Get in the Ring

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Two days ago, Donald Trump (whom the editors of Spy magazine, back in the late 1980s, used to call “the short-fingered vulgarian”) tweeted a manipulated gif of himself at a WWE event – “throwing to the floor,” in the dignified words of a Guardian reporter, “a man with a CNN logo for a head.” “#FraudNewsCNN,” went the hashtag. Naturally, this cued an avalanche of left-liberal outrage. “Juvenile,” said CNN. “Undermines the media,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The horror! The shame!

In his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Little, Brown), Edward Luce writes about Trump and the WWE:

One of Donald Trump’s favourite activities is to watch pro-wrestling contests. Over the decades he has appeared multiple times as a star in his own right at World Wrestling Entertainment fights. Though America’s future president never fought, he often entered the ring to participate in its hammed-up scripts. His most recent appearance was in 2015, shortly before he launched his presidential candidacy, when he helped pin down a mock-struggling Vince McMahon, the chief executive of WWE. To whooping crowds, he then shaved McMahon’s head with an electric razor.

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This, by the by, was the fight that gave us Trump’s gif (which he apparently found on Reddit). Luce goes on to talk about what Trump’s WWE appearances might mean:

The WWE is to US popular culture what bear-baiting was to medieval Europe. The difference is that it is all a big pretence. The audience knows the drama is staged. But it happily allows itself to get sucked in. They are just as emotionally invested as diehard soap-opera fans. WWE gives you villains, heroes, antiheroes and victims. Tracking the WWE’s changing scripts is a barometer of middle America’s darker preoccupations. During the 1980s, the fights were about good versus evil. The latter would invariably have Russian, or perhaps Iranian, accents. They would eventually lose […] After the Cold War, the stories began to change. Good and evil were replaced with dramas based on nasty personal disputes. The foreign enemy was supplanted by those around us. Victims could take revenge on their abusers […] The most striking thing was the disappearance of heroes. Everyone has some tawdry angle. No one is trustworthy. “City after city, night after night, packed arena after packed arena, the wrestlers play out a new, broken social narrative,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “It is about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood.

In Luce’s reading, the WWE follows roughly the same ideological trajectory as big-budget Hollywood movies – telling clear Manichean fables of Good Vs. Evil during the Cold War, and sinking into ambiguity and distrust of the government as the millennium turned (compare the moral clarity of Red Dawn [1984] to the ambiguity of a movie like X-Men [2000] in which one of the chief villains is a US senator). What neither Luce nor Chris Hedges (whom he quotes) point out is that the audience for WWE events is overwhelmingly working class, white, and older than 35 – the very people who have come to think of themselves as the victims of failed neoliberal policies, and who therefore voted for Trump in large numbers.

(As an aside: the failed America that these white, working-class voters live in is no myth. The “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” that Trump conjured in his inauguration speech really do exist. In January 2017 – a few days before Trump was sworn in as president – I got a train from New York to Washington, DC, and looked out as we passed through rust-belt Pennsylvania, where the air is red with iron oxides from rusted trucks and cars, and all you can see is mile after mile of peeling row houses, dead factories boarded up with corrugated tin, burnt-out tow-trucks, scrubland gone to seed, and empty shipping containers. Trump’s victory made a lot more sense to me, after that.)

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Luce’s point is clear: Trump has succeeded, at least in part, by manipulating the same “broken social narrative” of “personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge” that drives the WWE. When Trump said, “I love the poorly educated,” he was speaking to his base: people who distrust educated elites because they think, correctly as it happens, that these elites hate them and have zero interest in doing anything for them. (It was the policies of these elites, after all, that moved manufacturing and mining jobs overseas, and that destroyed the social safety net for working-class people.) Trump sells a version of politics that makes complete sense to a WWE audience schooled in stories of victimhood and vendetta. He takes a complex, multivalent, ambiguous world and transforms it into a comprehensible story about personal pain, evil bullies, and revenge: “Drain the swamp!” “Make America Great Again!” “Lock her up!” Tweets like the CNN body-slam gif go straight past the intercessional analyses of “mainstream media” and connect directly with an audience who longs to understand the world in terms of the crude but powerful narratives of pro-wrestling. Even at the level of cabinet appointments, Trump is speaking directly to a WWE audience: Linda McMahon, Vince McMahon’s wife, is now head of the Small Business Administration.

What Luce also refrains from suggesting is that the WWE might tell us something about how Trump understands the world. For the current President of the United States, it seems fair to say, the world itself is a kind of faked wrestling match, in which he plays the role of bully-hero, enacting a popular revenge on the forces of darkness – construed, in this version of reality, as “the mainstream media” – and in which nothing is actually at stake because the whole thing is rigged. And for Trump, of course, the whole thing is rigged: he is rich, he has always been rich, and he will never not be rich, and so the real-world consequences of his executive orders and tweets (construed, by Trump, as pretty much the same thing) don’t actually matter, because they don’t actually matter to him: they’re just part of the show. For Trump, reality is essentially fake; and what is fake to begin with can be manipulated without harm.

This line of thought leads us back to Roland Barthes’s analysis of pro-wrestling, first published in book form in Mythologies (1957). In this essay, Barthes argues that, for its fans, the fakeness of pro-wrestling is beside the point:

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences; what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees […] The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions […] wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

Isn’t this strongly reminiscent of Trump’s presidential style? The liberal left knocks itself out trying to make coherent sense of what Trump is doing. But what he’s actually doing is invoking “the transient image of certain passions.” He has no interest in “the crowning moment of a result.” He’s just putting on a show.

What this means, in practice, is that Trump will fail. The people who voted for him are evidently having a blast watching the Trump Show: applauding him as he body-slams CNN must, in the short term, be highly satisfying (CNN is, after all, a news channel that broadcasts endless propaganda for neoliberalism. Think about it: whenever you turn on CNN, you see a news segment about African people starting a business, or an ad explaining that Singapore or Dubai is a great place to invest). But the transient image of this passion is just that: transient. Eventually, the people who voted for Trump will expect “the crowning moment of a result.” They will expect him to actually do something, in the real world, to alleviate their suffering, or to appease their desire for revenge. But Donald Trump doesn’t really believe in the real world. He only believes in the spectacle. He is incapable of actually effecting change for the better; he doesn’t even want to effect change for the better. (He just wants to continue being rich and famous.) What happens when Trump’s fanbase realises this? What happens when it becomes clear that the fight really is rigged? Where does all the anger go then?

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