Right now, everything seems a little bit crazy. People are grasping at straws, trying to understand what the heck is going on in politics and the media and as a result – everything else in the world.
I happen to believe that professional wrestling – as defined by WWE (formerly WWF), the dominant brand in the world of so-called “sports entertainment” – explains what is happening well. Wrestling is crazy and nonsensical, so it is not a good sign that this is where we are as a culture. It is not a coincidence that Donald Trump had a role in the WWE a few years ago or that WWE executive Linda McMahon now serves as the head of Trump’s Small Business Administration.
It’s all connected.
Smarts & Marks
A long time ago, wrestling devoted considerable time and energy to the fiction that it was a “real” sport. WWE, run by Vince McMahon who inherited the business from his father and who adopted it to modern television in the 1970s and 80s, went to great lengths to keep up this fiction.
Then McMahon realized that he would be subject to less regulation and scrutiny if he just admitted the entire enterprise was pre-determined.
But before that concession was made, the world of wrestling could be divided into two groups: Smarts and marks. The “smarts” were composed of everyone involved in the production of WWE events like performers, announcers, writers, etc. They all knew the event was a rigged performance.
On the other end, the “marks” were clueless. That basically referred to the public at large, who believed what they were watching was an organic sports event where the outcome was as in dispute as it is at an NBA or NFL game.
After WWE admitted to fakery in the 1980s and instead marketed the show as “sports entertainment,” few outside of young children within the viewing audience can truly be considered “marks” anymore. Everyone is more or less in the “smarts” club, and the internet has magnified this a thousand-fold.
But in politics, this dichotomy still exists. The smarts are putting on a show – largely politicians, consultants, and the media – for a public that still too often believes things are happening spontaneously. For sure, the outcome of events is not as predetermined as a WWE match and it isn’t that everything is a show for the cameras – but the public at large is not nearly as savvy as modern wrestling audiences are about how much of what they say in newspapers and on television is a result of a delicate dance of obfuscation between politicians and the press with their handlers working in-between.
The average person watching a WWE event far better understands the contours of what a made-for-TV event is than the average political observer does.
Working A Program
The largest overarching unit of pro wrestling is the concept of “working a program.” What a program usually consists of is a feud between two wrestlers that contains dramatic twists and turns in the manner of a soap opera, leading up to the conclusion at a pay-per-view match.
For WWE, the feud plays out in multimedia formats. The main arena for this is WWE’s two television programs – WWE Raw and WWE Smackdown. Raw is regularly one of the highest rated shows on cable television and has been for nearly three decades.
But the feuds also play out online, through the WWE website, YouTube videos, tweets from WWE itself or the wrestlers involved in the feud, as well as in ancillary media that is not directly controlled by WWE like wrestling news websites and podcasts.
If this sounds familiar already, it should, because that’s how American politics works now.
The basic unit of U.S. politics is a feud between figures representing the Democratic and Republican parties.
For the last year, Trump has played the role of the head of the Republican stable of characters. At various points in his time in the presidency, Trump has almost directly emulated how wrestlers initiate a feud.
With Trump it is usually an insult-riddled tweet with named opponents and the use of nicknames. For wrestlers, this generally involves a monologue in which they go to the ring, call out their would-be opponent, and deride him or her with nicknames and other insults.
Thus, the program has begun. The called-out politician responds in kind, while Trump ratchets up the storyline.
In WWE, the nexus of this is audience reaction. In wrestling, it doesn’t matter much if your character is a good guy (a “face”) or a villain (a “heel”). The most important thing is to provoke an audience reaction. Some of the most long lasting and famous WWE wrestlers have been heels who excelled at getting audiences of thousands in sold-out arenas to boo them (ironically, Vince McMahon and his daughter Stephanie McMahon have excellently portrayed heels).
This is the same in our politics, especially with Trump. He throws out his tweets and the rest of his call-out to provoke a reaction from the public. In the modern age, it is easier than ever to calculate this, thanks to “likes” on social media, viral video views, or television audience numbers.
It is not an environment that rewards nuance, subtlety, or taking the higher ground. Those reasons are also why most Democrats thus far have done an absolutely terrible job of responding to Trump. He’s playing one game, while theyre playing an old one that has no referees calling fair or foul.
