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Free Form Friday: What does a 56-year old essay about professional wrestling by a French philosopher say about American politics today?

Free form Friday is my weekly non-Bowie post. If you want more Bowie, come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Lisa Perrott, author of David Bowie and the Art of Music Video. you won’t want to miss it. As for now, enjoy this post about a French philosopher, professional wrestling and Donald Trump…

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I remember reading Roland Barthes in college. The French philosopher and literary critic wrote a lot about many high-minded ideas. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that he was a fan of professional wrestling. And because of that, he can explain the appeal of Donald Trump today like few contemporary political observers.

The first essay in Barthes’ 1957 book, “Mythologies,” is about pro wrestling, which, in mid-20th Century France seemed almost identical to the brand I watched as a teenager thirty years later (which is probably much the same as today). Barthes unpacked wrestling as basically a kind of morality play demonstrating a concept of revenge-based justice. Wrestling scenarios play upon the audience’s passionate hatred for hypocrisy, which justifies a beatdown that happens in a totally expected turnabout-is-fair-play archetypical story. The whole drama has a kind of moral clarity that doesn’t exist in real life, but wrestling is more of a simulacrum of real life than other forms of entertainment.

Getting away from Barthes, for a moment, what I mean by that is that there’s more of a blurred line in wrestling between what’s real and what isn’t than is the case in most other forms of entertainment. Barthes makes a similar point by describing the distinction between boxing and wrestling. The easiest way to summarize that is that two boxers are really competing to win in a contest that will be resolved by what happens in the ring. The two boxers really are hitting each other and if one is knocked out, he’s really knocked out. On the other hand, there is no expectation that Harrison Ford actually is Indiana Jones. The actor could be sitting next to you in the theater and you could admire his acting while acknowledging that the character on screen is purely fictional. The line is less clear with wrestling. I recall one time the villainous future governor of Minnesota Jesse “the Body” Ventura taunting good-guy Hulk Hogan by saying that if he, rather than Hogan, had been cast in “Rocky III,” that he would have beaten Rocky rather than fighting to a draw. The levels of unreality were layered so thick as to almost form an ouroboros circle.

Barthes explained what its all about— “What wrestling is supposed to imitate is a purely moral concept: justice. The notion of payment is essential to wrestling, and the crowd’s ‘make him suffer’ signifies above all, ‘make him pay.’… the viler the ‘action of the bastard [heel]” the more satisfied the public is by the blow he receives in return…” Donald Trump, who has worked himself into actual (he he— “real”) pro-wrestling scenarios and counted wrestling magnate Vince McMahon among his advisors understands this. Trump has turned politics into a kind of kayfabe (the industry term for pretend reality) entertainment spectacle In which, as Barthes wrote, “the image of justice which matters here much more than its contents.”

Trump’s followers expect very little in terms of tangible results from their government. Politics is a morality play that uses the rules of pro-wrestling. Politics is good for confirming the moral order of the universe, not delivering housing and healthcare. And since it’s all about the story, there needs to be a heel, or heels, and there’s no room for ambiguity.

The heel, according the Barthes, is … “essentially someone unstable, who acknowledges the rules only when they are of use to him and transgresses the formal continuity of attitudes— a man who is unpredictable, hence asocial. He takes refuge behind the law when he supposes it favors him and betrays it when it seems useful to do so…this inconsistency, much more than betrayal or cruelty sends the public beside itself..the contradiction of arguments the files of crimes…what the public condemns is not at all the transgression of insipid rules, but the lack of revenge…”

Now, that description sounds like Trump himself, raising the question of whether Trump was not only the first kayfabe president, but the first heel president. Perhaps the type of anti-hero who was more a product of 2010s wrestling than its predecessor from the 1950s. Maybe, but the key dynamic of wrestling justice is the justification given by the heel for the hero to get revenge by doing the exact same type of thing as the heel did in the first place. Justice is not the fair application of neutral law (or, in wrestling, rules), but the justifiable delivery of suffering to the hypocritical heel. So, in politics, Trump needs to not simply oppose his rivals but villainize them. Their supposed rule breaking demands that they get their just desserts when the “face” (the wrestling term for good-guy) uses his exact tactics to exact humiliating revenge. Trump’s current formulation of “Biden’s Justice Department” prosecuting him for political motives is his establishing reason to do exactly that to Biden and his allies upon winning back the championship…I mean presidency.

I watched an old wrestling match in preparation for writing this essay. It was master-villain Rick Flair against “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes for the championship. At one point, Flair, like the heel that he is, used a folding chair as a weapon against Rhodes. Booo! But then Rhodes got the chair and used it against Flair. Yay! The action itself is neither good nor evil, but the actors are clearly one or the other. If Flair did the thing, it is evil; if Rhodes did the same thing, it is just and right.

