After so much has been said and written about the American presidential election, there might seem little left to be add. But adding for adding’s sake is not why we’re republishing here what I wrote in the June 2016 Convivium. It’s because what I wrote then bears repeating now, as the question of the day is how so many could have so badly missed the Donald Trump phenomenon.
On Tuesday evening on TVO’s The Agenda, the estimable Steve Paikin convened a panel to discuss how TVO’s sort of people got everything so wrong. The panel, looking at “smug politics” took up the questions raised by Will Rahn of CBS news, who wrote after the election that most of the press corps was for Clinton, and therefore missed the real story of the election.
The conversation was measured and humble, with a frank acknowledgement that if half the voters are considered “deplorable” and, like Hillary Clinton’s campaign, no one even goes to Wisconsin to meet them, the media will miss the story. The conservative on the panel was Mark Towhey, former Chief of Staff to Mayor Rob Ford, and author of a book on the Ford mayoralty. It was his role to explain, as he did repeatedly during the Ford years, how so many voters could be so wrong in the eyes of those who are considered so influential.
What struck me was Towhey’s appeal to professional wrestling to explain the recent election. In professional wrestling, he said, there is the theatre in the ring, complete with outrageous statements and inflammatory storylines. But when the show is over, the performers share the same locker room, bunk in the same hotel, travel on the same bus. The show is, after all, a show. The problem in the recent election, according to Towhey, was that the show became the reality.
There is some truth to that. Some people recognized the show, and other mistook the show for reality. All of which is to be expected in a culture saturated in “reality shows” which deliberately blur the lines between the two. Last week, I cited here a quotation getting a lot of attention after the election, from a campaign profile of Trump in The Atlantic. Paikin quoted it again on Tuesday night, namely that “the press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
That’s the entire premise of professional wrestling. The audience takes the enterprise seriously enough as entertainment, willing to accept its premises, but not literally as an athletic contest or in the storylines it presents. It’s now called “sports entertainment” to express just that; it’s physically demanding to be sure, but not literally a sport.
It’s a safe bet the Ford voters were more inclined to watch professional wrestling than, say, tennis, which is why Towhey employed that analogy. The reporters who do watch tennis get outraged when they interpret literally the need to “suspend Muslim immigration” while the Trump voters hear that there is a problem with Islamic radicalization and something significant ought to be done about it.
It’s not an ennobling trend in politics, and one fervently desires that professional wrestling not provide the apt hermeneutic for presidential politics. One fervently desired many things contrary to fact in this past election, beginning with two entirely different candidates.
Saturday Night Live, faced with what they and their friends at CBS and the New York Times clearly judged to be a calamitous election result, had to decide how to open a comedy show after a national tragedy. So they reached back to what they did after the slaughter of 9/11 and opted for a song, with the character of Hillary Clinton singing a melancholy version of Hallelujah, the signature song of Leonard Cohen, who had died earlier in the week.
Cohen, though, was not the recently deceased cultural figure who best explained the recent election. That figure was Muhammad Ali, who bought the ethos of professional wrestling to mainstream popular culture. Ali certainly merited being taken seriously, but almost everything out of his mouth was not to be taken literally. The cultural moment that produced the victorious candidacy of a reality show star began with the rise of Ali, and the bestowing of respectability upon his act conferred by the mainstream American sports media, which discovered in him a most lucrative property. After the 2016 election, it is neither about the butterfly nor the bee, but rather the chickens, which have come home to roost.
Herewith what I wrote last summer:
Wrestling with Trump and Ali
The Calgary Stampede came and went last month without one of the traditions of the 1970s and 1980s – an international, star-studded professional wrestling card put on by Stu Hart of Stampede Wrestling. Every Friday night on the Stampede grounds, in the somewhat shabby Victoria Pavilion, Hart and his sons would stage Stampede Wrestling, but once a year, for the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” he will fill the old Corral, and then the Saddledome, with the biggest and the best. Andre the Giant was a regular in the 1970s. The one time I was old enough to go to the big show with my friends, it was Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy. The show was spectacular, but the crazed fans rather frightened me – might I turn into that? – and the standard passion of every boy who grew up in Calgary in the 1970s, professional wrestling, began to cool. Recently though, professional wrestling has come back, this time as presidential politics.
