When the bodybuilder Kai Greene wants you to hear what he’s saying, he doesn’t resort to volume; he punctuates his speech with a face as flexible as the rest of him isn’t. Kai Greene has the voice of a baritone kitten, low but precious — a 300-pound slab of igneous rock channeling Marilyn Monroe. The world’s tiniest double bass playing the world’s saddest song, just for you. In this voice, Kai Greene is telling the story of David and Goliath, and he’s making the giant the hero.
“Here was this big, slow-moving target with an X on his back,” Greene says, lifting one massive arm and reaching to touch his own back — a gesture impeded by at least seven kinds of preposterous bulk (pecs, lats, delts both anterior and posterior, etc.) The story is Kai Greene’s answer to my question: “What does it feel like to be stronger than other people?” He’s describing a man vulnerable in his bigness, fallen at the hand of an enemy who seems like a weakling but is really “this stealth, capable, ready, confident warrior armed with the power of God.” Kai Greene pops one eye at me like an emoji, and I’m convinced. I feel for the giant.
I’m talking to Greene in a makeshift publicity hub at the back of a cavernous convention center ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. It’s Day One of the 2017 Arnold Sports Festival, in early March — a four-day, multi-sport extravaganza that outranks the Olympics in its scope, according to the organizer’s estimates: 20,000 athletes, 80 countries, 70 events. The Arnold, as the festival’s name is colloquially shortened, has such an improbably wide scope that the only way to capture it is to say it’s a celebration of stuff done by bodies. Also just bodies. Also just stuff.
The weekend’s capstone event is the Arnold Classic, one of the world’s most prestigious professional bodybuilding competitions (up there with the longer-standing Mr. Olympia, where Schwarzenegger himself made his name almost 50 years ago). Kai Greene was the Arnold Classic champion in 2016, but this year, the 41-year old (his nemesis claims he’s older) isn’t competing. He’s here as a commentator for the festival’s official broadcast partner, the Generation Iron Fitness Network, and to do promo for the documentary Generation Iron 2, a sequel to 2013’s Generation Iron, which was itself the spiritual sequel to Pumping Iron, the 1977 doc that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name.
In a classic scene from Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger describes a feeling he calls “the pump”: a muscle bloating after lifting weight, flooded by a rush of blood, skin tightening as the body’s insides strain outward. Young Arnold compares the feeling to “having sex with a woman and coming,” and everywhere he goes — the gym, on stage, the gym again — “I am getting the feeling of coming … I am coming day and night.” Under this voiceover, Arnold does curls, drops the weight, and surveys himself, gazing at his biceps as they wax, making his pecs — large enough to obscure any view of his lower half — dance in alternating winks.
At some point, you get big enough that you stop believing the world is your cum rag and begin to just feel exposed.
But bodybuilding has changed since Schwarzenegger’s day. The swole have swelled; bodies and muscles that were impressive have become implausible. And if Kai Greene is any indication, hugeness comes with diminishing returns in terms of actual power. At some point, you get big enough that you stop believing the world is your cum rag and begin to just feel exposed — like a body taking up too much space for comfort. Like all you have is a lot to lose.
While there have always been women at The Arnold, the main stage at the Classic belongs to men. It’s about highlighting the male body as a piece of craft, a surface bearing evidence of physical labor. It’s a global competition, and as of next summer’s inaugural Arnold Classic Asia in Hong Kong, there will be six separate Arnold Classics held on six continents each year, but there is something purely, spectacularly American about all this. The Arnold is so explicit, so superlative, so shameless — licensing such glorious, unmitigated excess. It’s amazing to watch. It’s a lot to take.
At this festival of strength, brought to us by an American-dreaming immigrant turned pageant king turned movie star turned politician, there are so many sensational things on display, so much to be distracted and dazzled by, and yet I find I’m looking for something that isn’t there. I’m at The Arnold, and I’m thinking about The Donald. Here in the flyover, in the middle of a swing state committed to the delusion that it’s shaped like a heart, I’m looking at men. I’m trying to understand something about the difference between looking powerful and feeling it, between having strength and using it.
