Bro Culture and Empire in Decline
An Interview with Patrick Wyman
|Anne Helen Petersen||Dec 16, 2020|| 38||33|
I wonder if you’ve had an experience like this: you click on a link because it looks vaguely interesting, and by the end of the piece, you’re sitting with the weird feeling that something’s been unlocked. It’s not just that the writing was good, or the piece was insightful, although both are generally true of these sorts of pieces. It’s that they make the invisible visible — they give words and shape to something you’ve grasped at, you’ve known was out there, but couldn’t touch or describe or explain.
There’s two pieces of Patrick Wyman’s that have made me feel that way. The first is his recent essay on Fitness Bro Culture. The second is on Local American Gentry. I promise that after reading this interview you will want to read both, but it’s ironic that these essays are somewhat periphery to what Patrick’s most known for, which is ancient history, and the enormously popular podcasts Fall of Rome and Tides of History. People used to ask me how I went from Idaho to a PhD in media studies to writing for BuzzFeed, and now I get to ask Patrick how he went from Yakima, Washington to a PhD in history and becoming a successful podcaster.
He’s an incredible storyteller and writer, and I learn so much from everything he does — in a way that feels effortless, but also rejects tidy Malcolm Gladwell-esque parables. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview, and you should absolutely subscribe to his newsletter, which mixes essays like the ones featured above with pieces on recovered skeletons that read like celebrity profiles in the best possible way. I really can’t recommend it enough.
Tell me about you, how you ended up an academic historian, and how you went from there to starting a podcast that people from drastically different corners of my life absolutely will not shut up about.
When I was eight and we visited Gettysburg, I got into an argument with one of the park rangers about some specific detail of the battle. Eight-year-old me was extremely sure of his correctness in the matter. I always wanted to be a historian, though precisely what that meant — outside of arguing with park rangers — wasn’t clear to me until I was actually in graduate school. Getting a PhD in history and then becoming an academic seemed like the thing I was supposed to do, and I got pretty far down that path until I realized that jobs for historians of Late Antiquity weren’t exactly abundant.
As I was going through my PhD and the lack of employment opportunities waiting at the end was becoming increasingly obvious, I started doing a lot of Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and watching mixed martial arts. From there, mostly because I was bored and burnt out on academia, I fell into writing about combat sports, started doing podcasts and radio, and built a second career as a sports journalist. My academic advisors weren’t really aware I had that second job writing for outlets like Bleacher Report, the Washington Post, and Deadspin, which took up about as much time as my teaching and research.
When I was comparing my options — a precarious media career covering a niche sport or pursuing a tenure-track job in history — the former seemed like a much more promising choice, which says a lot about the academic job market.
On top of that, a single academic conference was enough to pretty firmly demonstrate that I wasn’t cut out for the life of a scholar. Shout-out to the 2013 edition of the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo for making that abundantly clear: it’s still a bizarre and surreal experience. One of my advisors, a wonderfully blunt medievalist by the name of Judith Bennett, called me an “academic magpie” right around that time. I didn’t have the focus necessary to spend years on a single topic, she said, and she was right.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that when I finished my PhD, I knew how to do audio, I knew I didn’t want to be an academic, and I knew I still wanted to talk about history. Teaching was always my favorite part of academia, not that it was highly valued. In some strange way, those things came together in a career making podcasts. Mostly through luck, I was able to post early episodes of my first show, Fall of Rome, on Deadspin; I’d been writing there off and on for a few years, and the editor at the time was kind enough to let me run these very odd little pieces on a wonderful sports and culture blog that happened to be full of the kind of people who were willing to listen to a bare-bones, amateurish show on late Roman history.
It took a few years, but I was able to transition out of sports journalism and into podcasting full-time, which I do now with Tides of History. My job is awesome — basically, I get to research things that are interesting to me, write stories about them, and then record the audio. It rules.
I personally will not shut up about your recent newsletter on “Bro Culture, Fitness, Chivalry, and American Identity,” which is the best piece of analysis I’ve read on the material culture and performance of masculinity in America today.
People know about Joe Rogan, and the support for Kyle Rittenhouse, and MMA, and maybe the militia movement ....but there seems to be a bit of an analytical blindspot when it comes to connecting the dots between all of this + Black Rifle Coffee + what you call Capital V Veterans + the fetish for “preparedness.” People know what to think when you say “Trump Voter” but I don’t think it’s usually (or ever!) the guy that you’re talking about here.
