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Free Form Friday: Wrestling with Politics

Free Form Friday is my weekly non-Bowie post. Come back tomorrow for more David Bowie.


I liked professional wrestling when I was in high school. That’s a bit of an understatement. I watched wrestling every week, and once a month I’d go with my buddies to see live shows at Buffalo’s old Memorial Auditorium. I suppose I liked wrestling for the same reason other teenage boys like professional wrestling, although my friends and I maybe spent more time trying to figure out what was really happening than most. I remember a kind of detached fascination with how pro wrestlers spoke. They had (presumably, still have) a kind of extreme macho bravado that, at the time, seemed different than anyone else’s way of expressing themselves. The wrestler’s relationship with objective reality was fluid. The battle between wrestlers was often a clash of very individualized realities, as expressed by their boasts, threats and taunts. I remember thinking to myself, what would it be like if a politician talked like a professional wrestler?

America would find out a few years later when Jesse “The Body” Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota. Ventura was a wrestler when I watched wrestling, and he was one of the talkative ones that made me wonder what it would be like for a wrestler to run for office. As a wrestler, Jesse Ventura was a heel— a bad guy. Rules, morality and reality itself shifted depending on whether they worked for him or against him. He was articulate, so in addition to wrestling, he was a ringside commentator for others’ wrestling matches. If a fellow heel cheated, he was being clever, but if a “face” (a good guy) even looked like he was breaking a rule, he was an abject hypocrite. Ventura turned it down a few notches when he ran for governor, but he remained flamboyant.

Today, Donald Trump talks like Jesse Ventura when he was a wrestling heel. Only now— which is to say since 2015 or so— has my childhood curiously been satisfied with learning what it would be like if a politician talked like a professional wrestler.

Little did I know at the time that Roland Barthes, a philosopher and linguist I remember reading in college, wrote very seriously about the politics of pro wrestling as far back as the 1950s. In an essay that appeared in his book, Mythologies, Barthes explained that the central subject of wrestling is justice, and that “the idea of paying is essential to wrestling.” The exaggerated boasts and threats of wrestlers is necessary to clearly establish the good guys and the bad guys (my understanding is that this has become a little less clear since I stopped watching wrestling, but I’m going to put that to the side). Paying, means paying the price of injustice. “Nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself vehemently not on a successful opponent, but on the smarting image of foul play.” So justice, in wrestling, is not an abstract concept but really righteous revenge exacted by an inherently good guy against an inherently bad guy.

That initial designation of face or heel is (or at least was) fundamental in wrestling. The distinction was not about respect for rules. Faces could break what rules existed with impunity in that it was their duty to punish the bad guys. The ends justified whatever means were necessary. The heels, on the other hand, deserved whatever punishment they received less because of anything they did and more because of who they were. Jesse Ventura famously said, in character, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat.” His character’s actions had little to do with achieving some sort of goal— he was compelled to cheat because it was in his nature. This made him bad and worthy of punishment, even if the virtuous face had to cheat to deliver that punishment.

This is a very Trumpian concept. Well, its a concept that long predates Trump. But Trump is surely the first mass-media age (now former) president who so openly depicts the targets of his wrath as inhuman. His evocation of violence, to be deployed against immigrants, protesters, liberals — anyone deemed to be a heel— is delivered with language that could have come out of the old WWF. Attendees at a Trump rally are patriots, whereas quasi-mythical “ANTIFA” protesters deserve to be shot. This has less to do with actually gathering with boisterous fellow-travelers (what both supposed groups do) and more to do with the inherent worth of good good folks of MAGA versus the rotten vermin of ANTIFA.

Is ANTIFA even real? And if so, is it the group that Trump describes it as? I mention ANTIFA here simply because his discussion of it, whatever it is, or was, is so obviously…fake. But that’s the way he talks about immigrant invasions, the Deep State, communists who are also fascists, and on the other side January 6th “hostages,” good people on both sides at Charlottesville, and unidentified foreign leaders who tell him they refuse to pay fictional NATO dues. There’s a word for all this in wrestling— its called kayfabe.

Kayfabe is the all-in fiction that wrestlers live both in and outside the ring (ok, ok, again the concept has evolved and I’m not going to get into the neo-kayfabe of today). Kayfabe is not simply a matter of acting in character, but a demand that the audience also and always act within character. It also encompasses a series of pretend realities— that Andre the Giant was 7’4” and had never been slammed prior to Wrestlmania 3; that Roddy Piper was from Scotland; that Dr. Jerry Graham was the brother of Superstar Billy Graham (and was actually a doctor); and that Macho Man Randy Savage was not actually brothers with Leaping Lanny Poffo. The Iron Sheik, who was actually from Iran, one day became Iraqi, around the same time former patriot Sgt. Slaughter (who we were always supposed to accept as an actual veteran) became a traitorous Iraqi sympathizer.

