Like most, I’m trying to make sense of what’s going on in our current political context. I have nothing to offer from a faith and meaning perspective, but I do have some thoughts about popular culture and the 2016 election.
That is the president-elect, Donald Trump, taking a stunner from former WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin.
And if that image doesn’t make sense to you then you may have been a little stunned yourself by the results of the 2016 presidential election on Tuesday, November 8. Let me take you on a journey to an area of popular culture with which you may not be familiar and in doing so shed some light on where we are in the cultural story of our country.
Professional wrestling has a complicated history. Suffice to say, what used to be legitimate athletic competition on par with boxing or (in more recent times) mixed martial arts, went down a vaudeville path when it became clear to wrestling promoters that they could make more money at the gate if matches had definitive results in a fixed amount of time. Professional wrestling became no longer a “sport” in the traditional sense, as each matches outcome and length were predetermined, but took on more aspects of other forms of entertainment including characterization, choreography, and dramatic tension. Audiences were invited into a 10-15 minute morality play that followed the same simple steps each time: entrances, a lockup or test of strength, a beatdown by one competitor, a comeback by the other, a unique move signalling the end, the finish and match fallout. This was repeated again and again over the course of 7-8 matches with increasing stakes for each contest.
The point is that professional wrestling went from being a “shoot”, or legitimate competition, to a “work”, a choreographed competition that resembled wrestling but could be manipulated based on desired results. As this mode of operation became the norm across the different geographical territories where wrestling promoters operated, the importance shifted from strength and athleticism to spectacle. Wrestling promotions needed to tell simple stories that audiences could understand and digest in short time frames. Elements of classic storytelling began to come to the fore. The heroic “babyface” would battle the dastardly “heel” only to be shocked by some nefarious trick that would lead to the heel getting “heat” for most of the match as the crowd booed vociferously. However, due to the heel’s own hubris, the babyface would eventually gain the upper hand and make a glorious comeback during the “go-home” portion of the bout, the crowd gradually getting louder and louder as the cathartic drama played out in front of them, culminating with the hero hitting his “finisher” on the villain and pinning him for a count of three.
As the new state of wrestling began to take hold in American pop culture, the move to create more and more characters grew. It wasn’t enough for a wrestler to simply be a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. Wrestlers like Gorgeous George began to dress in silk robes and parade around the ring in an effeminate impersonation of a gay man, a natural heel for wrestling crowds. Physical oddities like Andre the Giant were pushed in territories like side show-style attractions. And ethnic pride became embodied by wrestlers like the Italian, Bruno Sammartino or the Irish, Hulk Hogan. Each region of the country had its hero, always a white man, who was the slightly more muscular mirror image of the fans paying their money to see him beat his competitors.
So what does any of this have to do with the 2016 presidential election? Isn’t wrestling just some niche market? Isn’t that just some dumb entertainment for rednecks and poor people who can’t even tell it’s fake? Isn’t that lowest common denominator entertainment?
That’s the point!
Because, while the general populace has written off this form of entertainment as embarrassingly lowbrow. While wrestling fans have had to whisper about their fandom. While no one took this stuff seriously as entertainment, one person was always there. From Wrestlemania 4 hosted at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City to the Battle of the Billionaires at Wrestlemania 23, Donald Trump has been on the television screens of professional wrestling fans on and off for the past 30 years. He always knew the benefit of working with friend, wrestling promoter, and fellow businessman Vince McMahon.
In the wrestling business, a fan is known as a “mark”, the same term used by con artists to describe their victims. The reason is because for years and years, wrestling promotions would follow a rule called “kayfabe” where they pretended that professional wrestling was a shoot competition rather than a predetermined athletic exhibition. The long-running joke going back to my days growing up in North Carolina, home to Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promotion, was that wrestling fans were the only people that thought the moon landing was fake and wrestling was real. Put in simple terms, wrestling promoters and everyone associated with the business treated their fans like suckers, rubes who could be convinced that a worked-punch had actually landed, or that the momentum from an Irish whip could set an opponent up for a devastating clothesline, or that a billionaire was an advocate for the common man.
Don’t be naive. There is a cultural clash happening in this country, and all of those “marks” just went to the polls to put the leg drop on the Gorgeous George’s of the political world. Their actions come from a place of fear, as the gray nature of 21st century ethics fails to live up to the heel/face dynamic. And, as David Wong writes in his recent Cracked article Don’t Panic, “They look out their front door and see painkiller addicts and closed factories. They believe that nobody in Washington gives a shit about them, mainly because that’s 100-percent correct.”
We were all “worked” by this election process and most of us were “swerved” by the election results. And it was all right there in that corner of popular culture we never considered because it was beneath us. For all the golden age television dramas we award and the satirical late night shows we applaud, there has also been professional wrestling. Professional wrestling has the trappings of religion with its emphasis on ritual and pageantry, and what is worshipped at the altar of its squared circle is violent retributive justice. Vince McMahon will never win an Emmy, never be recognized as a cultural voice for a generation, never be treated as a mainstream icon, and yet his product will have been one of the largest cultural influences in red states across the country.