At The Arnold, even simple, five-W’s facts are less like answers and more like gateway drugs to harder questions. Take “where,” for instance. For nearly 30 years, since its inception, The Arnold has been rooted in Columbus, Ohio — a city damned by the faint praise of being America’s favorite corporate test market, a reward for its dogged embodiment of neutrality. Columbus is the state capital you flub more than once at trivia night; a medium-sized dog in a medium-sized dog’s body. That it plays host to a massive, spangled convention of aggressively show-offy largeness feels, at best, off-brand.
But Schwarzenegger co-founded the festival with Jim Lorimer, a Columbus insurance man and sports promoter to whom he is loyal. (Back in 1970, Lorimer flew Schwarzenegger to Ohio for a competition on his own dime, leading the 23-year-old unknown Austrian to make a promise for which he’d one day become famous: He’d be back.) So Columbus, Ohio, it is.
Also confusing: what to even call this thing. The word “Arnold” is shuttled freely from adjective to noun and back again, between events, federations, and sponsors with confoundingly similar names. Arnolds within Arnolds, like Russian nesting dolls. Officially, this is the IFBB Arnold Sports Festival (IFBB stands for International Federation of Bodybuilding, which is actually the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, but don’t ask about the missing F), sometimes called the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival, and sometimes just The Arnold.
The festival in turn plays host to the IFBB Arnold Classic, and the Arnold Strongman Classic (no relationship to bodybuilding, hence no IFBB), and also the Arnold Fitness Expo, a relatively recent addition in the form of a dense hive of fitness industry booths offering pretty much anything you might spend money on to fuel, train, and adorn your body.
Wandering through the expo, you might try sticking yourself with contact jelly patches that jolt your muscles with fierce, staticky spasms of electricity (allegedly healing). You could face off against an opponent across a fitness obstacle course for a chance to win a free T-shirt. You might — in fact probably will — ingest a whole day’s nutritional requirements in sample-sized bites, shots, and licks of bars, powders, and elixirs from companies with names like Protein2o, Nutrabolics, Muscle Egg, and Buff Bake.
And then there’s the original Arnold — the man himself — with whom all 200,000-plus festival attendees seem to be on a first-name basis. In case you were thinking all this was merely in homage to Schwarzenegger, or a Midwestern outcropping ruled in absentia by its namesake, you’d be wrong. Schwarzenegger is definitely here, and he seems to be loving this.
Schwarzenegger is definitely here, and he seems to be loving this.
The 69-year-old Governator (a name by which he is freely introduced, even in an official capacity) roams the Greater Columbus Convention Center with a low-key security detail, pausing to let fans bob and cluster around him as he grins his flat, gap-corrected grin and posts to Snapchat (username @arnoldschnitzel). At one point, passing a warmup area, he walks up and stretches a competitor’s hamstring, cradling the man’s calf in his armpit and bearing his weight lightly, expertly down. I’m pretty sure I see Schwarzenegger wearing the same camo jacket for several days straight.
At The Arnold, you always know when the real Arnold is near. You know it before you know it. There’s a ripple in the room — a contagious urge to follow something. It’s weird and decidedly primal. When Schwarzenegger steps out among the assembled throng, for just a moment the basic repulsiveness of so many human beings contained in close quarters seems to transform, the crowd revealing an ability to conduct preverbal knowledge with the involuntary ease of a shudder. All it takes is a little celebrity to set us off.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has worn plenty of hats: movie star, mogul, capitalist, governor. This year he took on and quickly, after just one season, gave back the job of hosting The Celebrity Apprentice. It was a role he inherited, of course, from Donald J. Trump, and the Schwarzenegger version of the show was officially billed as The New Celebrity Apprentice, marking a new era after the original host’s long run.