This is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Trump’s appeal to those who are not in its sway. How can a professed Christian support such an obvious sinner? Because it isn’t a sin if the thing is done by God’s own, anointed candidate.

Barthes pointed out other aspects of wresting that explain a lot about contemporary politics. Wrestling, for instance, very much involves the heel visibly suffering at the hands of the face. But, “…the spectator does not desire the actual suffering of the losing combatant, he enjoys only the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is merely an intelligible spectacle.” This relates to the idea that Trump should be taken seriously but not literally. For all the Trumpist talk about “second amendment solutions,” concentration camps for undocumented immigrants, beating up protesters, hanging traitors, what most of his supporters are really going for is the humiliation of all those undesirables. Yes— and this is part of the problem — some Trumpists take him very literally and are violent— but if that were true for even a sizable minority of the 70 million or so who voted for him, well, it’s hard to fully imagine the state we’d be in at present. But yes, most of his voters sincerely want to own the libs.

And, explains Barthes, key to the wrestling story arc is that the ultimately victorious face do much the same to the heel “… defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned once it is achieved: it is not a way out, but quite the contrary a duration… the cross and the pillory.” It is no it enough to defeat your enemy, you must humiliate him. Thats’ the whole point. “Wrestlers are good at flattering the crowd’s powers of outrage, going to the very limits of the concept of justice…”

The heel is not the honorable rival. Football fans can watch admiringly of the opposing team’s excellent players even while rooting for their defeat. But the wrestling heel exists to be defeated, at least in the end, and become the receptacle of the fans’ outrage, anger and hatred. Rick Flair was so good at what he did because he could sell his own beating like few others. At one point in the match I watched, Rhodes slung Flair into the ring’s corner and Flair ended up upside down. This could not have happened in nature. But it was Flair’s job to be flung about in a way that was not meant to be by the laws of physics. He needed to because the blame for everything is transferred to the heel. The moral order of the universe, far outweighing the laws of physics, is out of line when the heel is on top.

So, explains Barthes, the morality of wresting has to be completely unambiguous. The reason for every action and reaction has to be crystal-clear. The wrestler always achieves “what the public expects of him…” Fans wouldn’t know what to do were that not the case. Good guys only lose when the bad guy cheats, and that’s a setup for the good guy to mount a comeback and exact revenge. The script of every wrestling “feud” is playing out in the 2024 presidential election. It is, the “…perfect intelligibility of reality… an ideal intelligence of things…a univocal nature, in which signs finally correspond to causes…”

And Barthes’ conclusion about the wrestlers themselves explains much about Trump’s supporters’ attitudes toward him: “…wrestling possess that power of transmutation proper to spectacle and to worship…the wrestlers remain gods…the key which opens nature, the pure gesture which separates good and evil and unveils the figure of a finally intelligible justice…”

Wrestling fans from the 1980s, even those, like me, who didn’t see it when it happened, were almost universally aware of a kind of speech delivered by Dusty Rhodes where he talked about “hard times.” Rhodes, unlike many of his monstrously muscled opponents, was a kind of everyman (albeit a highly eccentric Everyman). Overweight, not-obviously strong, and, by the 80s, middle-aged, Rhodes was the avatar of the kind of fan who would really like to give it to all the Russians, Chicago bikers and flashy elitists who have been keeping them down their whole life. Rhodes’ “hard times” speech was about them, not him. If you watch this speech today (it’s attached to this post), it doesn’t come across as especially insightful or clever. But it helped Rhodes win over his fans for life. He was their justice… their retribution.* I’m quite certain that Donald Trump saw this speech. And he understood what it meant.
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* After iterating a long list of grievances, Trump said, “I am your warrior, I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.” Dusty said, “Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work and got four, five kids, and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell them ‘Go home!’. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job thirty years — thirty years! — they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say ‘Hey, a computer took your place, daddy!’. That’s hard times! That’s hard times. And Ric Flair, you put hard times on this country by taking Dusty Rhodes out. Nature Boy Ric Flair, the world’s heavyweight title belongs to these people. I’m gonna reach out right now. I want you at home to know, my hand is touching your hand for this gathering of the biggest body of people in this country, in this universe, all over the world. Now reach it out! Because the love that was given me — and this time I will repay you, now. Because I will be the next world’s heavyweight champion..This time, when I take it, daddy, I’m gonna take it for you [the fans]. Let’s gather for it! Don’t let me down now, ’cause I came back [for] you…”

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