What Wrestling Teaches Us About the US

The mix of sport and theater is quintessentially American, and President Trump is one of its biggest fans.

Will the aging undertaker appear in his “Deadman” or biker persona when he climbs into the ring with the eternal golden boy, John Cena? If you are asking yourself questions like these, you are among those brimming with excitement for Monday night’s wrestling mega event, WrestleMania 34.

Everyone can stop turning up their noses at this point. Acrobatic clobbering and endless soap opera feuds between good and evil may not be to every taste. Nevertheless, as educational material to understand the U.S., wrestling is invaluable, and not just because U.S. President Donald Trump was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame as early as 2013 and is a close friend of its stinking rich owners, the McMahon family. He is so close a friend that he even made the wife of the owner, Linda McMahon, leader of the Small Business Administration. Here is an introductory guide in four chapters.

Chapter 1: The World as Wrestling and Imagination

In principle, wrestling is theater and World Wrestling Entertainment is the largest theater company in the world. However, a quick YouTube search demonstrates that the word “acted” ought not to be used too flippantly. You see brutal barbed-wire matches, bone-cracking ring accidents and kamikaze actors like Mick Foley, who once lost his ear in a Munich ring. The long list of disabled, exhausted and prematurely deceased ex-wrestlers stands as a testament to the high price of these acrobatics.

From this perspective, the resonance of the WWE is completely comparable with the American fondness for the equally gladiatorial and, due to the long-term consequences for the athletes, controversial, American football and its professional league, the NFL. But wrestling thrives above all on the back of its soap opera plots, which introduce the fights and tell a story of the battle of good (“Babyfaces”) against evil (“Heels”).

It is precisely here that wrestling obtains its hidden meaning, a meaning which draws parallels in the current political debate. “Kayfabe” describes the understanding between actors and the public that actors portray bitter rivals in the ring and on the screen, despite both sides knowing the score.

At one time, good guys and bad guys even traveled in separate cars so as not to demystify the ring rivalry. Nowadays, however, no one would bat an eyelid if Roman Reigns (type: Game of Thrones fighter) and his rival, Brock Lesnar (type: arrogant mixed martial arts bruiser), brawled in front of the stalls but were later in the evening seen together in a bar.

Nevertheless, many wrestling fans discuss the events with great fervor: Will delicate wrestler Sasha Banks have a shot at the title given that the WWE will be hosted for a month in her home city in California and they want to boost ticket sales? Will Rusev the “Bulgarian Brute” turn from a villain to a hero because fans cheer for him anyway and buy his t-shirts? In reality, the WWE makes its decisions according to criteria such as these when determining their fighters’ storylines.

Many political observers believe “kayfabe” to be the crucial term in understanding the present cynical perception of politics in the U.S. If it is the major contributors who control the actors in Washington according to their own will anyway, then the arguments put forward by politicians look like promos, like the emotional microphone speeches in the ring, which lend the plot a plausible facade.

And can’t we view the staging of the election campaign, in which the candidates verbally lambast one another, as an enormous exhibition bout in which, as in wrestling, it is authenticity and entertainment which are the decisive criteria? What else can President Donald Trump be doing when he, himself a member of the top 1 percent, acts as the voice of working America in the election campaign, only to then award himself and the other superrich a tax reform worth millions? It is unclear whether this wrestling interpretation is cynical of the world or whether cynicism is hidden within the world itself.

Trump, Too, Is a Creation of the Age of Reality TV.

Chapter 2: Wrestling and Populism

Of course, President Trump is the product of the reality TV age, which catapulted the WWE to new heights of sales. His mean-spirited affronts would be at home in the ring, where he should star more often. “Wrestling has always been a form of populism,” writes theatrical scholar, Eero Laine, who is conducting research about the genre. “It is a live event in front of thousands of spectators, wrestlers and wrestling organizers have always listened to how people react. They also read what the fans write on the Internet.” Trump, too, is known for testing out slogans and ideas in front of his supporters and online.

The most loyal Trumpists like to see their president as a babyface (good guy) with the character traits of a heel (bad guy). As such, he is a child of the wrestling zeitgeist. In the 80s and early 90s, comical figures such as Hulk Hogan dominated. Their ringside characters did not have any negative traits, except perhaps a poor taste in spandex pants. As American TV modernized and became the most important medium in American society, the WWE presented good guys like beer-drinking Texas redneck, Steve Austin, who also shellacked a few public favorites in his time, or the cheeky and arrogant Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who verbally humiliated his opponents like no other.