As it turned out, you can take The Donald out of reality TV, but not so easily the reverse. Even days away from being inaugurated to the world’s most powerful political office, Trump appeared to be brooding over the fact that Schwarzenegger — someone who might have seemed like a kindred spirit, but instead turned out to be a never-Trumping hater — would now be the one to sit on the boardroom throne and dramatically, pointlessly fire wealthy people from fake jobs on TV.
And so began what may well be the pettiest and most psychically revealing of all the Twitter feuds of Donald J. — who upgraded mid-spat to become President — Trump. Trump began a campaign of monitoring the Nielsen ratings of Apprentice’s Schwarzenegger reboot (failing!) and taking to Twitter roughly once a month to publicize the results. Look, he cried, how even that movie star made famous as a specimen of physical dominance, of embodied bigness, couldn’t follow in the footsteps of “the ratings machine, DJT.”
Once in office, Trump even made time for Schwarzenegger outside his usual dawn tweet sessions, calling at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2 for us to cast our thoughts heavenward for Arnold, for his ratings.
Schwarzenegger, for his part, has gone tweet-for-tweet with the president. When Trump sneered at his Apprentice numbers, Schwarzenegger wished him luck with his new job doing “the people’s work.” In response to the prayers for his ratings salvation, Schwarzenegger offered to job swap. And in March, on the first day of The Arnold, while Schwarzenegger was surrounded by an adoring crowd of fans, followers, and wannabes in Columbus, his team issued a statement saying that he wouldn’t return for a second season of Celebrity Apprentice, citing the show’s “baggage.”
The following day (March 4, 2017) Donald Trump awoke at his Floridian resort encampment of Mar-a-Lago and performed his morning rites of (seemingly unsupervised) tweeting. First up: a volley of fantastic, paranoiac, and since universally unconfirmed claims about the Obama administration wiretapping Trump Tower phones. After covering McCarthyism and spying and Obama (that “Bad (or sick) guy!”), it seemed like Trump’s daily airing of grievances had wound down, until he logged back in for one last tweet setting the record straight: “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show,” the president wrote, plopping a petty little maraschino atop his day’s work.
In a convention center packed with human megafauna, the only elephant in the room is politics.
Back in Columbus, Schwarzenegger takes a break from playing host to his 200,000 closest pals to fire back at the president, tweeting: “You should think about hiring a new joke writer and a fact checker.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the middle of a Twitter fight — a Twitter fight — with the US president, while standing in a Midwestern convention center guarded by a bronze, just-slightly larger-than-life statue of his likeness. This spat is a reminder of the status these men share, of the fact that the crossover from celebrity to political office is slowly becoming the norm. It’s also a warning about what can come from those trained to seek attention rather than command power.
Trump’s tweets reveal something fundamental about vision and values: what he prioritizes, how he thinks. Grammatical slip though it may be — “fired by his ratings” — there’s a reminder here that the president of the United States thinks of ratings as personified. He ascribes to this narrow metric of tuned-in screens, of eyes glued to a spectacle, the ability to give and take power. To tell someone what a loser they are, or to show them love.
How many of the strongmen and bodybuilders taking the stage at the festival — or the people watching them — feel, on some level, the same? And what portion of the 200,000 spectators here in Columbus voted for that president? Is their loyalty with Arnold? Do they feel like they have to choose? These questions feel taboo. In a convention center packed with human megafauna, the only elephant in the room is politics.
The Strongmen of the Arnold Strongman Classic, the main professional “strength sport” competition that spreads over two days of the festival, are motley. You might think they’d be cookie-cutter, standard-issue colossi, these men who toss boulders, clean-and-press oak trees, deadlift the weight of a Holstein heifer. But in the Strongman main event, where the heavyweight pros compete, the roster is delightfully ragtag.
