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Wrestling With The Truth - Trump And The Power Of Performance Politics

03/07/2017 17:08
Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

In his latest salvo against the news media, Donald Trump this weekend tweeted a video of himself wrestling to the ground a figure with a CNN logo superimposed over its head. Even given his long history of inflammatory tweeting, this managed to astonish political commentators. For a start, the imagery stood in direct opposition to what the White House had been asserting only days earlier about the president 'in no way, form or fashion' having ever promoted violence. Coming on the back of his personal attacks on the hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe, it also once again had people musing aloud about what had happened to the 'dignity of the office'. But it wasn't just the message it was sending that seemed to exemplify so much about his approach to politics - it was also the vehicle it used to do so. The way that professional wrestling enacts a complex relationship between the fake and the real, the importance it puts on spectacle - all this is a perfect analogy for Trump's politics. And with this clip Trump himself appeared to be embracing this idea in the most explicit way he's done to date.

Sporting metaphors are everywhere in political commentary. And come from almost any sport. There are stalking horses and front runners, policy fumbles and slam-dunks. At the end of his own presidency Obama was talking up his track record, disappointed not to be passing the baton to Hillary. In election cycles, it's boxing, usually, that gets plundered most for figurative expressions. You have your lightweights and your heavyweights. Everyone's watching for that knockout blow during the debates. In 2016 the logic of the metaphor seemed to be influencing the proceedings themselves, when the US TV networks broadcast both a main event and an undercard for the primary debates so they could accommodate the almost endless list of challengers who'd thrown their hats into the ring. But as last year's election cycle continued, the more accurate analogy - especially for the way the main contender was treating it all - turned out to be professional wrestling.

There are several real-life links between the world of wrestling and the current president. He's a long time associate of the wrestling fraternity, and has been involved in various storylines with the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) over the years, including the one which culminated in him body-slamming the WWE chairman, Vince McMahon, just outside the ring (which was repurposed for this weekend's tweet). In 2013 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame - allowing the organisation to boast on their website that this is 'the first time in history a WWE Hall of Famer would ever hold the distinguishing title of U.S. Commander-in-Chief'. At the induction ceremony McMahon introduced him by reflecting that, 'When you think about it, second only to me, Donald might very well be a great president of the United States'.

But it's not so much these concrete links, as the spirit and culture of wrestling that reflects Trumpian politics.

As early as September 2015, when the Republican primaries were just getting underway, Judd Legum of ThinkProgress suggested this as a way of explaining what was going on. To understand the Trump phenomenon, he wrote, it isn't the rule-bound art of boxing that we should be looking at, but the all-out spectacle of wrestling. He pitched his argument with reference to an essay by the French literary critic Roland Barthes. Boxing, Barthes had written, involves sticking to a strategy, developing a game plan which will culminate ultimately in a single point of victory (or defeat). Wrestling, on the other hand, is one spectacle after another. The wrestling fan, says Legum, 'is less interested in what is happening - or the coherence of how one event leads to the next - than the fact that something is happening'. It's a simple narrative of justice versus injustice, of constant energy. And for Trump, with his daily controversies, his insults and provocative tweets, along with a whole roster of imagined foes, this is precisely what's going on.

Writer and former wrestling presenter Dan Berlinka points to another way in which Trump's candidacy derived from the same narrative world as wrestling. Professional wrestling, he notes, 'is a world of heroes and villains' - known in the trade as 'babyfaces' and 'heels'. And while babyfaces are, on the face of it, the good guys, for the long-term wrestling fan the heel is by far the more compelling draw. 'They're the best characters - they say the unsayable - they're relentless and unstoppable'. And Trump fits this profile perfectly. So what that he lies and is wildly inconsistent, 'as The Rock used to interject, "it doesn't matter" what Trump says. His candidacy was about attitude and call and response catchphrases... If you're in that crowd, chanting those slogans, you get to be part of the show'. The parallels are such that Stephen King, back in February, said that Trump's tweets sound like those of a 'pro wrestling bad guy from 1965'.