For his opponents, Donald Trump is, of course, the very model of a villain. But polarizing figures such as these are the most effective. Wrestling expert Laine draws parallels with John Cena and Roman Reigns, whose appearances were greeted at times by cheers as well as by boos from the public. “They are polarizing, but the WWE makes a crazy amount of money through them as a result.” Regardless of whether a spectator jumps to their feet in jubilation or boos his heart out, he’s already paid the entrance fee. The “heat,” i.e. the emotional reaction of the public, determines the market worth of a wrestler, regardless of whether it is a reaction of love or hate.

This is all nothing new for Donald Trump. Perhaps the best WWE anecdote pertaining to the 71-year-old is not when he shaved WWE founder Vince McMahon’s hair off in the ring at a WrestleMania. Instead, it was a story once told by McMahon’s son-in-law, the wrestler Triple H. At the end of an episode of the weekly show, WWE Raw, Vince McMahon’s limousine exploded into a giant fireball. So realistic was this stunt, Triple H boasts, that Donald Trump rang him up a few minutes later, concernedly asking about the WWE owner’s health.

The soon to be U.S. president experienced that fan moment which is gold for the WWE: the confusion as to whether everything is a prearranged show (in the case of McMahon’s explosion, this ought, however, to have been pretty obvious).

Chapter 3: WWE – The Conservative Business Utopia

“For fiscal conservatives, the WWE embodies the utopian vision of a business,” explains theatrical scholar and wrestling researcher, Eero Laine. The wrestlers officially work as freelancers, as a general rule they must insure themselves, provide for their own retirement and, in most cases, cover their own travel and hotel costs. “It runs completely according to the performance principle – the less public reaction you garner, the less you are booked,” says Laine.

For free-market advocates, the WWE is a kind of master blueprint for sectors which are practically unregulated. In the 80s, regional sports committees still oversaw and licensed the wrestling clubs. It was, of course, WWE owner McMahon who successfully lobbied in the 80s for wrestling to be classified as entertainment. As wrestling’s first promoter, he admitted that the matches were prearranged; this was viewed in the scene as a breach of taboo, but it unshackled the industry from inconvenient supervision.

The family business now has a stock market value of more than $2.6 billion. There is no longer any competition worthy of note at home in the U.S.; the WWE swallowed or pushed competitor leagues out of the market slowly at first but then quite quickly. This symbolizes the extreme form of capitalism currently at work in the U.S. Despite the much-heralded element of choice, American consumers restrict themselves in many areas, from hotels to supermarket chains, to the few brands who have gained enough market power to be omnipresent.

For the WWE, this provides a comfortable position, not just in terms of any remaining competitors, but also regarding the freelance wrestlers. The foundation of a labor union, which could act on the wrestler’s behalf, would endanger the career of anyone involved.

Chapter 4: WWE as a Reflection of Values

In the 80s, it was easy to be a villain. The Iranian-born American, the Iron Sheik, needed only to wave the Islamic republic’s flag and thousands of spectators would angrily roar, “U-S-A, U-S-A.”

Xenophobia, tacit homophobia and characters like the “angry-but-quite-dumb African” are part of the WWE heritage. Nowadays the company does not resort to such measures to stir up the crowds (although ironically in neighboring Mexico, a U.S. wrestler called Sam Adonis is successfully waving the Trump flag as a bad guy; the crowd reacts all evening with boos and beer showers).

Though figures from everyday archetypes like the tax authorities (obviously bad guys) and garbage men (obviously a good guys) have survived the 80s and 90s, the WWE has not only relinquished its hostility to foreigners, but also the sexual innuendos, curse words and blood in the ring, which became more common later.

This move is, on the one hand, related to the league acknowledging families as a significant target group of consumers. But on the other hand, it also reflects the social progress that has been made in the U.S.; the WWE audience hails from all political, ethnic and social corners of the country.

Most noticeable are the developments among the “divas,” the female wrestlers, who now receive a similar broadcast time to the men and also perform main fights. Nevertheless, the WWE men are still united by the fact that, thanks to their mountains of muscles, no one is likely to confuse them with your everyday, vanilla American.

*Editor’s Note: Though accurately translated, the quotes from Eero Laine could not be verified.

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