It's a strange quirk of pro wrestling that, despite tapping into a deep vein of political sentiment even from its earliest days and a management level that skews right politically, there have been scant few liberal heels.
Vince McMahon is a long-time Republican booster and Linda McMahon works in the Trump Administration. Ring of Honor, meanwhile, is owned by arch-conservative media outlet Sinclair Broadcasting, and smaller promotions have long been enmeshed in local right-leaning struggles over pay and contracting with their wrestlers. You'd think, then, that the American wrestling scene would be swamped with "evil liberal" gimmicks—perhaps a tag team of George Soros–funded protesters, or a young, private-college arts major with a finishing move called the Trigger Warning.
Instead, heels are foreigners like Jinder Mahal and the Koloffs, burly men who scream and threaten the American way of life, or they're the rich and privileged, like Ric Flair and Vince McMahon. Sometimes they're even straight up right-wingers, like the Real Americans gimmick, which had a whiskered Zeb Coulter counseling Jack Swagger and Cesaro in all things Tea Party and feuding with Mexican wrestlers.
The sort of pure text the Real Americans put on display in 2013 was uncommon, but once it was out there it left a question hanging: If reactionary Republicans can be a gimmick, where were the heel Democrats?
In eastern Kentucky, as it turns out.
Unless you've been under a media blackout the past week and a half, you've likely caught wind of Dan Richards, The Progressive Liberal, a wrestling Hillary Clinton fan who delivers hectoring promos about how he's working the area's Appalachian Mountain Wrestling promotion in order to educate the local rubes on proper living, green jobs, and how to pronounce "Appalachia" (with the third "A" being long, according to him, which is clearly wrong and enrages both me and the fans packing the gyms the promotion works). He wears loud shirts emblazoned with Clinton's image and has a finishing move called the Liberal Agenda.
The emergence of the Progressive Liberal, and the reaction to him, appears to be a perfect story for the age: a bunch of Kentucky hicks who voted for Trump because they're too dumb to realize their best interests lie with the Democrats head out to see dumb-assed pro wrestling in droves, only to get enraged by a caricature of a liberal because they're too dumb to really understand it's all fake, too.
The problem with that narrative, which dovetails so well with the mystification we have toward our wrestling-meme-tweeting President, is that it isn't quite true.
"What's funny about Dan and this whole thing to me, is that we're based out of the town of Hazard, Kentucky, in Perry County," says Kyle Maggard, one of Richards' arch-nemeses and AMW's promoter. "That county when it comes to politics, nationally and locally, is a blue county. It's a blue county! And you would think because of the shared ideology that they might be pro-Dan, but Dan has the condescending tone that the rest of the world has with us. It's the smug condescension."
According to the Kentucky State Board of Elections, despite not voting for a Democrat for president since 2000, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly three to one in Perry. Speaking with Maggard, there's a sense that the politics of Blue and Red take a backseat to the very real belief that his home is under siege and hurting badly. He spoke to me, eloquently and passionately, about the ways in which the coal industry collapsing in slow motion has strangled everything from restaurants to 60-year-old businesses as capital flight accelerated. The last thing he wants is a lecture.
"The people of Appalachia, and of eastern Kentucky specifically, we always feel like people turn their noses up at us," he says. "We feel like we're stereotyped and misunderstood. You know? We're all poor, we're all barefoot, we all look like hillbillies. Stuff like that."
Dan Richards loves talking politics. More specifically, he loves talking to you about politics. We spoke a lot more about the 2016 election and Democratic messaging than finishing moves and heat (though he gets nuclear levels of heat on AMW's local circuit), and that was something he was clearly comfortable with doing.
"I do think where Democrats can improve is with their message, being unapologetic about it and bold about it," Richards said. "Really laying out what their plans are, especially now. You think about this healthcare plan. Republicans have done it mostly behind closed doors, and then they reveal plans at the last minute and they're hoping to get a vote. And after all this time, they can't even do that. So I think now is the time to be transparent, saying, look, this is our plan, this is what we want to do. I don't think they do a good enough job advertising what they do! So we have a lot of uninformed voters, and there just has to be a better job of reaching them than what we do today. Say what it is and be bold about it. Be unapologetic."
What burns him the most, and what clearly comes across in conversation, is the hypocrisy of the GOP. If there's something I could point to as the animating spirit of the Progressive Liberal, it's that.
