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Jesse the Body, RFK Jr. and an Addendum to my Bowie and Politics series

I skipped logging an entry to my long-form piece, published in segments on Thursdays about Bowie and politics in order to promote yesterday’s interview with Sean Egan. Don’t worry— the series will be back next week. Meanwhile, I thought I’d reflect on a few items I came across this past week that are related but don’t quite fit into my larger narrative.

One of the issues I’m looking at is the similarity between what Bowie, Donald Trump and professional wrestling ask of their audiences. In each case, the audience is asked to play along with a fiction as if it were reality. In each case, the characters act as if they are playing a part in a movie, but the movie is immersive, and they never break character. There’s a wrestling term, “kayfabe” which basically means the fake reality in which wrestling scenarios play out. The audience is expected not just to buy into the fakery but play a part in it. They are not expected to fully believe everything as if it were objective reality, but reality is a fluid concept when it comes to wrestling as well as MAGA… and David Bowie.

Bowie fits in to all this because he embraced artifice as an artistic tool. At all times— even during his various phases where he’d say that he was finally presenting as his true self— at all times he’d present as a character. There’s this idea that he himself fueled that early on he confused his true identity with that of his characters, which might or might not be true. My observation, which is not altogether original, is that Donald Trump presents the same way. But Bowie simply offered a template — Trump behaves more like a professional wrestler.

I wrote about how, as a child who watched wrestling I wondered what it would be like for a politician to talk and act like a wrestler. One of the wrestlers who inspired this thought was Jesse “the Body” Ventura, who not coincidently did go on to run for office and eventually get elected governor of Minnesota. In the kayfabe wrestling universe, Ventura went from being a wrestler to a ringside commentator because of his particular verbal skills. I recently came across an interview in which Ventura explained how wrestling boss Vince McMahon pitched the idea to him of becoming the first “heel” announcer: “Here’s your mindset: if you believe it, it’s true.”

McMahon went on to be a friend and advisor to Donald Trump (his wife, Linda, served in the Trump administration). I wouldn’t be surprised if McMahon gave Trump the same advice as he gave Ventura. Interestingly, the idea of “if you believe it, it’s true” coincided with McMahon’s concept of what it meant to be a heel. Donald Trump was not simply the first kayfabe president, but the first heel president (although there are persistent rumors of Nixon smashing a chair over George McGovern’s head back in ’72).

Fast forward to the other thing I came across that made me think of all this– an article in the New York Times* about Bobby Kennedy Jr’s supporters. A few lines stood out: “There’s something distinctly Trumpy in his campaign’s mix of New Age individualism, social media-fueled paranoia and intense, aching nostalgia for the optimistic America of the early 1960s…” In describing Kennedy’s introduction of his new running mate, Nicole Shanahan (Kennedy reportedly also considered selecting Ventura), who he apparently selected because she is so rich that she she can personally finance his campaign, and so loopy that she’s a true believer of his toxic mix of conspiracy theories and witch-doctorism, “Shanahan, he said, would help him liberate America from the ‘predatory cabal’ that controls the campaign finance system.” the story went on to describe an interview Shanahan gave in which she demonstrated “how frustrations with conventional medicine and the desire for a transcendent order — for a big holistic framework that makes sense of the world’s destabilizing chaos — lead away from technocratic liberalism and toward, well, the unstable political formation that’s coalescing around Kennedy.”

This reminded me of another theme I write about, though not so much in the Bowie piece– our societal response to Covid. I still wear a mask and avoid crowds. I get the latest vaccine and have yet to get Covid. Much of the rest of the world is acting like Covid isn’t with us, and never really was. What I thought the great lesson of the pandemic was going to be was how to reduce the chances of getting sick at all — Covid, the flu, colds— instead, it seems like many of us have taken several steps towards Shanahan’s version of kayfabe. We are frustrated with conventional medicine– we don’t want our reality to include invisible germs that can be guarded against by simple but mildly inconvenient means. We have trouble accepting the concept of probability. Risk reduction doesn’t cut it — somehow the shy-of-100%-but-nonethless-much-better-than-nothing chance that something like a mask will prevent the transmission of Covid translates into “masks don’t work,” but the much lesser reliability of “alternative medicine,” prayer, magical thinking, drinking bleach and morning sunlight (morning sunlight is Shanahan’s thing) helps bring reassuring order to the universe. As Bowie prophetically sang in the now-it-all-makes-sense “Law (Earthling’s On Fire)” (1995), “I don’t want knowledge; I want certainty.” or as McMahon explained to Ventura, if you believe it, it’s true.

* Click on the following to link to the New York Times story: “Terrified Parents, New Age Health Nuts, MAGA Exiles. Meet the R.F.K. Jr. Faithful.”

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