Why is this Bro so ideologically powerful — and why is he so rarely visible within the larger political imaginary?
The Bro has the odd status of being both ubiquitous, in the sense that he’s a default cultural archetype and consumer, and often invisible as a broader category.
There’s a tension here, but it actually fits together neatly. The Bro is usually white, male, young-ish, and physically capable, all traits we tend to implicitly or explicitly value. He has enough resources to be a demographic brands and advertisers find worthwhile to target. And yet the Bro is also hammered with the message that he’s an individual first and foremost, that his value is self-evident and self-derived, and that group membership (veteran, athlete, etc.) reinforces his individual identity rather than subsuming it.
For that reason, the Bro isn’t exactly incentivized toward self-reflection, or toward seeing himself as part of a group. Like white people being forced to see themselves as white, rather than simply viewing themselves as the norm, having to reckon with one’s identity as part of a collective can be difficult and disorienting.
If Bros don’t easily see themselves as members of a group, it’s not necessarily easy for others to do so. People who do our work of cultural and political analysis, who are rarely part of the spaces where Bros congregate either physically or online, can easily miss the unifying facets of Bro Culture. Guns, weights, martial arts, sports, American flags, all that stuff goes together into a surprisingly coherent whole.
But if you don’t know Bros, you won’t see the confluence. You’ll be confused by Joe Rogan’s appeal. You’ll probably see him as a fringe figure instead of the center of a very large universe, where Navy SEALS and Green Berets and professional strongmen carve out lucrative careers as entrepreneurs and influencers. There’s a very specific form of American ethnonationalism brewing in these spaces, spiced with an odd combination of libertarian individualism, being a badass, and the worship of military competence. The militarization of the police and the ideology of the Thin Blue Line are archetypal products of this extended Bro Universe, because most police are archetypal Bro subjects.
Basically, I think it’s easy to miss this whole thing if you’re not immersed in it, or even if it is visible, to see it as absurd or ridiculous instead of coherent.
Part of the power and authority of the piece flows from your own familiarity with these spaces. I know that reading it reminded me a lot of people from my hometown in North Idaho who still live in the area or nearby, and the politics and aesthetics of their lives (at least the way those things are represented on social media, in the businesses they start in the area, my own time in fitness spaces, etc etc.) Can you talk a bit more about your own familiarity and the feeling, for lack of a better word, of performing this sort of analysis?
I was a little hesitant to write on this topic. It feels deeply personal in a way that most of my writing isn’t. I’ve been lifting weights for 20 years, since I was 16: I literally don’t know what my adult body would look like otherwise, and I don’t know who I’d be if not for years of conversations in gyms, consuming Bro-tinted media, and the like. I’m not immune to Bro Culture’s general allergy to self-examination, and it didn’t feel natural: Just shut up and lift, hit the heavy bag, smoke a joint or drink a beer, don’t worry about it. It’s self-definition through doing, rather than thinking, and for somebody wired to think too much, that’s always been deeply appealing to me.
Once I started, though, it felt really good to dig in. The fact that Bro Culture doesn’t like to think hard about itself doesn’t mean there’s nothing there; very much the opposite. There are ideas and values and codes about how to act and what matters, and millions of American men are consuming them without considering their implications. All culture is like that, to a greater or lesser extent - if you had to think about cultural givens all the time you’d never stop thinking - but the baseline assumptions are so rarely unexamined as with the Bro.
You grew up in Idaho, I grew up in Central Washington, both of them parts of the inland Pacific Northwest. This kind of unspoken and not-especially-discussed culture was everywhere. Until I went away to southern California for college, it wasn’t clear to me that there was any other way to be: Either one failed to live up to that particular masculine code, or succeeded - the idea that there might have been an alternative way for a Guy to Be a Dude was genuinely foreign. De-naturalizing the concept felt like a whole journey, if that makes any sense.
You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what empire in decline looks and feels like — and pointing to the fact that something like the rise of Trump is really just a symptom of larger, long-seeded decline.
As you put in your recent piece for Mother Jones, “The popular story version of this particular falling empire might focus on a twice-divorced serial philanderer and bullshit artist and make him the villain, rendering his downfall or ultimate triumph the climax of the narrative. But it’s far more likely that the real meat of the issue will be found in a tax code full of sweetheart deals for the ultra-wealthy, the slashed budgets of county public health offices, the lead-contaminated water supplies. And that’s to say nothing of the decades of pointless, self-perpetuating, and almost undiscussed imperial wars that produce no victories but plenty of expenditures in blood and treasure, and a great deal of justified ill will.”
