How Professional Wrestling Explains American Politics (Especially Donald Trump)
I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling for a long time. It helps that the first wrestling boom that leaked over into the mainstream culture came about right around my pre-teen years in the mid-1980s. That was the era of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Macho Man Savage, and tons of others.
Wrestling is the kind of thing you go in-and-out on, it's a male-targeted soap opera that isn’t hard to pick up even if you stop watching for years. I again found wrestling in my early 20s, that is, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, around the time of what is now called “The Attitude Era,” when WWE Wrestling — the dominant brand in the business — decided to produce hard-edged “extreme” stories and characters.
So I’m something of a connoisseur of wrestling’s rhythms, archetypes, tropes, presentation methods, and overall milieu.
What is amazing is that politics follows tons of these same rhythms. Often I’ve been able to figure out just where a political moment is heading because I’ve seen almost exactly the same move before, only instead of it being executed by Stone Cold Steve Austin, the provocateur was Senator Harry Reid.
So, let’s explore just how the squared circle of wrestling just might be the hidden key behind American politics.
Faces & Heels
Wrestling thrives on the audience allying themselves for or against a colorful personality. In the most basic sense, wrestlers are either “faces” or “heels,” aka good guys and bad guys. Unlike real life there is no in-between. But contrary to how it might sound initially, it isn’t “bad” for a wrestler to be a heel. In reality, some of the most memorable wrestling characters who are considered amongst the all-time greats were heels at one point or another in their careers (Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mr. McMahon, Gorilla Monsoon, The Million Dollar Man for instance).
In politics, we have these archetypes as well. The only slight difference is that often the face or heel signfier is not a universal description. For many Democrats, President Obama is the ultimate “face,” while for Republicans the politician that currently fits the “face” archetype is probably Ronald Reagan. Of course, for either party, the face of the other party is often the “heel.”
To Republicans, figures like President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton are total heels, willing to win at any cost, even if it means breaking the rules. Democrats would probably say they feel like that about many Republicans, including someone like former House Majority Tom DeLay. As a Democrat myself, DeLay feels like a perfect “heel.” He wasn’t interested in getting over with his base as a nice guy, and he was willing to do whatever he could get away with as the referees were distracted in order to give his team a leg up (like redistricting in order to gerrymander seats for his party).
Stables are the various factions that wrestlers belong to, sort of like teams. Alliances like The Four Horsemen, the New World Order (NWO), the Corporation, and Degeneration X were all wildly popular at one time or another in wrestling history.
Often an affiliation with these stables is used as a shorthand so viewers know whether to cheer or boo for them without getting into any sort of deep background. If you’re an NWO fan, when Hulk Hogan joined, you knew to cheer for him.
In politics, there are two big, overarching “stables” in the two national parties. But just like wrestling, there are multiple sub-stables who feud with each other and across party lines.
Within the Republican Party for instance, there are groups like The Establishment, The Libertarians, The Religious Conservatives, The Fiscal Conservatives, The Tea Party.
For Democrats, I view the factions as often more personality based than on the Republican side. You’ve got the Obama Loyalists, the Clintonites, the Bernie Bros (and Gals) nowadays, and the Elizabeth Warren Wing.
Sometimes of course the stables are forced to forge an alliance. The Obama Loyalists had a team-up in 2012 with the Clintonites because they faced Romney and the GOP Establishment in a cage match. So to speak.
Trump has his own small but powerful stable, but it is currently antagonizing the hell out of many of the GOP’s existing power centers. But if it wants to succeed at the fall pay-per-view event versus the Democrats, it will have to make peace with The Establishment.
Mic Work & Cutting A Promo And Getting “Over”
This is the wrestling skill that I most strongly associate with Donald Trump and where he is head and shoulders above every other Republican and most Democrats.
The best wrestlers are not the men and women who are the strongest or the best at actually wrestling. It isn’t that wrestling skill and technique don’t matter, but in a “sport” where the outcome is predetermined, the wrestling skill and athleticism are secondary to the character work.
And in wrestling, as in politics, this comes down to “mic work.” Microphone skills are essential to both professions. Someone who hems and haws and is unable to entrance an audience will be an absolute failure at both politics and wrestling.
Hulk Hogan, arguably one of the most popular wrestlers in history, is not that great of a wrestler. His signature move is dropping his leg across the chest of his opponent, but it isn’t a very difficult maneuver in the pantheon of wrestling.
What Hogan was good at was “cutting a promo,” the video vignettes that precede wrestling matches. In those promos, Hogan would talk up his physical prowess (his “24-inch pythons,” referring to his biceps) and discuss — at length — just what he planned to do when he got his opponent in the ring, “brother.”
Watching a Donald Trump speech, he does exactly the same thing! Trump talks about how he’s “killing” his opponents in the polls, belittles them — usually about their physical appearance — and touts how he’s going to dismantle them, only instead of doing this ahead of a match, Trump is talking about primary elections and caucuses.
This also gets to a bone of contention I have with some who have praised Trump for having sharp insight into voter attitudes. Nonsense.
