by Allan Branstiter
I spent most of last week writing my dissertation prospectus, so I wasn’t able to get to an idea I’ve been pondering for a few weeks. As I was working on constructing an argument about viewing the Civil War and Reconstruction era from the lens of American settler colonialism, Vann R. Newkirk at The Atlantic beat me to the punch and wrote a very good article about what professional wrestling can tell us about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. You should definitely read it. And this. And this. While Newkirk argues that Trump’s success is based on his ability to play the heel (the overtly bad guy in a storyline), I argue that The Donald fits a more recent archetype: the “anti-heel” (i.e. Stone Cold Steve Austin, C.M. Punk, and Kevin Owens).
Professional wrestling, in many ways, can tell us more about democracy, demagoguery, and the political power of public spectacle than polling and political science. In 1957, philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote an article describing the complex relationship between wrestling as a spectacle and its audience. To Barthes, wrestling was a spectacle that broke through the fourth wall, thereby transcending the traditional limits of competitive sport and high art. He observed that in wrestling the audience becomes part of the performance. No wrestling storyline can succeed if the audience refuses to suspend their disbelief and accept the narrative laid out before them.
Barthes suggests that the power of wrestling as a spectacle exists in its ability to forge a reciprocal relationship between the performer and their audience. In ideal circumstances, time, motives, and consequences do not matter in a wrestling storyline. A wrestler can act in unbelievable, contradictory, or irrational ways in the ring, but the storyline remains intact as long as they maintain an emotional reciprocity with their audience. As a result, a good wrestler can turn against their closest allies without so much as a second thought from the crowd. It is through the effective manipulation of this actor-spectator relationship that wrestling can transcend the line between fiction and reality. In the best cases the audience is allowed to suspend their critical disbelief and abolish questions of motives and consequences. The best wrestling performances offer audiences not only an escape from reality, but a plausible alternative—a world where good always triumphs over evil, and where stereotypes offer a simultaneously fantastic and real sense of predictability and stability.
“Thus function of the wrestler is not to win,” Barthes explains, “it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” In the case of Donald Trump, he is an anti-heel within the spectacle of conservative politics, the hero with a mean streak. Unlike the heroic “baby-face” or ignoble “heel,” the anti-heel’s motivations are not immediately clear to the audience. They walk the line between hero and villain, motivated by a desire to accomplish good through often immoral means. Anti-face’s are powerful characters because they capture the audience’s feelings of anger, powerlessness, alienation, and indignation and turn them against structures of authority. While “faces” like Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart appealed to the audience’s desire to see good always triumph over evil, the anti-heels like Rowdy Roddy Piper and Steve Austin titillated the fans’ deeper desire to inflict pain upon their enemies and oppressors. The anti-heel resonates not because he or she always wins, but because they provide the audience with a vessel for their darker emotions.
For example, consider Stone Cold Steve Austin. His character’s narrative can tell you a lot about the psychology of working-class white Americans during the 1990s. Alienated by political correctness and elite notions of respectability, proud of their hard work and fortitude, threatened by unflinchingly terrible bosses who threatened their livelihood as millions of good-paying jobs were shipped oversees, Steve Austin resonated with his audience because he was one of them. He drank beer, he cursed, he kicked a lot of ass, and the stood firmly upon a sense of masculine working-class morality he shared with his fans. He even captured their ambivalent attitudes towards sanctimonious Christianity. In an age when rednecks were Jeff Foxworthy jokes and the ambitions of poor white working class men and women were continually betrayed by the political elite, Stone Cold was King of the Ring. (Happy Austin 3:16 Day, btw!)
During typical presidential campaigns, American voters are (Barthes again) “overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.” Normally the field is divided into establishment candidates, fringe candidates, liberal candidates, and conservative candidates. Political commentators draw a sense of expertise from their ability to recognize and analyze these categories and even break them down into subgroups: prairie populists, Chamber of Commerce Republicans, blue-dog Democrats, etc. Like older forms of professional wrestling, campaigns were relatively predictable. Establishment candidates always moved towards their base in order to defeat fringe primary opponents before moving to the center during general elections. And since the late 1970s, working-class whites largely voted for Republicans because they were “our guys.” In the spectacle of American politics, their baby-faces were conservative Republican “every-men” and their heels were liberal urban coastal elites.
