre: the weights might be real or fake, but a great deal of the pleasure is in wondering – how does he do that?
And this is why strongman politics is so alluring. It’s sometimes easier to trust someone who we think will get the job done, and be blind as to how. A short story by George Sutton Surrey entitled Signor Garcia’s Strong Man, published in Sandow’s Magazine in July 1901, demonstrates the danger of this allure. In the story, the strongman George Marchant is taken to see Vulcanus, who is able to perform feats hitherto unimaginable on stage. Marchant, with professional acumen, suspects a trick:
All of these professional strong men can do things which, to their audience, seem wonderful, almost incredible, but they are tricksters, and either their weights are not genuine or they have some mechanical assistance which is hidden from the public view.
But upon testing the weights Vulcanus has used Marchant determines they are real. Vulcanus really is that strong! After the show, however, Vulcanus’ boss Signor Garcia is dead, murdered and dismembered by Vulcanus, who is found drowned in apparent suicide. Examining Vulcanus’s body, detectives are shocked to discover that Vulcanus is not a strongman at all, but in fact a gorilla in a rubber “human suit”.
This story gets at what strength really meant for bodybuilders. They knew that all strength is partly a pose: real strength comes not through force, which the anthropologist David Graeber reminds us is often a euphemism for violence, but technique. Whether by faking it through theatrical techniques or through training in weightlifting clubs, being a strongman was a lifetime’s work of practice.
It is this strength that Spooner metaphorically dismisses in the first act of Harold Pinter’s play No Man’s Land: “What they possess is not strength, but expertise.” But the ideal of physical culture, which of course could be manipulated to darker ends by different political regimes, was that everyone could be raised up and improved through physical know-how and practice. Signor Garcia’s Strong Man is intended as a warning to those who believe they can rely on brute force alone — it always ends in violence.
The strongman politics of Trump shows that while he may project strength, he lacks expertise. Perhaps when, after the second debate, British UKIP politician Nigel Farage described Trump as acting like “a big silverback gorilla” he was closer to the truth than he knew. Like the false strongman Vulcanus, Trump is all bluster and violence. Embodying the years spent honing her technique and expertise, Hillary Clinton is the real strongman on stage – something that may reassure us and unsettle us in equal measure.