When wrestlers began creating a new character or a new angle for their character (going from face to heel or vice versa is a standard wrestling plot point), they test out lines with the audience. The entire point of this exercise is to get a rise out of the crowd and it doesn’t matter whether it’s cheers or boos. As long as you get a reaction, its working.
Trump tries out lines, in order to get a reaction both from his immediate audience and from the media. If it doesn’t get a “pop” he abandons it, which is also what wrestlers do if the audience doesn’t engage with a line or saying. When they do react, the powers that be in the wrestling industry often rush a t-shirt or hat into production with the saying on them. Sort of like Trump and his trucker hats over the last few months.
These actions are all designed to “get over,” that is, get viewers to become fans. If you get them on their side, it means success, whether its Obama supporters donating to the campaign or Stone Cold fans purchasing t-shirts with skulls on them.
Working A Program
Just throwing two wrestlers in the ring without a reason for them to fight is boring and is rarely done.
Instead, the writers and producers behind wrestling come up with a “program” that is worked out between wrestlers. What this means is extra storylines and motivations that create friction and create a reason for the fight.
Granted, because it’s wrestling, sometimes these feuds are stupid. Fights over girlfriends, or one wrestler claiming he’s just more of a man than the other, have been worked to the bone in service of a huge pay-per-view event. What matters is that it isn’t just two guys fighting each other at random (and in the eyes of a non-fan, this is part of why I’m personally disinterested in boxing or MMA — who cares?!)
In politics, after the faces and heels have been identified, its the job of the campaign apparatus and the candidate themselves to “work a program” between each side. Despite our best hopes, elections are rarely decided by sober assesments of a list of policy positions.
Instead, a narrative is weaved, via multiple media media outlets and speeches and press releases and more, setting up elections as not just a simple yes/no decision but as An Epic Battle Between Two Powerhouses On A Collision Course.
The next time you see a negative political ad — and the vast majority of effective political ads are negative, just like wrestling promos — imagine them in the voices of wrestlers. You’ll marvel at just how appropriate it still sounds. Political ads are wrestling promos but with less exposed flesh (usually).
Announcers are key to building up wrestling characters. They tell the audience why, exactly this wrestler is “angry” or that he’s a “dirty player” or that she “plays by the rules” as opposed to their opponent who “is a natural” and is “just so dedicated to being world champion, something he dreamed about as a little boy in Oklahoma.”
They fill in the gaps that might sound awkward coming directly from the wrestler himself, but again tell the audience why they should root for or against the wrestler.
In politics they call that “journalism.”
It doesn’t matter whether it comes from an objective journalist, or a partisan in the tank, they also give us cues as to why we should support a politician or oppose them.
Sometimes shaped by facts and sometimes by spin offered up by political operatives that is then repeated on air, the media acts as an announcer table for political matches.
Think about the “expectations game,” which is a narrative created both by operatives and journalists to set the table for the audience as to what is “supposed” to happen.
“Hillary Clinton wants to demonstrate strength with Latino voters.”
“El Diablo believes that he’s more than ready to wrestle in the main event, and he’s giving 110% tonight to prove that.”
Wrestling once pretended to be real. “Kayfabe” was the slang term associated with keeping up this pretense. Due to several reasons (some legal, some financial), wrestling largely broke kayfabe in the 1990s. WWE admitted that the matches were predetermined, and instead of what you might assume, the sport actually got bigger than ever.
I think Donald Trump breaks kayfabe a lot. Unlike many other politicians, Trump speaks directly to his audience about what it is he’s doing, with an almost meta-commentary about his actions.
Trump will tell his audience “I’m being nice to this guy, but I could get mean,” effectively telegraphing his moves but also signaling to them who they should next vilify. In politics that relies so much on a script, he’s breaking the fourth wall — even though politics are supposedly reality.
I think this is because Trump is playing a wrestling-style character called Politician Trump. You will even hear him say he wasn’t a politician before, but now “as a politician” he believes X, Y, or Z. I also think that’s why its so easy for him to flip flop on positions that would give a traditional politician a lot of negative heat. Like a wrestler whose character has switched overnight from face to heel, he’s able to change his character at a moment’s notice. And he practically explains to his audience “this is what I’m doing now, act accordingly.”
What Does It Mean?
I’ve tried my best not to jam a square peg into a round hole here. When I see politicians acting in a certain way, it just feels to me to be a natural fit with similar behavior I’ve seen from wrestlers since I was a little kid.
Wrestling has thrived for decades based on these simple formulas, and some of them were probably even derived from politics (and vice versa, Donald Trump had a stint in WWE and wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota).
And this idea only takes into account the theatricality of both worlds, because of course politics is more than performance and more important than wrestling.
That said, maybe some insight into the performance aspect and particularly how it can be manipulated and exploited in order to provoke an emotional response and attachment will come to mind the next time a politician decides to use his or her’s mic skills to work a program and “get over” with voters.
And that’s the bottom line, because Oliver Willis said so!