Our publisher, Peter Stockland, spotted it right away. Perhaps his Calgary years – as an adult, mind you – gave him a taste for the squared circle. At any rate, he has kept up with the professional wrestling game, and thinks that it explains a lot about Donald Trump’s appeal.
“The magic of professional wrestling in its halcyon days of the 1950s and early 1960s was its capacity to give the audience the confidence of being in the know,” Peter wrote this past spring, alerting me to the fact that even professional wrestling had experienced its share of civilizational decline. “Mad Dog Vachon and Gorgeous George were hybrid parodies of real life and genuine sport. The paying public got the joke, and brought laughing suspension of disbelief ringside. It knew the blood was fake yet was happy to be mystified as to how it got all over Abdullah the Butcher’s face. [Today’s World Wrestling Entertainment] fans, by contrast, come armed to the teeth with contempt. Their entire worlds, after all, are largely a function of pure character manipulation, heavily populated by phonies and fakes and baby faces who became heels from one week to the next. Nowhere was that more true than in ‘real’ professional sport, which the times have exposed as sunken in a venality more venomous than any old-style professional wrestler could have invented. Did you spend your childhood cheering for Barry Bonds? At least the Undertaker and Triple H never pretended to be anything other than oversized ’roid boys.”
“Enter The Donald,” Peter continues. “Trump, whose name could be that of a professional wrestler from any era, began flirting with WWE in the ’90s but became directly involved when McMahon staged a parody fight mimicking the New York real estate mogul’s feud with Rosie O’Donnell in 2007. That led to a fake war of words between the two billionaires that escalated to a fake challenge to fight, the signing of a fake contract and, ultimately, Trump bushwhacking McMahon from behind, body slamming him, and shaving the wrestling promoter’s head with help from Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
Fans of professional wrestling know that the trash talk, as we would call it now, is essential. In Calgary, it consisted of interviews with a pillar of the community and sports broadcaster Ed Whalen. Now the talking takes up a good part of the show. And, it appears, it is professional wrestling from which Trump takes his oratorical cues, not Churchill or Reagan.
“Watch Trump speak or, to use the word in its broadest possible sense, debate and you see the bombast, the braggadocio, the amphetamine-run-on hyperbole, the sentence fragmentation and non sequiturs that are a staple of, and no doubt lifted from, the style of post-match in-ring interviews,” writes Peter. “Even the downturn of his mouth when he humiliates an opponent is a simulacrum of the villainous wrestler’s disdain for the defeated opponent he has just left in a dazed and mewling heap. But more than just audio and visual effects are at work. Listen to the content, and you can hear the recycling of WWE levels of toxic cynicism between Trump and his supporters. As much as those who are appalled by Trump like to disparage his base for being stump-toothed racist idiots, does anyone seriously believe that he will build a wall the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border and force Mexico to pay for it? That he will round up and deport 12 million people? That he ‘likes’ the monster Vladimir Putin?
What is far more likely is that they believe his lies, flashy bits bobbing in the omnipresent swamp of political lying, at least are as emotionally satisfying as the staged sound of a metal chair hitting someone in the back of the head. No real harm, no real foul, and certainly none as debilitating as the damage done to them on an almost daily basis in a fraudulent, inherently untrustworthy world.”
Peter is right. It was not the cult of the CEO that gave us Donald Trump. Or the celebrity worship of our entertainment culture. Or the world of reality television which, in a startling inversion, involves not actors pretending to be real people, but real people acting how they think actors would pretend to be real people. Donald Trump has brought professional wrestling to politics. And in a year where Wrestlemania had more people attend in person than the Super Bowl, it is a potent force.
