Smackdown 2020

According to recent headlines, earth could be struck by an asteroid on November 2nd, 2020. To many, this event will provide a welcome excuse to avoid having to live through November 3rd. See, November 3rd is election day in the United States. It will mark the end of a contest that began the moment the last one shuddered to a close four very long years ago. 

US politics and the upcoming election are worth paying attention to. As the world’s sole superpower, the United States holds sway over the affairs of almost every country on earth, including our own. It’s disconcerting, then, that something so crucial to our collective wellbeing is also bonkers.  

How can one make sense of our trans-Pacific cousins? What can happen on November 3rd?  

The answers to all these questions and more lie in a realm where distinctly American theatricality and madness are tools of the trade. The answers can be found, I would argue, in WWE.  

Pro-wrestling and politics share many similarities. Today, on a base level, they’re essentially the same business; nowhere is this more apparent than in the presidency of Donald J. Trump.   

Trump is a WWE hall-of-famer and to date the only world leader to have been kicked in the stomach by Stone Cold Steve Austin. He’s been involved in pro-wrestling for decades. In 1988, he hosted Wrestlemania IV and V in Trump Plaza. In 2007, he faced off against WWE CEO Vince McMahon in ‘The Battle of the Billionaires.’  

Yet, despite their theatrical beef, McMahon and Trump are close. Eerily, their career trajectories sync. Both rose to prominence in the 1980s, both built upon their business success with forays into the world of reality TV, they even have the same catchphrase (“you’re fired!”). Most importantly, however, McMahon and Trump owe their success to a mastery of character work – a longstanding staple of pro-wrestling. 

Wrestlers adopt personas that are, to use the industry terminology, either ‘faces’ or ‘heels’ – AKA, good-guys or bad-guys. Traditionally, a heel’s role in wrestling storylines is to antagonise the crowd. The face would then arrive and assault the heel, bringing the storyline to a cathartic if predictable end.  

This dynamic would imply being a heel is detrimental to one’s pro-wrestling career – far from it. Some of the most loved wrestlers of all time – Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin – played heels. See, heels thrive because shocking behaviour makes for good TV. Their villainous persona gives them a lot more flexibility with what they can do or say, there’s a facet of human nature that respects that, as Donald knows all too well.  

Consider now the pro wrestling character that is Donald J. Trump. He’s brash, boorish, rude, and rich – a typical ‘heel.’ Yet, like every other heel from McMahon to Steve Austin, it’s these very qualities that electrify his audience. Trump also creates characters out of his opponents: “Crooked Hillary”, “Sleepy Joe” and “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” to name a few. His supporters applaud when he antagonises these personas, much in the same way audiences applauded when Stone Cold Steve Austin filled Mr McMahon’s corvette with cement at Wrestlemania 19.  

Wrestling is less a display of strength and skill as it is of one’s ability to enchant audiences by working the mic. Hulk Hogan’s signature move was dropping his leg across his opponent’s chest. As wrestling moves go this isn’t too impressive, but few remember Hogan for his athleticism. Rather, audiences remember the vignettes that precede Hulk’s matches wherein he’d refer to his biceps as “12-inch pythons” and state, at length and in no uncertain terms, the nasty things he’d do to his opponent in the ring.  

Donald Trump also excels at mic work. He recognises that in politics, as with wrestling, competence comes second to bluster. It doesn’t matter how many real-world blunders he makes, so long as he can talk himself up and put his opponents down, audiences will stick by him.  

For two decades, 24-hour news cycles and the emergence of social media have reduced complex political issues to simple slogans. Multi-faceted topics surrounding race, history, and geopolitics are stripped down to fit snugly within a tweet, Instagram story, or half-hour cable news slot. The result? A feedback loop of never-ending feuds characterised by fierce rivalry, mud-slinging, and a fundamental lack of understanding or empathy between parties. In this media environment, character work and simple storytelling thrive.  

Donald Trump didn’t construct the political climate that makes his presidency possible. His decades of involvement with WWE merely allowed him to recognise elements of pro-wrestling within political discourse and play them to his advantage.  

All Trump did was tear away the veneer of sophistication covering what was otherwise a slugfest not far removed from the feuds settled by pay-per-view cage matches. This is how he ripped apart the competition during the Republican primaries. Why watch Ted Cruz try to act the macho pro-wrestler? With Donald, you have the real thing.  

Pro-wrestling is simple, that’s the heart of its appeal. It provides catharsis – feuding parties gear up for a fight, have it out in the ring, the loser is faux-pummelled into submission, and everyone goes home satisfied. This won’t be the case on November 3rd, and that’s where this WWE comparison ends.  

The pro-wrestlification™ of politics in the United States is damaging to discourse because it frames issues with a good/bad dichotomy that isn’t really there. The truth, as always, resists simplicity. Nevertheless, I’ll bet good money a wrestler is elected president within the next 10 years.  

God, I hope it’s The Rock. 

By Talisker Scott Hunter