On the Progress of Wrestling Theory in the Trump Era (and a Word About Our Stunning New Contributor)

I’ve given myself a bit of a complex about this moratorium on writing about WWE. It’s been great to force myself out of my comfort zone, seek out new wrestling to watch and figure out how to go about watching it and writing about it. The process has been slow and faltering, but highly rewarding. However, as a wrestling theorist, I simply cannot ignore a near monopolistic-sized chunk of the market that is my topic of focus. I have to keep my eye on it to truly understand the industry. Like it or not, WWE is highly relevant in the study of professional wrestling. HOWEVER, I simply cannot give WWE any benefit of the doubt that it’s artistic agenda has not been compromised under the influence of the Trump administration. In fact, I feel as though WWE, for the purposes of wrestling theory, must necessarily be considered a Trumpist agitprop troupe right now.

Trumpist agitprop. Sit with that strange rabbit hole of a concept for a minute. Imagine how weird things have gotten that I could even come up with such an idea: propaganda designed to agitate and motivate Trump’s ideologically-driven base. Truly we have devolved into a banana republic of magic realism in America. Look, I’m not suggesting there’s a conference room at WWE corporate headquarters where they’re actively concocting Trump propaganda on a whiteboard. In fact, I think they know not what they do. They’ve had too many concussions and can’t see the bigger picture. The Trump influence is simple in the air, and in their hearts. And the stories will tend to morph in that direction.

By all appearances, Donald Trump modeled his leadership style on the cutthroat corporate tyranny of Vince McMahon, and/or vice versa. (Think: “You’re fired!” Which is still going on today in both the Trump administration and the WWE.) He is in the WWE Hall of Fame for his run as a celebrity-turned-wrestling character (because while the N-word uttered in a private conversation gets you ejected from the HOF and erased from WWE history, apparently pussy-grabbing and other overt uncouth Trumpishness is just fine by the company’s standards), and the crony grifting is overt and unabashed, with Linda McMahon having donated $5 million to Trump’s campaign and being rewarded with a cabinet position for her loyalty. And of course there is this:

WWE makes no attempt to conceal or spin its loyalty to Trump, so we would be foolish not to interpret the company’s product as pwned in this bizarro political climate. Certainly some great things have happened since Trump took office—Bayley, Naomi, and Bray Wyatt have all finally held belts, for example—but for our purposes, everything WWE produces must be scrutinized right now as inherently suspect.

Take Ziggler vs. Apollo Crewes vs. Kallisto in the handicap match at Elimination Chamber. I was glad to see my discerning Twitter timeline erupt with ire over the subtle Trump agitprop scenario in this match. Ripped and ready, Apollo Crewes entered first with his dazzling smile, clearly positioned as babyface #1. Kallisto began his entrance as babyface #2, only to be ambushed by newly douchy heel Ziegler wearing pants that multiple tweeters identified as styled like a 4th of July can of shitty American beer: silver, with a subdued American flag design down one leg. So in essence, the black man showed up looking strong, prepared, and valiant, the Mexican came in and was unable to even cross the border (ahem) of the ring, because the blond American villain threw him against the wall (cough cough) of LED lights so he wouldn’t have to deal with two minorities at once. All this before the match even started.

That’s the literal story here. And the most troubling part was the crowd chanting “THANK YOU ZIGGLER” for his abysmal sportsmanship. I’m all for cheering heels and their dirty deeds, but why exactly did this warrant a thank you? Because Apollo Crewes smiles too much and that’s annoying? Because Ziggler finally came out as an ugly American and that’s relatable? Because they were glad to see the Mexican put in his place? I’m not clear, and to be honest, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the story leading up to the match to really make sense of it. But that also must have been the experience of many casual viewers whose eyes glaze over at the inner machinations of week-to-week midcard drama. The backstory doesn’t even really matter, because the spectacle of this match was overtly political and played out a Trump-aligned narrative before a crowd that seemed to appreciate it as such.

I’m also noticing a phenomenon of pre-existing stories that are morphing into Trump Era themes. Take this Triple H tweet, a precursor to his match with Seth Rollins at Wrestlemania:

When he’s not playing the role of benevolent NXT father figure, Trips is certainly prone to these periodic displays of grandiosity. He was always tooling around on a tank like a charismatic coup leader during his DX run. He entered at Wrestlemania two years ago all done up like Terminator and flanked by a squadron of Skynet-looking robots. Last year around this time he cut a promo casting himself as the deadly “Heads It’s Tails Just Call Me Lucifer” role in “Sympathy for the Devil”. He’s the king of kings. He doesn’t just play the game, he is The Game. This creator/destroyer god-king archetype is right in line with his career meta-narrative.

But now that the New Era has evolved into the Trump Era, archetypes like this require a deeper, more cynical scrutiny. I mean, one part of me appreciates the art Trips is making even more: he’s telling an amazing tale of absurdity that explodes the contemporary American political climate into carny-Shakespearean. Consider, main roster Triple H vacillates between shadowy corporate oligarch and this tyrannical, unaccountable, godlike politician who threatens to wreck and bury any wrestler who crosses him (and has the power to do it in a shoot way as well). We are certainly accustomed to seeing wealthy, powerful, and heartless characters emerge from obscurity and slide right into positions of increasingly checkless power. Triple H as creator/destroyer king is a character emblematic of our times, and a Shakespeare-caliber villain for embattled Seth Rollins to redeem himself against.

But what does it mean, that Triple H and WWE are doubling down hard on an all-powerful god-king authority figure like this in March 2017, after the New Era had seemed to dismantle the Authority paradigm? Who is the real Triple H: benevolent NXT Dad, shadowy corporate oligarch, or creator/destroyer king? Can we rely on heel/face alignments to illuminate the company’s true political intentions? (The aforementioned Ziggler/Crewes/Kallisto match would seem to suggest that we can’t.) Why is Triple H posturing as the creator/destroyer king in this historic moment, when the Trump administration is busting about the federal government like an unchecked bull in a china shop while it attempts to create reality of its ideological vision?

I am certainly reading tediously deep into this. Of course I am. And I’ll be honest, I’m not paying very close attention to WWE lately because I’m trying to watch other wrestling instead, so my analysis is perhaps not my strongest. But when I do consider WWE’s offerings, I feel like it’s necessary now not to let anything slide. What was once an escapist art form has begun to look like both a distraction and a manipulation from the shoot world it mirrors, and I can no longer pretend it doesn’t have shoot significance anymore.

Watching WWE right now gives me the same queasy feeling I get watching Leni Reifenstahl films. Leni Reifenstahl was a brilliant, daring artist and an amazing female role model, by the way (unfortunate Hitler association notwithstanding, of course!). The magnitude of the historical debacle in store for Trump and WWE is yet to be seen, but that Leni Riefenstahl feeling tells me I can no longer watch WWE without suspecting it of potentially damaging political puppetry. This isn’t even an issue of political stance, really—it’s a question of how to treat a pwned creative entity during a very precarious period of American history.

 

IN OTHER, MORE CHEERFUL NEWS! I hope you checked out the amazing post before this one from our new contributor J.J. McGee about the origins of the Steen/Generico. J.J. has plans to delve deep into the epic of Steen/Generico, and also to share an insider’s look at the culture of Japanese wrestling. Gif essays, people! We are so blessed to have J.J. on board!

Oh, and Happy Wrestlemania weekend! I only vaguely know who is on the Wrestlemania card itself, but I am positively giddy to check out Joey Janela’s Spring Break. I couldn’t catch it live, so no spoilers please! Here’s what got me so intrigued:

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