"Can you imagine if Barack Obama had been married three times," he asks me. "If he had kids with all those women? Can you imagine if he said he could get away with grabbing a woman's pussy? He wouldn't be president! Why is this OK [with Trump]? Because he has an 'R' next to his name? That hypocrisy fuels everything! And that fuels everything that I say when I have a live mic."
And when Richards gets that live mic, he lets loose, a barrage of Democratic id, pent up and released frustration at a party's rejection by people who got the ACA and steady job growth. Hence the wrong pronunciation of Appalachia, the Hillary Clinton shirts, the promo that insisted he was in town to "reprogram" all these idiots who didn't know better. And they hate him for it.
"I'm wrestling at something called the Dukefest at the end of July. And that's going to be about ten thousand Confederate-flag-loving rednecks all in one place, and the Progressive Liberal is going to be there. I'm not going to say what I have coming up for them, but that might be the one where I get killed," he says with a casual laugh. "I remember back when I was breaking into the business, we'd be in Tennessee and all you'd have to do is shake your fists at the crowd and go 'GRRRRRRRRR' and people would go crazy. All these old rednecks who'd been there for a long time. I've not had anyone climb over the railing yet, but I've had various threats of gun violence. I don't know that that's going to get any better right now."
(It's not just Trump fanatics, though. Richards recalled one event where he got "Feel the Bern" chants, too.)
The gimmick Richards reminds me of the most is CM Punk's Straight Edge Society run, something Richards said wasn't intended but is a comparison he agreed with once I brought it up. Punk took his very real straight-edge lifestyle and turned it up to a quasi-messianic, moralizing-asshole crescendo. It wasn't just the ways in which both Richards and Punk deliver stentorian lectures from the ring on the right way to do things or the realness at the core of it. It's that members of the audience were cheering drug use just because CM Punk was so good at being a massive dickhead about his righteousness. Richards goes out on local television, says we're bringing jobs back to coal country, and people go absolutely berserk.
Daniel Harnsberger (Richards' real name) is the Progressive Liberal, or some version of him, just as Phil Brooks is CM Punk on some level. He's engaging and a sharp guy, and he has a delightful, remarkably old-school attitude toward the frankly borderline dangerous levels of heat he's getting from fans. But there's also a whiff of that judgmental attitude of the American middle-class liberal and more than a hint of the Democratic Party's defeatism.
"The trouble is when you start talking about moving on from coal or clean energy or moving strongly into technology, things like that, is that they feel attacked. I don't know if you can reach those people," he says, with a touch of real exasperation in his voice. "I don't like to say it's hopeless but … I just don't know. If you can't say I'm trying to help you, what do you do? I don't know how we fix that."
If Richards is playing himself, however, and if he strongly believes that liberals need to offer a full-throated defense of the Democratic Party and its values, his version of that defense is heelish. It's annoying. And he knows that, because if he didn't, he wouldn't be playing the heel so willingly. He runs his mouth in the smuggest way possible, a gimmick that has always garnered heat and also has always seemed to work especially well in small venues.
And yet, it feels like the Progressive Liberal has more in common with the pernicious foreign heel than with a straightforward political gimmick like what the Real Americans plied a few years ago. Richards is presenting himself as a stranger to Hazard, Kentucky, and the locals agree with him. They look at Richards, who's from Southern, decidedly purple, Virginia and not New York or Los Angeles, as an invader. The terrifying possibility is that this may be our untenable reality in microcosm—how we look at places like Kentucky as a different world (it is our "internal colony," in heavily debated academic parlance) just as they oftentimes see the "us" in the lowlands, the cities, the media, and politics as invaders.
Local promotion or not, this is also telling of where the Democrats are as a party right now, lately far more the party of the cloying bromides of Nancy Pelosi and the Cheshire Cat grin of Chuck Schumer than of the New Deal. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats came off as (and largely were) hapless idiots who couldn't fight their way out of a political paper bag but who, nonetheless, crowed their superiority to anyone who would listen and a lot of folks who would rather not. If the mark of a specific breed of heel is the lecturing, hectoring know-it-all who offers nothing but nails-on-a-chalkboard condescension, the godawful truth of all of this may be that it's not Trump who was the heel during the election, no matter how awful a gorge we're threatening to careen into.