Supposedly, at some point, some wrestling fans, sometimes called “marks,” believed to some extent that pro wrestling was “real.” To the extent that was supposed to mean that some fans believed that the outcome of wrestling matches were not predetermined, I find that hard to believe. But at the same time, the wrestling audience of my youth acted differently than, say, moviegoers asked to suspend disbelief during a movie. There’s something different going on when moviegoers cheer Rocky battling Thunderlips, portrayed by Hulk Hogan in Rocky III than when fans cheer Hulk Hogan beating up the Iron Sheik. Exactly what the difference is is a little difficult to describe, but in pro-wrestling, the fans are expected to pretend that what they are seeing is what’s actually happening— before the match, during the match and after the match on the way home. If a fan ran into the Iron Sheik at a restaurant , the villain was expected to remain in character. Yet, the Sheik was also expected to sign autographs for fans who might denounce him to his face. A child was not only supposed to feel comfortable asking for an autograph, but also telling off this supposedly intimidating villain. On some level the fan accepts that the Iron Sheik is not a real villain, but that deep knowledge is supposed to coexist with an exterior set of fake beliefs that govern the rules of engagement.

The idea of a mendacious politician is not new. Normally, a political lie falls into one of two categories: broken promises and things that we are meant to believe are actually true. Broken promises maybe shouldn’t even count as lies. When George Bush said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” He probably meant it at the time and changed his mind later. On the other hand, when Ronald Reagan said that there was no arms for hostages deal in the Iran-Contra affair, or when Richard Nixon said he had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in, they wanted us to believe what they were saying was literally and unambiguously true. Reagan and Nixon did not make their statements with a wry smile, telegraphing to their supporters that of course they knew, and that their denials should be viewed as an act of outsmarting their opponents.

A trope from wrestling, at least when I watched wrestling, was the “loser leave town match.” The premise was simple— the loser of a match would leave the wrestling promotion. Sometimes, these types of matches were set up as an explanation for why a wrestler really would leave the promotion. But sometimes it was all a setup for the good guy to lose a match but come back wearing a mask. The audience would know who was under the mask, but the hapless wrestling officials would not. I remember Dusty Rhodes, who possessed an unmistakable physique and way of talking, leaving town only to be replaced by the mysterious, masked “Midnight Rider.” Tommy Rich, a wrestler with a heavy George accent, came back as “The Masked Mr. R,” who would claim (with that heavy accent) to be from Boston. This is not what Bush, Nixon or Reagan were doing. But this is what Trump does all the time.

So, when the Masked Mr. R claimed to be from Georgia, what we fans were supposed to think is that we were in on the secret knowledge about his true identity, that Tommy Rich was righteous in his violation of the rules because he was doing so in the greater interest of justice, that he had lost the initial match unfairly but was on a mission to right the moral order of the universe by donning a mask and coming back for revenge, and that the clueless referees were not in on the charade. At the same time, there was an unspoken understanding that we were watching a pre-scripted morality play that could only roll out one way. Tommy Rich had to win in the end. That’s the reality— not the authenticity of any particular wrestling move or the outcome of any particular match. The lie was part of the revenge. We knew the truth, and the fools were the clueless authorities whose incompetence allowed for the original injustice to transpire in the first place. The unabashed phoniness of the whole thing was all in the service of a greater truth— Tommy Rich was us, and like us he was screwed, and just as he would make those who screwed him suffer, the moral arc of the universe would, too, bend in the service of revenge against our oppressors. Tommy Rich might as well have said, “I am your retribution.”

Of course, it wasn’t Tommy’s Rich who said that— it was Donald Trump. When Trump says— well, when he says just about anything— we are supposed to act as if what he’s saying is true, but hold in the back of our mind the understanding that the actual, objective truth of what he’s saying is not what his words are describing. When he says that the election was stolen or that Obama wasn’t born in the United States or that Mexico would pay for the wall that he either built or didn’t finish building (depending on the day), what he’s really saying is that you and I were both screwed by them, and that he will make them pay on our behalf, and their obsession with trying to figure out the secret identity of the man under the mask only shows that they are missing the real point. What is the real point? Like Barthes, Trump understood it to be revenge. Like me, he wondered, at some point, what it would be like to bring a pro-wrestling sensibility to politics. The only problem is that with Trump, the consequences are very real.

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