There’s Icelandic TV star and crowd favorite Hafþór (pronounced Hafthor, nickname “Thor”) Júlíus Björnsson, who plays “The Mountain” on Game of Thrones. There’s photogenic former Russian Marine Mikhail Shivlyakov who, competing in his black military beret and always taking a gracious bow before exiting the stage, looks like an illustration from a propaganda poster come to life. There are young men in their twenties up against “the old bulls,” as one commentator dubs Americans Brian Shaw and Jerry Pritchett (both of whom will walk away from the weekend with new world records to their names).
And in case the whole affair wasn’t giving off enough sideshow vibes, there’s an actual circus performer: Bulgarian Dimitar Savanitov, formerly of the Ringling Brothers, whom MC Mark Henry (first ever Arnold Strongman titleholder, from 2002), blithely and repeatedly refers to as a “carny.” Savanitov’s bald, glistening head is covered with a mysterious layer of dense folds, like a hairless shar-pei. His one-time traveling act reportedly included lying down on broken glass while a dance troupe stood on a board supported by his chest, and letting himself be run over by a car.
Then there is Zach Hadge, who is quite possibly the most remarkable-looking strongman of all: Neither giant nor ad campaign nor cartoon, he is an emissary from a recognizable, everyday plane of mortals. At 6 feet tall and 235 pounds, he’s the smallest Arnold Classic Strongman — not just this year, but ever.
Just to put that in perspective, Brian Shaw (who, spoiler, is this year’s overall winner) outweighs Hadge by almost two hundred pounds. Björnsson, who is 6’9” and looks like an optical illusion next to Hadge, has at least as much pound advantage as Shaw, though it’s hard to say precisely because his heft is the subject of debate: The show MCs are convinced that official records are a lowball and keep doing elevator eyes up and down the Icelander while tossing out guesstimates, like he’s prime state fair livestock (“420,” “430,” “every bit of 450 pounds,” “there’s not a scale big enough to weigh him”).
It matters how much you weigh if you’re going to move this much weight. Strongman events include such feats as the Bale Tote: a walk-slash-stagger under “The Yeller,” a jungle-gym-sized yoke flanked with about 1,300 pounds (rising to 1,565 pounds in the second round) of compressed cotton, swaddled with rugged flourishes of burlap and industrial-grade chain. There’s an overhead press with “The Austrian Oak,” a 430-pound specimen that appears to be the better part of a tree (with a 385-pound backup on hand as a lower-scoring “lightweight” option). There’s a deadlift with a minimum 749-pound buy-in: fresh, hand-finished stainless steel plates loaded on a rangy, oversized “Elephant Bar,” so called for a trunk-like, tensile bend that sways evasively out of the lifter’s grip, pulsing in a way those who’ve felt it describe as something alive.
“Don’t worry,” MC Mark Henry assures us as a clean-up crew is sent to handle a bloody trail left across the stage after a yoke carry. “This is totally normal.”
Straining under Strongman-level poundage, huge bodies don’t just shake — they vibrate. Competitors’ eyes distend; their faces turn deep, vascular hues; delicate veins and capillaries blow out and burst. Sometimes blood rushes to the head so quickly it will just start pouring out someone’s nose. “Don’t worry,” MC Mark Henry assures us as a clean-up crew is sent to handle a bloody trail left across the stage after a yoke carry. “This is totally normal.”
Both on and offstage, I hear these refrains of “putting a lot into it,” “giving it everything.” The body invested in the body. Building and rebuilding, gains and losses. At The Arnold, this is what identity — what a person — is made of. It’s all matter over other matter.
“I was pushing too hard, and I regressed,” a man who looks like Mr. Clean confides to a friend as he delicately licks a dollop of protein-infused peanut butter (12g per serving) off a miniature spoon.
In what will prove to be one of the most politically charged things I hear for days, one young man boasts, “I put my hand on one of her asses” as he floats by me in the crowd, leaving me to imagine what happened to her other one.