I’m going to ask for something potentially ridiculous, which is to connect Bro Culture, Smallish Town American Gentry, Crumbling Institutions, and Empire in Decline. Feel free to tell me to fuck off here, I realize this could be a second dissertation.
There’s a lot here, and I’m not sure I can put it all together into a grand unified theory of 21st-century America, but I’ll give it a provisional and probably misguided shot.
The most under-discussed and -analyzed aspect of 21st-century American politics and culture is the role of empire and imperial wars. We’ve spent trillions of dollars on never-ending conflicts overseas, none of which have been particularly successful at anything other than lining the pockets of defense contractors. We have a political class that mostly pretends these conflicts aren’t happening and refuses to take any real responsibility for them aside from signing blank checks. Our ongoing crisis of political legitimacy clearly isn’t helped by the essentially bipartisan commitment to endless imperial war.
On top of that, millions of Americans have served in the armed forces, many of them in combat over the past two decades. Casual militarism has seeped into huge swathes of American culture. Police departments are stocked with weapons originally designed for or deployed in those same overseas conflicts.
Bro Culture is to some extent downstream of this cultural context, which holds much more sway in the smaller cities and metropolitan areas where tens of millions of Americans live. These are the places ruled by local gentry of the type I discuss, where American identity — the kind of straightforward ethnonationalism at the heart of Bro Culture — holds its strongest appeal. This isn’t a small segment of the American population or American culture; it has its own views of what America is and should be; and these aren’t necessarily clear to the people doing our cultural commentary and political analysis.
Sure, Lewiston, Idaho or Yakima, Washington aren’t especially big cities. Neither is Odessa, Texas or Normal, Illinois or Bettendorf, Iowa. But there are a ton of places like them scattered across the American landscape, full of Bros who like lifting weights and guns and think our political class is full of effete doofuses. The institutions at the heart of American government and society don’t do much for them, at least not visibly; the military is probably one of the few that actually touches them, particularly if they’re a veteran. The cities they live in aren’t especially tightly connected to the major metros that dominate our media. Again, this isn’t a small group. It’s millions upon millions of people, just not people that loom large in the American imagination.
You’re doing public history. What makes a podcast and a newsletter a good fit for the way your mind works and the conversations you want to have?
Two pieces: I like learning new things and I like telling stories. If I have to focus on the same thing for too long, it turns into a slog and the quality of my work starts to decline. A podcast and newsletter turns that lack of long-term focus into a virtue; I can simply move on to the next topic, dig into something unfamiliar to me, and tell a new story, or at least a story that’s new to me. I’m not much of an expert on anything by the standards of academic achievement, and I don’t think my conclusions are especially original, but I can learn to understand new technical languages pretty quickly, and I know how to do research.
That means I can understand expert works, distill them, and have in-depth conversations with specialists in the fields I’m working on without making a total fool of myself. I’ll never publish a paper on the genetics of dog domestication, but I can have a fun, interesting, in-depth chat with somebody who has published those papers, for example. That’s all I’m shooting for, and hopefully my listeners/readers are into it.
Finally: Your dissertation is on thousands of letters and evidence of travel/mobility and they communicate about the decline of the Roman Empire. If you looked at our communication and mobility today, what would it tell us?
That’s a great question. I’d point to two factors: the sheer density of connections, both of mobility and communication that are completely unprecedented on a global scale, and the way they tend to connect major metros while skipping over the places in between. If you travel from New York to Los Angeles, you’re almost always flying; if you have a layover along the way, that’s happening in Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas, not Rockford, Savannah, or Amarillo.
No communications or trade network is ever continuous — they connect particular places to one another, not all of them — but there are consequences for that kind of skipping in a globalized world, both cultural and political. Major metros look like islands in a global archipelago of huge cities rather than regional centers serving their immediate environs.
I don’t know what to make of that, exactly, but that’s what the pattern looks like to me.
Long interviews like this (with someone who’s not a celebrity) rarely get published on a mainstream news sites, so if this is the sort of thing you value, and want more of, think about going to the paid version of the newsletter. One of the perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week, which are thus far still one of the good places on the internet.
If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.