Gym Fascism

From the Series: American Fascism

A view of the crowd northeast of the Washington Monument, shortly before President Trump's speech, January 6, 2021. Photo by Gregory Starrett.

“One more rep! Grind it out! Go to failure!” Centered on transforming the body through intense ninety-minute bouts of extreme powerlifting, far-right white nationalist organizations that operate gyms—like Operation Werewolf and the Wolves of Vinland—have emerged as key proselytizers for modern-day fascism in the United States. While these communities are small, spread primarily across the Midwest and South, they have drawn together a network of public gym spaces where they promulgate fascism through both words and specific kinds of bodily discipline. Gym trainers mock “pussy” approaches to fitness that focus on health, and instead work to transform members’ bodies to embody masculine grit, promoting allegiance to a tight-knit “tribe” of like-bodied white men. My fieldwork in one of these gyms, Barbell Strength Tribe (a pseudonym), made it clear that fascist is the right descriptor. Fascism—involving nationalistic fervor, rejection of weakness, and radical collective action—emerged repeatedly in how the gym trains members to push themselves to failure and by demanding that they remove themselves from the weakness of modern society.

Barbell Strength Tribe’s walls are covered in blackwashed spray foam insulation, contoured with the rippling aluminum walls of the former storage space. Adorning them is a large banner: “Surrender is failure. Surrender is fatal.” One afternoon after a session, two lifters, Theo and Kevin, launched into an impassioned discussion of the failure of multiculturalism. Theo, the gym’s owner, spoke derisively of “intersectional bullshit” and “fat, cat-loving gender studies professors.” Theo turned to me and said, “Fundamentally, I am a fascist . . . I run the gym like a fascist state: there’s an absolute way of moving that is never relative, applied to all members . . . ” Continuing, he characterized his orientation to the world: “I don’t know . . . I guess [I’m] a pseudo-Buddhist, fitness hermit, compassionate fascist.” The self-description rang true to how he cued members for the deadlift: “Grab the bar! Tighten! Drag it up! Fling your dick through the bar!”

While conversation at Barbell Strength Tribe regularly jumped from homophobic rants to racist diatribes, I was still surprised by Theo’s invocation of fascism. My embodied experience at Barbell Strength Tribe, defined by intense effort and numbing repetition, had at first largely mirrored my experiences at other fieldsites as well as my prior athletic experience in the United States and Southeast Asia. In these settings, mandated and strict movement patterns and intense coaching were not markers of fascism but standard components of an athletic program. The more time I spent at Barbell Strength Tribe, however, the more I came to see how athletic discipline had hardened into fascism.

A key difference between other gyms and Barbell Strength Tribe lay in how exhortations to intensity were not applied for the benefit of the individual lifter’s health but were rather wielded as a condition of membership. Urged on by Theo and other lifters, members would push their bodies to muscular failure—the extreme point at which the body collapses under the weight—in order to be accepted as a true member of the Tribe. Members strain against the barbell, red faced, arms and head vibrating, until the weight crashes down. Theo would nod in approval. Next time, the lifter will finish one more rep. General population gyms would frown on this intensity as not only dangerous but athletically unproductive. But at Barbell Strength Tribe, it was only by ritually participating in repeated failure that members align themselves with the gym’s overarching aim: to bulletproof white, male bodies to meet the world with militancy and strength.

In fostering a collective purpose and sense of belonging, the Tribe stands in sharp contrast to the broader fitness world’s focus on individual well-being. Absent are the mainstream fitness world’s uplifting marketing ploys—“functional strength will let you play with your kids!”—replaced by the sobering mandate to “purge weakness from your life.” Absent, too, are individualized, personalized coaching cues and progressions, abandoned in favor of a unified, collective, and militant approach.

Through demands to “grind” and through persistent athletic cuing until the weights fall to the ground, training at Barbell Strength Tribe detaches itself from the broader gym landscape, aiming to create a “nation” of man through shared, intensified movement. Pushing the body to failure again and again—in combination with the call to renounce and reform contemporary society—transforms gym members. This is fascism embodied.

Barbell Strength Tribe smashes fascist politics and the body together by relentlessly linking bodily strength to human worth. Most pronounced was the hatred of “beta” males, who, untrained or incorrectly trained, and lured into crippling dependencies by the creature comforts and conveniences of modern society, fail to meet the gym’s standard for white men. Denouncing the “weakness” emblematized by contemporary man buns and yoga pants, the Tribe laments the degeneracy of these “beta” males. The health and well-being championed by functional fitness mean little when put up against the “real” reasons for proper athletic effort: strengthening the body to meet the threats of the current world, and creating the possibility of a “new” United States, founded on renewed masculine strength. On this view, a fascist orientation to the world makes sense: if white masculinity is in danger of dilution, all available methods must be undertaken to save it, beginning with the process of steeling the body from contaminating weakness.

Taken together, Theo’s self-description as a fascist and the training he offers at Barbell Strength Tribe suggest that—if only for a select few—fascism remains a relevant and enduring political orientation in the United States. Although I initially was keen to record fascist “talk,” more time at Barbell Strength Tribe made clear that the gym built fascist bodies and fascist movement. Combined with the demand to “purge” all weakness, Barbell Strength Tribe’s program of pushing muscular bodies to failure shapes its lifters both physically and politically. This collective condition, even more than the muscular bodies themselves, demonstrates that fascism is not only present in moments of insurrection, but is also made through plodding, iterative processes like strengthening the body through excruciating effort.