“You guys are involved in this!” an announcer calls out to the crowd from a stage. The amateur men’s physique competitors are exposing their unpaid, labored bodies in quarter-turn increments. “Yell their number, yell their name,” the MC implores. “Tell them how much you love them.”
The conventional wisdom is that muscular topography looks best when skin is dark, bronze, and oiled. These men are a near-homogenous shade and sheen, defaulted by spray tan that defies racial coding. It’s like someone’s naïve fantasy of “post-racial” America brought to life in a place you wouldn’t think to go looking for it. It’s somehow both retrograde and futuristic — the male body hyperbolized by a set of aesthetic demands so totalizing and arbitrary they seem to raze every other category of judgment entirely. Bigness has a way of flattening everything else.
This is a place where politics are dominated by other, stranger metrics for success and failure. How many pounds of flesh have you delivered? How closely does your skin hew to the dehydrated net of musculature below? How brindled, how meat-like is your mass under the scrutiny of limelight?
On Day Two of the Strongman event, Zach Hadge — the little guy — gets pretty riled before his deadlift. It’s kind of a whole thing. He turns to the audience and churns the air with his arms to demand more yelling, more feelings, more noise. Hadge dances on the balls of his bare feet in a boxer’s shuffle (after two lifts they decide it’s a no-no and make him put on a pair of socks). Then he leans over, gets his hands on the bar, and goes totally apeshit, rattling and shaking it and screaming like he’s fighting his way out of captivity.
As he settles in and plants his feet, a trainer swoops in to stick medical-grade ammonia under his nose, the same smelling salts they use to revive people who have fainted (“Just wakes you the heck up!” Hadge will tell me later). Hadge inhales a quick series of hits, nods, and deadlifts nearly three and a half times his body weight — 816 pounds — up and off the floor.
The other competitors up one another’s deadlift bids in five-pound increments. By the end of the competition, Jerry Pritchett (an “old bull” with a thinning fauxhawk and malamute eyes) breaks a world record with a lift of 1,031 pounds. Locked at the top of the lift, he holds it for a while, just chilling with a weight equal to a full-sized male grizzly suspended around hip level. He looks around at the audience and nods like we’ve all told him something he’s been waiting to hear. Then he bellows and throws more than a thousand pounds back down to earth.
In the aptly named Bag Over Bar, Hafþór Björnsson will score a world record, too, hurling an unwieldy 100-pound sack behind and overhead to clear a bar 15 feet aloft. He shreds his tank top off his body in one instantaneous motion to expose his 61-inch chest, mid-roar. “How easy was that?” the announcer asks. “It! Was! Not!” Björnsson screams into the microphone.
Strongmen do not have muscles that bulge and ripple at the surface of their skin, projecting from the inside out: Their strength is all in the action, all in the feat. They don’t merely look like they could lift a thousand pounds — they really do it.
Which begs the question: why? Under what conditions could a person possibly need to move 1,300 pounds of cotton 10 feet to the left, or rip a tree from the earth and brandish it overhead?
The Strongman is a spectacle of the impossible. It’s about break and smash, shock and awe. It’s not for excellence, but for excess. It’s a display of strength so functional that it crosses over into being totally pointless. And yet I find myself on my feet and cheering for Zach Hadge as he stands beside giants.
If the Arnold Strongman Classic is a show of strength in action, then the IFBB Arnold Classic — this weekend’s big show, the flagship event — is a show of strength as an aesthetic, where the crowning achievement is to appear infinitely strong without needing to prove it. In a kind of beauty pageant on supplements, 10 bodybuilders will take turns performing solo posing routines to music, followed by a series of direct body-to-body comparisons, for a final ranking, scoring, and winner.
I interviewed last year’s champion, Kai Greene, in the same ballroom. Greene was obviously huge, but he was also clothed. Now I’m not just seeing professional bodybuilders in person — I’m seeing them in the flesh. It’s a whole other thing.
It looks like a medical event. It looks like an emergency.
