One of the few reliable truths in electoral politics is that voters like tall presidents.
The average U.S. president is about two inches taller than the average U.S. man, who is 5’9”. Recent presidents have skewed even larger: Every president since Jimmy Carter (5’9.5”) has been 5’11.5” or taller. We haven’t elected a president smaller than the average man in nearly 130 years, when short king William McKinley won his election.
“We are a species that equates larger size with maturity, leadership and sex appeal,” wrote Jay Mathews in the Washington Post in 1999. “If we were like some insects, where adults are smaller than larvae, we might not think this way. But we do.”
So it stands to reason that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is thirstily gunning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, would want to, let’s say, amplify his stature. Rumor has it that the governor is around 5’9”. His expected closest competitor in the GOP primary, Donald Trump, was, at 6’3”, our third-tallest president, a fact he repeats to himself five times in the mirror every morning before taking a deep, restorative breath and going on to face the day.
And the man DeSantis would have to face in the general election, Joe Biden, clocked in at 6-foot-even at his 2023 physical. (Biden measured just 5 feet, 11.65 inches in 2021, an enduring mystery that suggests either some kind of supernatural yoga practice or a White House physician with poor attention to detail.)
Any height is a great height to be—there’s no wrong way to have a body, et cetera. But Republican primary voters are not exactly known for their body positivity. Knowing this, DeSantis has adopted a signature wardrobe trick to juice his stats: cowboy boots.
Though Florida is not closely associated with rancher culture in our national mythology—and out of respect for Floridians, I will not attempt to name the things it is associated with—DeSantis has paired his suits with black cowboy boots for years. At Vanity Fair, Gabriel Sherman reports that DeSantis’ wife, Casey, bears responsibility for the accessory, which she recommended as part of a broader glow-up after he won a seat in Congress. “She bought him these dumbass cowboy boots,” a former staffer told Sherman, “because she thought it was part of the image.”
The image, one imagines, is that of a man 2 or so inches taller than DeSantis.
Now, as DeSantis travels the country in preparation for his presidential bid and wages war on books and Disney in Florida, his leg-lengthening footwear is drawing greater scrutiny. The Lincoln Project recently tweeted a quip about the boots. Ron Filipkowski, a never-Trump Republican and former DeSantis appointee who resigned in protest after a state data scientist was allegedly fired for refusing to distort Florida’s COVID numbers, pointed out that DeSantis “must’ve had a growth spurt” to wind up looking the same size as 6’1” Tiger Woods in a February photo.
Last week, a viral tweet wondered whether DeSantis’ shoes qualified as “high heels.” And a few weeks before that, the president of a Democratic Party–affiliated PAC that produces opposition research on Republicans tweeted a series of photos of DeSantis, writing that he “consistently wears high-heeled boots in order to appear taller.” Republican commentators mocked the tweet, accusing the Democrat of being out of touch with everyday American working-class footwear.
“Tell me you’ve never seen cowboy boots without telling me,” read one such response.
This line of argument establishes a false binary, with “high-heeled” boots on one side and “cowboy” boots on the other, when they are actually overlapping categories. The height of a cowboy boot heel can vary from shoe to shoe, but the existence of a heel is non-negotiable: It’s the thing that would hold one’s foot in the stirrup of the saddle, the raison d’être of the boot. (A cowboy boot would never cop to having a French-kissy raison d’être, so let’s call it a big-boy purpose.)
Of course, not every cowboy boot is as high-heeled as the ones DeSantis wears. There are plenty of options with lower, squared-off heels, but DeSantis prefers a higher, slanted heel—the kind that’s better suited to riding horses. Since DeSantis was not riding a horse at any of the political events at which he was photographed wearing these boots, there is only one reason why he would choose them: because he likes the way it makes him look. The main thing it makes him look is taller.
But conservatives are unwilling to admit that DeSantis’ shoes are both cowboy boots and high-heeled boots. Why? Because to do so would concede the blurred boundaries of gender presentation within this genre of footwear. For people invested in the militant regulation of gender norms, heels are a fraught territory. If a 2-inch heel is attached to a cowboy boot, it’s Big Mac, Super Bowl, troops. If it’s attached to any other kind of boot, it’s green juice, chick lit, drag queen. DeSantis would rather sign the Green New Deal in the front row of a Dixie Chicks concert than admit that the blocky thing on the bottom of his shoe is a “heel,” and he’ll hyperventilate into his bag of decommissioned MAGA hats if you try to convince him otherwise.
Two presidential cycles ago, another conservative Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, stepped onto the wrong side of this divide. While campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in January 2016, the senator, whom the Washington Post’s “well-informed Florida sources” peg at 5’8”, wore a pair of shiny heeled boots on a visit to New Hampshire. His GOP primary competitors ridiculed the femininity of the look and all had a good laugh at his expense.
Rubio’s heels were no higher than a cowboy boot’s, and they even had a similarly slanted heel. (His were technically Cuban heels, but to the untrained eye, they’re cowboy heels.) But because they lacked the stitching and shape of cowboy boots, they were cupcakes, Kesha, body glitter. Got it?
DeSantis and his supporters are determined to inoculate him from such associations. To admit that he cares enough about his appearance to deliberately alter it would reveal a side of him that is insecure, and thus vulnerable. There are not many socially acceptable ways for men devoted to classic American machismo to enhance their appearance (think: makeup) without compromising on their gender expression. The cowboy boot is one of them, nestled in the slender Venn diagram center of masculinizing footwear and height-augmenting footwear.
But the recent focus among DeSantis critics on his heeled footwear may do more to boost his image than to make him look desperate and vain. The more people talk about DeSantis’ cowboy boots, the less likely a Google search for “DeSantis boots” will turn up that photo of him wearing white, knee-high rubber boots in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian—one of the least flattering images of a politician in recent history. In contemporary politics, it’s not just the shoes that make the man. It’s the SEO.