As persuasive though as Peter’s analysis is of Trump’s professional wrestling ethos, his reference to Gorgeous George points us to a trend in our culture which is deeper than just one presidential election cycle. The death of Muhammad Ali had me revisit the life of a man in which there was much I admired. Yet as I watched more of the old Ali video, I recognized the father of the trash talking culture that Trump has introduced to politics. Perhaps that’s because Trump and Ali have the same rhetorical grandfather – Gorgeous George, the professional wrestler.
Ali himself was man of principle, courage and generosity. Yet above all he was the great showman, and much of the show was not fit for mature audiences. He was insulting and offensive, which was widely excused by his wit. He shamelessly exploited the distinction between the “light-skinned” and “dark-skinned Negro” with vicious verbal assaults on his fellow black boxers. Ali’s great friend and ally in civil rights, the broadcaster Howard Cosell, was eased out of Monday Night Football in 1983 for an off-hand and innocent remark. He had called a black football player a “little monkey” (a term he had used for a white player before). Eight years earlier, Ali spent months deriding Joe Frazier as a “gorilla”, greeted not with outrage but widespread hilarity.
Ali realized just in time that there was plenty of room in popular culture for playing the braggart, the buffoon and the bully. He adapted his act from Gorgeous George, the professional wrestler, and spread abroad the theatrical premise of pro wrestling, that one could be maximally outrageous without consequence, everything being scripted.
“Where do you think I would be if didn’t know how to shout and holler and make the public sit up and take notice?” wrote Ali (then Cassius Clay) in Sports Illustrated before his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston. “I would be poor, for one thing, and I would probably be down in Louisville, my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yes, suh’ and ‘no, suh’ and knowing my place.”
“I’ve said some pretty insulting things about Liston, but I’ve done that mostly to get people talking about the fight,” wrote Clay, lifting the curtain on the act. “I said to myself, How am I going to get a crack at that title? I knew I’d have to start talking about it – I mean really talking, screaming and yelling and acting like some kind of nut. I would be like Gorgeous George, the wrestler, who go so famous by being flashy and exaggerating everything and making people notice him. You can see the way it turned out – just the way I wanted it too.”
That was Ali before he won the title from Liston. It was not an old man reminiscing about the extravagances of his youth. No, Ali told everybody what he was doing – the mania, the insults, the bragging – ahead of time. It was a show, but just like professional wrestling, it attracted no less a devoted following for everyone knowing that it was mostly fake and only partly real. None of that takes away from the admirable episodes in Ali’s long life, but neither do they absolve the toxins Ali brought into American culture, and derivatively into America’s body politic.
In his final months, Ali objected to Trump’s policy of temporarily halting all Muslim immigration into the United States, but the policy came in a package he would have recognized – inflate a fault, trash a character, promise an outlandish response. And when anyone has the temerity to raise a question, the response is the same: I am the greatest of all time! Or, as it is said today: I am going to make America great again!
Ali is dead, but the bridge he built between the culture of professional wrestling and mainstream culture is sturdy and standing. Donald Trump is only the most notorious to cross it. Ali’s memorial did not include Donald Trump, but oddly enough for a ceremony presided over by Muslim clergy, did include Bill Clinton and Billy Crystal. I caught some of it, but in the parts I saw no one reached for Shakespeare. In fairness, none won at a funeral reaches for this: The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
That, I fear, is Ali. He did much good, little of it understood by those who praise him most, and who are most unlikely to emulate his willingness to sacrifice for his faith and his politics. But the evil he did – the self-absorption, the arrogance, the vanity, the insults, the cruelty, the wasteful extravagance – lives on, going from strength to strength, perhaps even to the White House. Muhammad Ali, should he be afflicted with observing from beyond what he partially wrought, is unlikely to rest in peace. And somewhere, perhaps on the undercard of some show in the underworld, Gorgeous George is having a long, long, last laugh.