PSR Interviews #3: Kayfabe, Smartdom and Marking Out: Can Pro-Wrestling Help Us Understand Donald Trump?

“What’s fascinating about Donald Trump is he’s such an obvious political fraudster” – claims Dr David S. Moon.  “Here’s a guy who openly ‘breaks the fourth wall’, his campaign chief declaring near the start of his campaign that he was ‘projecting an image’ and ‘playing a part’ but would act more ‘presidential’ later – he adds. In this interview, Dr Moon explains analogies between pro-wrestling and (US) politics, focusing primarily on Donald Trump’s case. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Dr Moon’s PSR article.

Political Studies Review: What are the most prominent analogies between pro-wrestling and (US) politics? What key-aspects would you mention?

David S. Moon: There are two ways to think about analogies between pro-wrestling and politics. The first involves somewhat cheesy metaphors describing political debates as ‘a cage fight’, politicians collaborating as ‘tag-teaming’, or a political speech as a ‘bodyslam’ (see Rick Santorum’s 2006 election advert featuring himself standing in a pro-wrestling ring for the ultimate embodiment of such analogies). The message usually communicated by such references is entirely negative – that politics is loud, vulgar and boorish.
That isn’t to dismiss the idea of shared pageantry – think of US politicians coming on stage to entrance-music, with screaming audiences, light-shows, crowd-popping promos (remember John Kerry’s “I’m Reporting for Duty”, with salute?). Accepting the Republican nomination in 2016, Trump’s enterance evoked widespread comparisons to the entrance of WWE superstar The Undertaker.
The second is less immediately obvious and its what I’ve tried to get a handle on in this paper, which has to do with ‘kayfabe’.

Is involvement or interest in pro-wrestling common among US politicians? Or is Donald  Trump’s case somehow unusual?

Donald Trump isn’t the only prominent US politican to be a pro-wrestling fan. Richard Nixon and both G.H.W. and G.W. Bush are known fans, and there’s a great photograph of Jimmy Carter with Mr. Wrestling II (aka. Johnny Walker), his favourite pro-wrestler, in a headlock (Walker was invited to Carter’s inauguration but declined as it would have involved unmasking for security reasons).
We’ve also seen pro-wrestlers-turned-politicians, such as Jesse Ventura becoming Governor of Minnesota and Glenn ‘Kane’ Jacobs, current Mayor of Knox County.
Trump stands out, however, as the first President also in the WWE Hall of Fame. More than just a fan, he hosted two WrestleManias (1988 and 1989) at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, and appeared on WWE television over a dozen times, playing a leading role in story-lines and getting physical (shoves, slaps, a clothesline) in the ring itself.

If pro-wrestling is popularly perceived as ‘trash culture’ can we assume, that Trump’s political style shares these characteristics?

The idea that Trump’s political style and pro-wrestling share characteristics is widespread, with articles claiming the WWE was “Trump’s Presidential Training Ground”, etc. I’ve made my own contribution to these arguments in a previous article comparing Trump’s 2016 campaign with that of then friend Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura’s in 1999.
My argument there is that Trump and Ventura are ‘politainers’ (a concept drawn from Conley and Shultz), whose celebrity personas were developed in entertainment forms deemed ‘low culture’ (pro-wrestling, action movies and shock jock radio with Ventura – reality TV, beauty pageants and more pro-wrestling with Trump) who, by not breaking character when they transitioned onto the political field, were afforded an ability to speak and act in ways closed off to professional politicians, which gave them a rebellious, outsider, anti-authority veneer.
I see something similar in comedy panel show stalwart and newspaper pamphleteer Boris Johnson’s persona, affected bumbling and all…

Trump and Ventura are ‘politainers’ (…) whose celebrity personas were developed in entertainment forms deemed ‘low culture’, who (…) were afforded an ability to speak and act in ways closed off to professional politicians, which gave them a rebellious, outsider, anti-authority veneer.

Can professional wrestling bring a conceptual toolkit to a more precise study of Trump’s political appeal?

Absolutely – as I hope my article illustrates! What’s fascinating about Trump is he’s such an obvious political fraudster: here’s a guy who openly ‘breaks the fourth wall’, his campaign chief declaring near the start of his campaign that he was ‘projecting an image’ and ‘playing a part’ but would act more ‘presidential’ later; a guy who could lead crowds chants of “Lock her up!” when campaigning and once in office, laugh at these same antics, telling those same crowds the chants “plays great before the election. Now we don’t care.”
How then can we explain the engagement with and emotional investment in his campaign by an electorate that is apparently cynical about politics? I argue the concepts of ‘kayfabe’, ‘smart fans’, and ‘marking out’ offer a conceptual toolkit that helps explain this phenomenon. But more than just Trump, I’d argue they help illuminate our engagement with contemporary politics more widely.

You suggest using kayfabe as a metaphor for postmodern politics. What’s the key characteristic of it: a spectacle? Blurring lines between fake or real? Emotional interactions with the audience?

The concept of kayfabe is the central subject of much of the pro-wrestling studies scholarship, which my article hopes to introduce fellow political studies scholars to. The term is a piece of industry jargon/slang, a pig-Latin-esque word for ‘fake’. At its root, Kayfabe refers to performing staged events as if authentic, encompassing all three mentioned characteristics.
Once, it was the noble lie that excluded outsiders from the industry secret that the sport was ‘worked’ (i.e. predetermined). Today, the term has come to describe a contemporary form of audience engagement involving ‘smart’ fans willingly suspending their disbelief and playing along with the performance conventions underpinning kayfabe – e.g. cheering the ‘face’ (good guy) and booing the ‘heel’ (bad guy) – while simultaneous engaging in a game of interpretation, applying their understandings of pro-wrestling as an art and an industry, with the aim of identifying the intentions behind performance choices, both in-ring and backstage.

