On a scorching July afternoon, the 36-year-old matador Paco Ureña is standing on the edge of a dirt bullring in the ancient town of Arévalo, an hour’s drive north of Madrid, the pink and gold silks of his traje de luces, or suit of lights, catching the sun.

Ureña dedicates his fight to the audience, where I sit in the third row. The crowd—in straw hats, cigars lolling out of mouths, shouting for music from the live band dressed in white—roars its approval. When the bull is released, it’s particularly aggressive, running with its horns up toward the picador, who stabs it from atop his horse before the banderilleros come out for the second phase of the bullfight, acrobatically jabbing the animal in the neck with pairs of barbed sticks.

For the bull, death is all but certain; for the matador, it’s a slim but potent possibility. Over the roughly three-century history of Spanish bullfighting, an estimated 533 toreros, or matadors, have died in the ring, and many more have been injured.

And yet, to both bullfighters and fans, these risks are not only worth it but essential to the sport’s beauty. Since the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, since the ancient Greek amphitheaters, bulls have been symbols of authority and fertility. Roman soldiers washed themselves in the blood of bulls to gain their power. Bullfighting—which is legal and practiced in the South of France, Spain (outside of Catalonia), Portugal, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela—is the modern iteration of this sacrificial ritual.

Fighting Chance

“It’s about putting the beast under a spell,” says Ana Crespí de Valldaura y Boter, a lithe 23-year-old classics student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the next Countess of Serramagna, who was at Ureña’s fight and is a staunch proponent of bullfighting’s legality in Spain. “It’s an almost spiritual connection” between bull and matador. Her younger brother, Felipe, who began to train as a torero before turning to study philosophy, says a bullfight “transcends life and death: the bull will die no matter what, and putting it in this situation is the greatest respect.” Later, while sitting on a red couch in the salon of their family’s 15th-century estate in Ávila, he adds, “I cannot relate to the idea that this is a torturing of the animal.”

“I cannot relate to the idea that this is a torturing of the animal.”

But many think torture—and a perverse obsession with cruelty and death—is precisely what bullfighting is about. Just a few weeks ago, during Pamplona’s annual Running of the Bulls, dozens of protesters lay facedown on the streets with fake spears in their backs, disputing the use of bulls for entertainment across Spain. Over the past decade, bullfighting in the country has seen a significant decline thanks to large-scale campaigns by animal-rights organizations such as PETA and AnimaNaturalis. In 2008, 16,000 bulls were killed in bullfights, according to PETA; last year that number more than halved, to only 7,000, and it looks to continue to decrease.

The Politics of Sport

Anti-animal-cruelty political parties have sprung up in the past few decades, most notably PACMA, or the Partido Animalista Contra el Maltrato Animal, which made the illegalization of bullfighting a tenet of its platform when it launched in 2003, although only very recently has the group gained any kind of electoral traction. The politics of bullfighting in Spain are generally perceived to be cut-and-dried, the thinking being that those on the political right—Catholics, aristocrats, and other traditionalists like the Crespí de Valldaura y Boters—are for it, while those on the left—the Socialists, the Communists, and the animal-rights activists—want to see it banned.

Animal-rights activists protest ahead of the San Fermín Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona, Spain, July 5, 2019.

There are clear Fascist undertones to the sport: the taunting and domination of the beast, the crowd of many against the animal of one, the Spanish flag–colored mini-spears, or banderillas, thrust into the bull’s back. The torero—almost always a man—is seen as both a kind of sex symbol and as a personification of the nation, protecting the country from beasts and those who might try to harm it. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was a staunch protector of bullfighting, and when the Republican armies saw a Francoist farmer raising a bull for fighting, they’d often murder the farmer. “One less torero,” the Spanish Civil War leftist refrain went, “one less Fascist.”

Today, Spain’s far-right Vox party—which won 6.2% of the vote and three seats in the European parliamentary elections this May, the same number of seats as the far-right Freedom Party of Austria and Belgium’s Flemish Interest (Alternative for Germany and Italy’s Lega Nord won 11 and 28 seats, respectively)—has made the protection of bullfighting a central part of its platform, in stark opposition to PACMA. The defense of bullfighting is a seemingly instinctive response to cosmopolitanism, globalization, and even shifting gender norms, and the practice has become a proxy for traditional nationalist values.

“One less torero,” the Spanish Civil War leftist refrain went, “one less Fascist.”

But then there’s José Tomás, generally agreed to be one of the greatest bullfighters of all time; although he keeps his politics close to the vest, even those on the right, like Mr. Crespí de Valldaura y Boter, think of Tomás as much more to the political left. A number of leftist historical figures, both now and in the past—like the writer José Ortega y Gasset, the poet Federico García Lorca, and the Catalonian artist Joan Miró—were vocal proponents of bullfighting, while some on the furthest reaches of the European right, like the Nazi Heinrich Himmler, hated it, calling bullfighting a “disgusting, extremely bloody spectacle.” There were left-leaning foreigners, too, like Ernest Hemingway, who adored the “art” of bullfighting’s “danger of death,” although it is forever difficult to separate Hemingway’s put-on machismo from his genuine beliefs.

Either way, bullfighting in the political sphere is less of a left-versus-right dialectic than a last-ditch political strategy for relevance. By putting bullfighting at the center of their platform, an otherwise minor party, like Vox or PACMA, can make itself nationally—even internationally—relevant. Bullfighting, as its popularity dwindles, has become increasingly useful as a means for political media exposure.

Game to the Last

Ureña’s final bull is particularly courageous. It keeps its head up, persisting despite its pain. Even more than the torero, it is the bull that is most beloved and respected by the spectacle’s devotees. The paradox that the bull—not the torero—must die is resolved only by the notion that the most elegant fate is death. “You’re appreciating the most noble thing,” Mr. Crespí de Valldaura y Boter says—“ability through adversity.”

Ureña’s bull continues to push through its pain. It runs past Ureña’s muleta again and again. The sun-drenched audience loves it. Ms. Crespí de Valldaura y Boter turns to me: “I think we can save it.” Dozens, then hundreds of us stand up, waving white handkerchiefs and tissues. The bullring’s president stands and Ureña stops. The president puts his thumb up. The door to the arena opens, and the bull is led out. The bull—for its courage, for its adherence to the traditional values of masculinity, dominance, and brutal beauty—has been spared, a rare occurrence.

Francisco Franco and his wife, Carmen, at a bullfight in Seville, 1942.

If any PACMA supporters had been there, they still would have been sickened. “I feel ashamed that people in other countries see Spain as the country of bullfighting,” Silvia Barquero, PACMA’s president, said in an interview. “That needs to be wiped from the collective imagination.” But in the European parliamentary elections in May, PACMA came up desperately short, garnering only 295,546 votes: zero seats. (Vox got well over four times that and became the first far-right Spanish party to win more than one seat since Franco.)

If there’s any question of whether Spain is moving politically forward or backward, the bullring may be the place to find an answer. After the fight, fans carried the torero out on their shoulders. He was, for a brief moment, a king, a god. Ureña may be a return to a long-ago time, but despite bullfighting’s increasing irrelevance, its lingering significance is still maintained and wielded—less by the masses than by a certain calculating few on the political extremes. Through politics, bullfighting seems to have transcended its own death.

Cody Delistraty is a writer living in New York City