When I was a teenager growing up in St. Louis, professional wrestling was a big deal. Old smoke-filled Kiel Auditorium would be packed on Saturday nights and designated heroes and villains would duke it out in the ring, strutting, taunting and cheating. Even as kids we knew it was fake and a show, but that didn’t matter. It was pure primal entertainment. For an actual sporting event, we would go to old Sportsman’s Park to watch the Cardinals.
So when I went to the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting in Chicago earlier this month and saw that a professor from the University of Texas was reading a paper on professional wrestling and politics, I had a flashback. I made sure I attended that session and am really glad I did.
Professor Shannon O’Brien presented a paper on how President Trump uses the devices of professional wrestling to govern. Trump has a long association with the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, formerly World Wrestling Federation) and is in their hall of fame.
Professional wrestling is pure spectacle. Heroes and villains are often caricatures. As O’Brien says, “the most important thing is to ‘sell’ your act to your audience” and that “emotional performance supersedes truth or accuracy.”
She says most matches are scripted events, yet promoters and wrestlers says it’s “kayfabe,” – they made up a word -- K-A-Y-F-A-B-E – claiming it is absolutely real. Crude personal attacks by wrestlers on each other are seen as part of the game. Ethnic and racial stereotypes are also common.
She watched a full year of WWE in addition to studying its history, so she knows what she’s writing about. And she makes the agile leap from WWE to President Trump’s governing style:
- Truth is what he says it is – “kayfabe.”
- Crude insults and taunts are part of the persona.
- Groups are stereotyped.
- The appeal is primarily but not exclusively to males.
- There is a strong strand of nativism.
This is fascinating and compelling stuff. She says that by employing professional wrestling tactics in public life, Trump “has given race baiting and overblown stereotypes validation and tacit approval.”
Quoting her one more time: “Average citizens look to the president as a gauge for both acceptability and limitations. President Trump behaves as an unfiltered improvisational actor more invested in the reaction than in the action. His supporters . . . often do not place distinctions between showmanship and governance. Instead they see his actions as normalized and acceptable standards for etiquette.”
In my determined effort to understand the Trump Phenomenon, Professor O’Brien has made a big contribution.
Talking Politics is hosted by Jamie Hobbs