How can the concepts of smart fans and kayfabe be useful in explaining cynical supporters engagement?

I argue the elements just mentioned – the suspension of disbelief, co-performance of kayfabe and simultaneous game of interpretation – are key to the pleasure of pro-wrestling’s ‘smart fans’ and mirrored in how supporters engage with politics. Just as pro-wrestling fans parse a performance’s elements for signs of a ‘heel’ turn or clues regarding future storylines, supporters seek the intention behind the performance choices politicians make.
We know a rally is staged in a particular city, for specific ends, based on particular calculations of its effect (e.g. “we must win the Red Wall”). We know a team of scriptwriters, brand consultants, etc. shape the candidate’s speech. We don’t interact with such events naively. Rather we actively question these elements – why raise this issue now? Who is this policy’s intended audience? – keeping a cynical, knowing distance, whilst at the same time suspending disbelief and cheering and booing, performing our role as supporters-who-believe.

At its root, Kayfabe refers to performing staged events as if authentic, encompassing all three mentioned characteristics.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

Trump’s history with WWE and his hyperbolic campaign-style make him the perfect subject to apply pro-wrestling concepts as a way to understand how self-conceived cynics can nevertheless emotionally invest in politicians’ campaigns. But kayfabe politics doesn’t end with Trump.
With both pro-wrestling and politics, smarts’ ability to engage in interpretation and prediction requires an ability to think like the writers, producers and performers/advisors, media operators and politicians themselves. Smarts thus learn to interpret within certain ‘rules of the game’, which structure reception of information, limiting openness to approaches outside these rules. An interpretive focus upon the intentions behind performances – whether Vince McMahon’s booking or Dominic Cummings’ briefings – rather than their material ramifications – be that multiple concussions from chair-shots or people starved to death by benefits cuts – compounds this.
Conceptualising political engagement through kayfabe thus offers us a warning about how we relate to and study politics.

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ABOUT

Dr David S. Moon – Senior Lecturer, Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath.

His research focuses on the application of contemporary political theory to the study of political communication and campaigning; and post-devolution UK politics and sub-state political parties. More

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

PSR Interviews #1: “Enemies of the American people” – Donald Trump, populism and politics of insecurity – interview with Daniel Béland

Why does Donald Trump want to “depict his opponents as enemies of the American people, who will cheat and do whatever it takes to kick him out of the White House”? What consequences will his actions have on the country’s future? Now, when America is facing a profound political change, we decided to discuss Donald Trump’s political legacy with Profes­sor Daniel Béland. He’ll debate collective threat framing, Trump’s populist tactics and the results it may have on the country’s society. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Prof. Beland’s PSR article. But here, we’re beginning a short PSR research-based interviews series

PSR: How would you define populism? What components do you find the most essential?

Daniel Béland: Populism is a slippery and contested concept that can be hard to define. In my article, I draw on the work of Jan-Werner Müller (2016) to stress two main components of populism: its critique of the elites and its claim to speak on the behalf of a people that is both unified and coherent. My article focuses exclusively on right-wing populism, even if left-wing populism shares these two basic characteristics. 

How is populism linked to the politics of insecurity?

The politics of insecurity is largely about the framing and reframing of collective threats. In my article, I suggest that right-wing populism defines migrants as a key threat, something obvious in President Trump’s rhetoric, which depicts them as “folk devils” who constitute a direct menace against the American people.      

What are the major collective threats that have been framed and acted upon during Donald Trump’s presidency?

Migrants are only one of the major perceived collective threats President Trump focused on during his presidency and it is the one I decided to focus on in my article. Other collective threats President Trump has referred to include the economic threat stemming from China and the “bad” trade deals with other countries, including Canada and Mexico, a situation that led to the renegotiation of NAFTA. However, these threats are less “personal” and seemingly immediate than the migrant caravan I discuss in my article.    

Trump might have lost the popular vote and at the electoral college but right-wing populism and white nationalism associated to him and his faithful base are unlikely to disappear any time soon

If populism is about framing and reframing national identities, what was the major change caused by Trump’s rhetoric?

Under Trump, the emphasis on border control has increased well beyond the issue of terrorism, which became such a central issue in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For instance, concerns about the US-Mexico border had long existed but President Trump depicted Mexican and Central American migrants who cross the border as an imminent and existential threat to the United States. More recently, in a similar way, the president has also attacked Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA, which he has distorted the image and blown out of proportion to scare voters.    

How has the framing of migrants and other collective threats reshaped how Americans regard politics? Will – regardless of his defeat, – the base of Trump supporters reshapes the US politics itself?

President Trump’s recent refusal to concede defeat and recognize the clear victory of Democratic candidate Job Biden is part of a broader attempt to depict his opponents as enemies of the American people, who will cheat and do whatever it takes to kick him out of the White House. Clearly the accusations of voter fraud are embedded in racial prejudice, especially when the president targets alleged yet fictional widespread “cheating” in cities with a large black population like Detroit and Philadelphia. Trump might have lost the popular vote and at the electoral college but right-wing populism and white nationalism associated to him and his faithful base are unlikely to disappear any time soon in what remains a highly divided country, in which different narratives about who the people is are now embedded in resilient and highly contentious partisan identities.   

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

The main contribution of my article is theoretical, as it bridges and integrates the literatures on populism and on the politics of insecurity to formulate an integrated framework that other scholars could apply or adapt to a variety of political and geographical settings. This is why the article is not only targeting students of the United States or the politics of immigration but all scholars interested in the insecurity/populism nexus.     

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ABOUT

Prof. Daniel Béland

Prof. Daniel Béland – James McGill Professor; Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

Photo used in the heading image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (link), license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0), modified.