In wrestling, a match determines who won a feud. The challenger either pins the champion or vice versa. In politics, the end-point for a feud is somewhat murkier. Often it can take the form of a poll that shows the public overwhelmingly favoring one point of view or another, though an election is the closest to a feud-ender that politics has.
Also like in wrestling, there is ample room for the loser of a political match to simply extend the feud by rejecting the results, cheating, etc.
The Announce Table
In wrestling, while the wrestlers initiate a feud and keep it going and definitely end it with a match, a key component of selling the feud to viewers is the announce table.
Generally, there are always at least two announcers calling a wrestling match – one favors the heel while the other favors the face. Often there is a third, relatively impartial person acting in the role of a play-by-play announcer as you would find in mainstream sports.
The color commentary by the heel/face announcers is used to move the story along. They will say something like “Stone Cold Steve Austin was walking around the locker room, threatening that he would show Vince McMahon he means business tonight” to advance the story.
In politics, the announce table is the political press. When a politician like Trump makes an action or statement, the press repeats it, often with comments from his compatriots that help advance the storyline. Networks like CNN have both heel and face commentators on staff, who can be reliably turned to for mouthing support for their preferred storyline, no matter the facts on the ground.
Fox News is a heel wrestling announcer, it just happens to be an entire network.
Here, the public has more of a role than it does in wrestling because commentary on social media is amplified and added back to the central feud. When a tweet is widely retweeted, it ends up advancing the feud storyline between the two central politicians.
We’re all the announce table.
Heels, Faces, and Turns
In wrestling, characters regularly switch allegiances at a moment’s notice. One minute, a wrestler will have the adulation of fans, and then the next, he is insulting their home town and guaranteeing a huge reaction (remember, the affiliation doesn’t matter, as long as the audience doesn’t fall asleep).
The heel/face turns in American politics are one department in which politics is still somewhat subtler than wrestling.
Most politicians who employ the abrasive rhetoric or approach of a heel still like to think of themselves as faces. Trump believes he is a face, even as his rhetoric – calling out “Lyin’ Hillary” and Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt” – shows that he is a heel through and through.
Politicians like President Barack Obama, tend to exhibit the qualities of “face” wrestlers, constantly seeking a loud and positive reaction from the audience rather than a targeted rhetorical shiv.
The major organizing unit of wrestling is the “stable,” where groups of like-minded wrestlers gather and engage in feuds against other stables. One of the more famous such entities in the late 90s early 2000s was “The Corporation” led by Vince McMahon, who opposed DeGeneration X, run by Triple H (in a nod to heel turns, Triple H later married McMahon’s daughter – both in real life and on the show – and became the heel who now leads the modern incarnation of The Corporation).
The Democratic and Republican parties also easily fit into this stable frame. But within each of those stables are smaller stables. Within Democratic circles there are the Bernie and Clinton diehards, who still are feuding about the election, along with the conservative Blue Dogs who continue to pull to the right.
For Republicans, while the pro-Trump is still the largest such entity by far, there is a Never Trump stable, along with the Neocons and the Openly Racist.
Membership in one stable is not exclusive, and just like in politics, there are shifting alliances in wrestling. Again, whatever gets a good reaction from the audience is good to go.
It’s Time to Break Kayfabe
When wrestling admitted it was fake, the process was called “breaking kayfabe.” It is also a label applied to instances where real world references are made in wrestling during the course of a made-up feud.
In American politics, we are a long way from breaking kayfabe. Media outlets willing participate in the amplification of bad political arguments, then hold follow-up “debates” a day later to squeeze more storyline out of the larger feud.
There are too many marks in the audience for politics, which makes them prime targets for the politicians who learned to work the system along with their media cohorts.
Wrestling audiences don’t believe that John Cena’s “five knuckle shuffle” is a real thing. The move is one where he waves his hands in front of a victim prone of the ground, stamps all the way across ring, then stamps his way back, leans into a fall, slamming his fist inot their face.
Nobody would sit still for all of that song and dance, and the audience knows that. But political watchers still often get caught up in the game and “demand” an apology based on a viral moment that was fed to the press through press leaks from politicians and their staffers.
Wrestling fans are doing a much better job of separating unreality from reality. Perhaps if more politics observers saw that what they are following is a gamed-out event, they would be more apt to call out both parties and the press.