And then there were comments from Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, and one of the only Trump supporters in Silicon Valley. In 2016 Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit by the wrestler Hulk Hogan against the internet news site Gawker for invasion of privacy after they'd published a sex tape of him and his friend's wife. Thiel was no fan of Gawker's style of gossip and rumour-based news, having himself been a target of theirs in the past. The punitive damages Gawker were ordered to pay pushed them into bankruptcy, and the verdict was widely seen as likely to have implications for journalism - and the First Amendment - more generally.

Interviewed by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times in January, Thiel drew parallels between the Hogan win and Trump's victory. 'People thought the whole Trump thing was fake,' he said, 'that it was the most ridiculous thing imaginable, and then somehow he won'. And the underlying logic here, he suggested, is all to do the paradox of the wrestling spectacle:

[P]ro wrestling is one of the most real things we have in our society and what's really disturbing is that the other stuff is much more fake. And whatever the superficialities of Mr. Trump might be, he was more authentic than the other politicians. He sort of talked in a way like ordinary people talk. It was not sort of this Orwellian newspeak jargon that so many of the candidates use. So he was sort of real.

All of which brings us to the idea of truth and fakeness - an issue which has dominated political discussion on both sides of the Atlantic Since the Trump victory. Quoting Barthes, Legum also highlights the idea that in the wrestling arena, criticising something for being 'just an act' is missing the point. 'It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre.'

What this seems to highlight very clearly is the realisation that substance appears to be of very little importance for a large section of the voting public. Instead, it's all about the narrative. For 'theatre' in Barthes's quote above we might want to substitute 'television'. A lot has obviously been made of the parallels between the spectacle of the election and of reality TV. Trump himself has played directly up to this, tweeting, for example, about his possible cabinet picks that 'I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!' or inviting his supreme court judge candidates to Washington for the unveiling of the winner.

And of course there's a lot that wrestling and 'reality' TV have in common. They both act out straight-forward but compelling narratives, populated with a cast of archetypal characters. They're both staged, but pretend to be real. Everyone knows they're not - but enjoys them nonetheless. Indeed, as Kyle Fowle puts it, 'professional wrestling... thrives on constructing, exploiting, and engaging with the meaning of reality. It's part of the appeal'.

The same dynamic is also happening in public debate. Since the election there's been an almost endless focus on the spread of fake news, and how it may be 'corroding democracy'. But the idea that the proliferation of fake news is skewing civic debate assumes that the population at large is rather credulous. That they have little knowledge of how media works, and they're liable to believe anything they're told. It also suggest that there's a clear dividing line between good media and bad media, whereas most people realise that it's more of a cline. All media has an agenda; it's all constructing a particular version of reality. And often it's very specifically trying to influence people to do one thing or another.

There are people who seem to uncritically believe whatever they read, of course. The 'Pizzagate' incident at the end of 2016, when a man with an assault rifle fired shots in a Washington DC restaurant, apparently influenced by a fake news story about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring at the address, unsurprisingly attracted a lot of press coverage. But there's also evidence that many people take a more sceptical approach to what gets passed around on the internet, yet enjoy consuming it anyway. In a sense, the more outlandish it is, the more it points up the fact that everything is biased. As a Trump supporter interviewed by the New York Times said, using another sporting metaphor, 'It's like a hockey game. Everyone's got their goons. Their goons are pushing our guys around, and it's great to see our goons push back'.

This expresses very much what research has shown: that rationality isn't the defining feature in how people engage with politics when it comes to voting. It's much more to do with emotion and a sense of identity. Eyal Winter, Professor of Economics at the University of Leicester, contends that not only is voting in elections an emotional activity, it's also recreational: it's 'more about expression than about consequences'. So the fact that people know it's just a show doesn't really matter. What's important is the symbolism, and how that's enough to make people feel empowered. The facts may be fake, but the emotion isn't.

There's more to politics than just being a spectator sport, of course. And this, for many, is the real concern around Trump's behaviour. There's a disturbing irony in the way that Trump is using a clip of a fake fight to boast about what he sees as his victory over 'fake news' - but in doing so is inflaming real passions. Unlike professional wrestling, battles within politics after all have concrete implications for real people.

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