Pro Wrestling and the Art of Political Storytelling

Wrestlers on a global scale run for office, usually from the right, and it’s because they understand the value of the simple storytelling that permeates pro wrestling.
November 15, 2016, 2:15pm
Photo by Jeremy Long-USA TODAY Sports

Pro wrestling is political. This must be reiterated and placed forcefully at the center of its methods of storytelling.

It is political when we boo the classic evil foreigner. It is political when we cheer the babyface with the American flag. It is political when a storyline involves a workingman redneck beating up his boss.

It is pervasively, intensely political, at all levels of its storytelling. This is really important to understand, because the combination of its core of politics and the simplicity of its storytelling has allowed it to thrive for a hundred years. It will last a hundred more. You can like it or not, think that it makes sense or that it's weird, or something in between. It doesn't matter. It is the oldest form of modern entertainment to maintain a steady level of more or less high popularity in this country, from the early 20th century to today.

Vaudeville is gone. Musicals wax and wane, no matter how many people insist Hamilton is for everyone. Jazz lingers, wraithlike, bound to never again cross the threshold of small clubs or escape the pull of the damned progeny of Spyro Gyra.

Wrestling is still here.

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This is not the first thing to be written which touches on Donald Trump and his relationship to pro wrestling. It probably won't be the last. Respected political blogs and a million forum posts alike have touched upon the same novel thought: Donald Trump acts like a pro wrestler. It's been written about here before. And, heaven knows, we don't need one more. Not in a world drowning in quick explainers of how Harry Potter is just like Hillary Clinton and 12 things from your kitchen that are Game of Thrones characters.

So that's not this piece, though it's impossible to ignore the elephant in the room that WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump is president-elect and he got there by cutting wrestling promos.

But a lot of pro wrestlers have run for office, with varying—though usually more than less—success. There is Trump now, who is not exactly a pro wrestler, but also not exactly not a pro wrestler. Jesse Ventura, of course, who won the governorship of Minnesota out of the blue and served as the catalyst for Keith Ellison's now famous lonely cry that Trump might win.

But there are more. The Great Sasuke served in prefecture (comparable to state-level) politics, famously refusing to take off his mask even while legislating. Antonio Inoki has served in the upper house of Japan's national parliament for years. Ludvig Borga served in the Finnish parliament. Rick Steiner is on his county's board of education. Rhyno, Jerry Lawler, and Bob Backlund all ran but didn't win, while Ric Flair gave serious consideration to a gubernatorial run in North Carolina. Kane is almost certainly going to run as some flavor of libertarian-tinged conservative in the medium-term future. The Rock is publicly talking about a political run.

What gives? Wrestlers on a global scale run for office, either winning or coming close, usually from the right, and it's because they understand the value of the simple storytelling that permeates pro wrestling.

Adam Curtis has been in the arts and culture pages for weeks now due to buzz around HyperNormalisation, his new documentary. In it, he reiterates part of a thesis that runs through his work: there is no political storytelling from the center or the left anymore, save that which we create for ourselves via algorithms and a retreat into the self; and this has given ample room for the right wing to capitalize on the appeal of simple, effective storytelling about the current political moment on an almost exclusive basis.

This is what Trump and so many others from pro wrestling get on an instinctual level. Their storytelling in the ring and on the mic is about simplicity. It's about morals, which, even if they're muddled, are clarified through violence. We all recoiled when Trump cut a year-long promo on immigrants, forgetting that the foreigner is always the heel, the nativist is always the babyface.

The Democrats, specifically, and large swathes of the center-to-left forgot this. In place of the simple storytelling—learned from pro wrestling—that Trump offered, they had math equations and stories generated by algorithms. Except for one guy, of course, but Bernie Sanders didn't make it to the finish line.

Those stories can be used for good or bad. There's something impossibly dark about the persistence of the evil-foreigner gimmick in pro wrestling. It never fails to find purchase with the crowd at least a bit, and that says something about us when it undergirds the spine of our most visible working-class entertainment for so long. And we all cheer the babyface and boo the foreign heel, or we at least all recognize that we're supposed to, no matter how liberal or open-minded we think we are.

"Fuck that guy," you think, almost despite yourself. "He's Bulgarian."

But there's another kind of storytelling in wrestling, equally populist and in tune with working-class thought, but brighter and more optimistic.

Because not just foreigners are bad guys. Rich guys are, too. Vince McMahon is smart enough to know that he's a heel because he's rich—good luck getting to the root of the personal psychology of the intersection between the character and the real man, but the class politics of it are clear. Ric Flair was the annoying rich frat boy who always won and always cruised down Main Street after he did. Ted DiBiase ruthlessly taunted everyone with his money. On and on it goes, until the rich asshole as heel is almost as eternal as the evil foreigner.

And never forget the greatest promo of all time, a promo delivered by Dusty Rhodes, about Dusty Rhodes, but also about the slow recession of industry in the American heartland. He's saying that you, the viewer, aren't rich and he, Dusty Rhodes, isn't rich, and that this is a bond between you, by definition in opposition to Flair and his cronies. It's optimistic and it knows who the enemy is: not Eddie Guerrero or Rusev but Flair and McMahon.

This isn't to say that political strategizing on the left should organize itself around pro wrestling. That's crazy, though it's certainly a little less crazy than it was this time last week. But it is to say that there has been simple, moral storytelling—of the type the left desperately needs—right in front of us every week for decades. There's no reason only one side should be able to tap into it.

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