The most striking part of a bodybuilder’s body isn’t really size. It’s that it somehow looks like they’ve been turned inside-out. Their muscles are large, of course, but they also appear to be in uncomfortable high-def, showing every ridge, knot, and grain. It looks like something that was supposed to stay hidden has been inflated, risen to the surface. It looks like a medical event. It looks like an emergency.
One strategy for violently contracting every muscle in the body without sacrificing pageant virtues like grace and beauty seems to be planting a shit-eating grin and using it as a release valve for your effort, hissing air through the teeth while you bear and flex and squeeze. It’s an approach favored by runner-up Dallas McCarver, and it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.
Another strategy, I’m surprised to learn, is lip-synching: During the solo routines — each contestant’s chance to flow through poses that leave no cranny of muscle unpopped — some turn theatrical, dramatically mouthing along to the music or acting out lyrics. It’s not flexing and holding; it’s Chippendales meets Lip Sync Battle meets living statue busker.
Cedric McMillan, a crowd-pleasing favorite, comes to the edge of the stage and spreads the surface of his back as if he were an unlikely bird captured mid-mating ritual for the benefit of a nature documentary, his muscles transformed into a knobby, imbricated fan. “Beautiful, beautiful,” the man beside me breathes.
I’m at the fringe of the media seating, where press passes mingle with Festival VIPs who paid money for their good seats. As it happens, most of the people around me are white men, past middle age: Arnold vets who know what they’re looking at. As the Classic competitors — whose junk, to a man, is cradled in iridescent banana hammocks — perform for us, the men around me oooh and aaaah in all the right places, lean toward one another confidentially as they yell the names of muscle groups and issue predictions over the teeth-rattling music. It’s appraising and frank and oddly sexless. They’re just tallying stats, making calls.
There’s a round of comparisons: The men line up and are made to rotate, showing themselves from all angles in a series of standardized poses while a 20-second hair metal riff turns over and over in a frantic loop. Competitors are reorganized and juggled in and out of lines for one-to-one judgements until it’s clear that it’s down to McCarver, with his painful, hissing simulacra of enjoyment, and McMillan, who’s long been championed by Schwarzenegger himself for his particular physique and winning persona.
When he finally gets his win, McMillan brings the other finalists onstage with him, pulling them into a meaty huddle of fraternal affection. He turns the tables, throwing the Governator’s go-to interview questions back at him, with a cheeky grin: “How does it feel to be here? And I wanna know, how was your training?” He teases Schwarzenegger into pulling a quick, old-school twisting back pose, and the crowd goes nuts as Schwarzenegger’s biceps pop against the fine-woven wool of his suit jacket. McMillan gives a speech about the importance of difference and representation, about the need to drive out the negativity and hate and let in love and appreciation for more ways of being, more ways of looking on the bodybuilding stage.
Abstracted in shorthand like this, it sounds like politics. It sounds like pluralism.
But the universe of The Arnold is so willfully, weirdly apolitical that when Cedric McMillan — who is black and whom I’ll hear the next day describe himself as a kid from the projects, who “statistically speaking … wasn’t supposed to grow up and be shit” — delivers this message about diversity, he is talking with no irony whatsoever about waist ratios. When he talks about diversity, McMillan is talking about more kinds of huge.
Cedric McMillan’s Arnold Classic victory may be a sign of changing times. McMillan’s body and style of posing are considered throwbacks, a contemporary take on a classic look. His win could mean a veer away from the boundless, indifferent pursuit of bigness and toward something more refined.
He’s also undeniably charming. Where other contestants tend to look like they’re smiling through constipation, McMillan’s face curls into a facile half-smirk. When Arnold Schwarzenegger stands up to take selfies in front of the stage during McMillan’s posing routine, the soon-to-be-champ interrupts his flow to crouch at the edge of the stage, flip bunny ears, and ruffle Schwarzenegger’s combed-back hair.