The wrestling world’s notion of “kayfabe” also applies to American political spectacle. According to Tecoa T. Washington, kayfabe “refers to the portrayal of events within the industry as real, that is, the portrayal of professional wrestling as unstaged.” In wrestling and politics, the public is encouraged to suspend disbelief. The electoral audience is encouraged to take the words and performances of their candidates at face value. In wrestling, those who are able to identify the borders between reality and theatrics are called “smarks,” while those who cannot distinguish staged events from reality are called “marks.” Performers and marks tend to dislike smarks because they disrupt their ability to create an effective spectacle—a performance where the audience and performer connect and nothing exists beyond the confines of the arena. In the political world, think of partisans and ideologues as marks, while pundits and journalists as smarks. Much of Trump’s disdain for the media is based on the fact that it resonates with his supporters, but it also has to do with the fact that the press is constantly threatening his ability to create an effective and manipulative spectacle.
Since the internet has made it increasingly difficult for wrestlers to separate their private and public lives, they’ve have had to find new ways to protect their spectacle and keep the smarks at bay (an excellent example of this is Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit with Gawker Media). Kayfabe has become an art in itself, and wrestlers often play with the line between reality and performance, letting the audience feel like they know what is behind the curtain while maintaining control over the illusion. The best performers will regularly appear to break the fourth wall, leaving the audience confused about what is real and what is staged. When done well, the spectators are left with no other choice than to surrender their disbelief. All performances (especially wrestling and politics) seek to manipulate, but only the best can do so without alerting their audiences.
The world of politics is no different. Candidates routinely separate their private lives from their public personas. In the past, journalists helped erect this distinction by only reporting the public side of a politician’s personality. This changed when the Watergate scandal led many Americans to question whether a public figure’s private life should be considered in order to measure their suitability for office. The first to fall was Gary Hart, whose marital problems and sexual liaisons were exposed to intense public scrutiny in 1988. Since then, candidates have struggled to find new ways to let the public into their private lives while maintaining a sense of control over their public image. Some have been good, other have been awkward and creepy.
Donald Trump’s campaign is a revolution in the kayfabe of American politics. Reality and spectacle blurs, and even his most ardent supporters struggle to separate what Trump says he will do and what he’d actually do once in office. Unlike many candidates, he offers no glimpses beyond his public persona, nor does he offer much in the way of concrete policy plans. Instead, he invites his audience to pour their anger, disappointments, and indignation into the vessel of “The Donald.” Political scientists and pundits try to dissect the rationale behind his support to no avail because, just as in wrestling, what matters is not what a Trump supporter thinks but what a Trump supporter sees.
What does a Trump supporter see in “The Donald?” They see an outlandish and powerful man who is unafraid to stand up for his values. They see an ineffective speaker running circles around the powers that be. Where rational minds see a demagogue manipulating the crowd, Trump supporters see an iconoclast manipulating the system. And as strange and unlikely as it sounds, they see themselves in this bombastic millionaire. They see their struggles embodied in a man roundly reviled by strangers, elites, and an increasingly alien society. They see the establishment trying to crush the only candidate to speak to their concerns in years. While they might disagree with his style, his supporters believe in his goals. They see Trump as misunderstood. They see themselves as misunderstood. They also see a character who legitimizes their right to inflict physical and verbal violence upon racial minorities, women, and foreigners.
What makes Trump’s support so difficult to undermine is that he does not need to win—he simply needs to “go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” Trump succeeds by simply existing as the emotional vessel of his audience, and he accomplishes this through engage in spectacle. The fact that he is the leading candidate in the Republican primary only adds to his appeal. In fact, winning might be the only thing that can defeat Trump. If we look at wrestling as a model, anti-heels often win the title, but they face the prospect of alienating their fans once this is achieved. The worst thing that can happen to a successful anti-heel is appearing like they are being “pushed” or promoted by the establishment.
Underdogs and antiheroes resonate because they and their audiences are losers. Trump supporters love “The Donald” because he has a “proven” track record of success in business; however, they also love him because he remains unproven in politics. Like “The Donald,” his supporters view themselves as millionaires in their own minds who have been marginalized by the media and political elite. If Trump wins and gains the support of the establishment, he could possibly alienate his disenfranchised supporters. But none of this matters right now, because Trump has created a spectacle where reality and facts outside of the arena do not matter. Disbelief has been suspended. Anything—anything—is possible.