For decades, audiences of millions have cheered and booed at professional wrestling. The triumph of the heroes, the malice of the baddies, and the tension and athleticism of the wrestling have kept viewers hooked. Fewer people are watching pro wrestling now, but we are still cheering and booing. Ironically, the decline of professional wrestling has accompanied the pro-wrestlification of politics.
More than urging on sporting superheroes in the mold of Hulk Hogan or John Cena, people have been cheering their political heroes in the form of the Obamas or President Trump. More than booing villainous wrestlers, such as Yokozuna and JBL, people have focused their outrage on politicians such as the Clintons or, well, President Trump.
Just as professional wrestling has “babyfaces” and “heels,” or good guys and bad guys, we project all of our hopes and all of our bitterness onto Trump, Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest, as if their individual personalities are more powerful than the internal logic of the system. Trump knows the power of this, of course. The president is a longtime friend of WWE CEO Vince McMahon. He starred in the 2007 WrestleMania and is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. Like any good wrestler, Trump knows he has to charm his supporters and smear his opponents. Like great antiheroes, such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, he knows that his admirers will applaud rudeness and cruelty if they are targeted at people they find dangerous and pathetic.
But people, in arguably even greater numbers, are still getting their fix. It’s just coming from politics. This is what I call “pro wrestlification.” There is nothing a pro-wrestling fan hates more, for example, than to be viewed as a “mark”: someone who believes that pro wrestling is organic. People speculate excitedly about what is a “work,” or fake, and what is a “shoot,” or real, and create elaborate interpretations of what is happening behind the scenes. What could be more appropriate to compare to our hot take-heavy sweatbox of political discourse, where people feverishly speculate about what is true, what is false, and what is the overall plan — for we always assume there is one — behind events.
Sometimes, the intensity of such discourse appears to be out of proportion with the significance of events. The Russia inquiry generated millions upon millions of feverish words despite having little more substance than most pro-wrestling storylines. Sometimes, events point to really curious and disturbing phenomena “behind the scenes,” such as the inspector general’s investigation into the FBI, but are reported in such a fragmentary, conflicted way that it is hard to discern a coherent narrative. Wrestling fans are still debating the facts behind the notorious “Montreal Screwjob” (where a wrestler was genuinely conned out of his title). No doubt, people will debate the facts behind the life and death of Jeffrey Epstein for years to come.
Trump has not been alone in taking on the appeal of a pro wrestling character. While the pro wrestling industry has struggled to build stars, the news has more than satisfied our appetite for colorful characters. A feature of the Trump era has been the astonishing turnover in ubiquitous public figures. The likes of Steve Bannon, Michael Avenatti, Robert Mueller, and Anthony Scaramucci are all but forgotten now. Yet when they were on the scene, they existed at the center of brief, intense controversies that made them either the savior or arch-enemy of Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, the pro wrestlifying power of the modern media was evident in the fact that someone as bland and private as Robert “Robot” Mueller was the focus of such heated and hotly divided opinions. And after he’d given his report, the news cycle continued to spin; new events threw up new characters, which we met with no less furious intensity.
But pro wrestlification is not just a product of the media. It is an absence of anything else. The phenomenon has developed as people have become both more emotionally invested in politics and less active as participants. Twenty-four-hour news, pioneered, incidentally, by Ted Turner, who owned World Championship Wrestling as well as CNN, and social media have made us entranced by the drama of political events, even as the decline of civic associations, labor unions, and community ties has made us more passive observers. We watch from the sidelines, cheering, hooting, and remarking on events that we rarely choose to analyze critically in our efforts to be the smartest mark around.
I think the pro wrestlification of political discourse helps to explain why we are all so angry about it. Professional wrestling offers something politics does not: satisfying resolutions. As the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes wrote in an essay in his classic book, Mythologies:
“What wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice … The baser the actions of the [heel], the more delighted the public is by the blow he justly receives in return.”
Politics offers no such catharsis. Achievements are incremental and reversible. Our opponents always seem to live to fight another day. Thus, we sound revolutionary yet remain observers, hoping that our heroes will inflict the justice that we feel is due. It never happens. Frankly, this bizarre political culture makes one feel almost nostalgic for the days when pro wrestling reigned supreme. It has to have been healthier than this.
Ben Sixsmith is a writer living in Poland.