This, Schwarzenegger says later, is part of what he likes about Cedric McMillan: He can be a spokesperson for a sport that enthusiasts and practitioners keep enigmatically describing as “underground.” McMillan is not about that subterranean life. He puts everything out there, says what he’s thinking. About a lot of things: anxiety, diversity, the internet, the haters.
McMillan recently posted a picture on Instagram from his pre-bodybuilding days with a caption that begins: “Back then I thought I was jacked. Nowadays I think I’m small. That body dismorphia shit [sic].” As I scrolled through McMillan’s Instagram before The Arnold, this post surprised me. It seemed like a painful thing to admit so casually in public. Having seen The Arnold in action, I understand a little better the culture of indifferent judgment and examination that might lead to this kind of confession. McMillan isn’t diagnosing a bug — he’s just acknowledging a feature.
I’ve always thought about dysmorphia as a failure to see yourself. Lately, though, it seems to me like the opposite: a failure to see the rest of the world. It’s staring at yourself without the clarity of scale, or the benefit of context. When your body is both the subject of the portrait and the frame, of course it doesn’t matter what size and shape you are: You’re always all of it, and you’ll never be enough. This isn’t a matter of warped vision; it’s stunted imagination. And since the election, it feels as if the entire nation — the body politic — has revealed its own dysmorphic disorder. We’d been so sure of who we were and what we looked like. We had it all wrong.
Everything about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sports Festival seems as though it’s conspiring to suggest something else.
Everything about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sports Festival seems as though it’s conspiring to suggest something else. Like if I just stare hard enough at all the excess, all the shows, all the parades of motion and mass and men, it might cohere into one thing, one way of thinking about this country at this moment, this electorate and its sovereign.
When I asked Kai Greene what it feels like to be strong, he led into the David and Goliath story with this: “You know what? I think … the same kind of vulnerability and despair possibilities, insecurities exist even in the mind of the person that is perceivably very, very physically powerful. In fact, in many cases they might even be more vulnerable and more exposed.”
Greene was talking about an ancient Philistine. He was talking, by analogy, about himself. But he could so easily have been talking about a man with small paws and a yanking handshake, propped up in a seat of power where he telegraphs all his fears and insecurities, reveals over and over his apparently depthless capacity for wounded despair.
What do ornate shows of power actually show? They distract and dazzle and pummel; they project the thing they’re meant to. But more often than not, whatever that power is mounting to defend, whatever fear it answers to — that gets put on display, too. It isn’t hard to see.
Finally, on the last day of the 2017 Arnold Sports Festival, Schwarzenegger answers a question about Trump.
It’s morning, and the ballroom stage is sober under house lights, a thin, smoke-machine haziness still lingering from last night’s pageant. This is the Arnold Sunday Showcase, a series of onstage interviews with big-ticket winners, with the man himself. Schwarzenegger’s interviewer, also a retired bodybuilder, brings up the change in political climate obliquely. He won’t “get into the ins and outs of all that stuff,” he promises, waving off the last few months with his hand, but he does want to know: What if the natural-born citizen clause was repealed? What if an immigrant could be president?
Arnold Schwarzenegger is seated in a studded leather wingback chair, flanked by two huge Arnold Classic insignia: an illustrated, peak-swole Grecian Arnold striking a pose, surrounded by a gold ring studded with stars. The same small likeness is stitched into the Governator’s camo jacket, which has either been freshly pressed in the last 24 hours or is one among many.
Just as a hypothetical, just for fun, if the rules were changed, if the United States made room for Arnold at the top. What if? “What do you think, President Schwarzenegger?” the interviewer asks, goading the crowd into cheers.
“Well, I would have run that last round,” Schwarzenegger admits, looking like he’s feeling the pump just thinking about it. “I thought that was winnable.” ●
Suzannah Showler is a Canadian writer currently living in Columbus, Ohio. She is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently Thing Is (Penguin Random House, 2017) and a book of criticism about The Bachelor, forthcoming in 2018.
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