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Whither Trumpism? Wrestling, Marx and conjuring a new Red Scare
It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the 'bad' wrestler always being supposed to be a Red).
Roland Barthes, The World of Wrestling
[Barthes] argued that for the stories in wrestling to be successful the villain – or 'heel', in industry parlance – must be the image of a "perfect bastard".
Liam Hainey, Vice
“The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess.” opens French philosopher Roland Barthes’ 1957 essay, “The World of Wrestling.” Given that wrestling is a form of theater and not a sport, Barthes illustrates the function of the “heel” (bad guy) in professional wrestling. The heel’s villainous actions serve to accentuate a good vs. evil conflict with the “face” or “babyface“ (good guy), who plays the morally upstanding hero. Faces are polite to referees, respect the rules and help elderly ladies cross the street. Heels are narcissistic cowards who think they could shoot someone in the middle of an avenue and get away with it. These conflicting archetypes fuse into the intense dramatic morality plays that wrestling needs to fill the void of not actually being a sport.
Heels break rules and refuse to submit to authority. The heel’s primary job is to arouse emotional crowd reactions--booing, hissing and screaming—as his devious actions put the order of the cosmos in doubt. Sides are chosen and some fans inexplicably take the heel’s side for a while. Arguments erupt and tension surges towards a crescendo. Release arrives as the heroic face decisively dominates the cowardly heel into submission. The emotionally spent audience decamps, relieved that all is well again in their world.
Heels never accept defeat--always insisting the match was rigged. By definition the match actually WAS rigged, but the heel’s morally repugnant persona persuades the audience to suspend disbelief. The audience is repulsed towards believing the constructed good-guy-winning-fair narrative and rejects the villainous heel’s factual claims of rigging. Fake trumps real in this all-too-human contest of fantasy over reality.
Heels break civil societal norms: one common trope is extravagantly flaunting fictional wealth with displays of Baroque overindulgence. This was the schtick employed by Gorgeous George, a superstar from the postwar years and the originator of the heel persona in wrestling. Reflecting the era’s more egalitarian and populist ethos, Gorgeous George villainously masqueraded as an effete overindulgent aristocrat. The symbol of George’s power was his flowing peroxide mane, meticulously fussed over and groomed by an entourage of beautiful women. A shameless self-promoter, George feigned germaphobia and would not enter the ring without a burlesque sanitary ritual of fumigating the wrestling ring being performed. Among the many who were influenced by George when crafting their own stage personae were James Brown, Muhammad Ali, and of course Donald Trump.
The heel will often attack the hero behind the referee’s back, and when caught, will relentlessly rail against the “fake” referee. Occasionally the cowardly heel stoops to physically attacking the referees. Crowds go wild on the rare occasions the referees fight back and body slam the heel. The heel’s shady actions cast moral light upon the often unscrupulous referees. As if wrestling would die in the dark without free referees. The audience internalizes the bizarre notion that fair referees exist within this fake spectacle of excess.
Needing to bring order to this odd mélange of fake and real, wrestling utilizes “kayfabe” to remain coherent as actions in the arena dart schizophrenically between the worlds of make-believe and reality. Kayfabe is the relentless staging of the fake as if it were real or true. Actors practicing kayfabe must always stay in character. To break kayfabe is to openly reveal the fakeness of the show. An example would be, if during a theatrical performance, an actress were to suddenly dropped her persona and start speaking her own normal voice and manner. Wrestlers are expected to maintain kayfabe, to stay in character, even in their private lives. An example of breaking kayfabe in wrestling would be news leaking of two hated rivals, a face and a heel, being pulled over driving together in the same car, or being seen drinking together in a bar after the match. Lindsey Graham’s recent fist bump with Kamala Harris was seen by some strident partisans as a political form of breaking kayfabe.
How does kayfabe apply to the US political system? Are elections there really as rigged as wrestling matches? Applying the concept of kayfabe to election campaigns could imply this. But with elections always featuring two political parties bought and controlled by an avaricious ruling class, why would anyone bother turning US elections into fake stage-managed events? No, the elections are real but elements of kayfabe are applied to US politics to encourage voters to suspend their disbelief that elections featuring two ruling class headliners could possibly mean anything. Just as wrestling is not a sport because both wrestlers are paid and stage-managed by the same bosses, can elections pitting two parties paid for and stage-managed by unitary ruling class really be considered democracy? Elections are then only “real” in that they reflect voter sentiment just as audience reactions to wrestling storylines do manifest public sentiment. US elections function is a way similar to Barthes’ analysis of wrestling:
The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.
Roland Barthes wrote his essay during the peak of the post-WW2 economic miracle, known in France as, “les trente glorieuses.” This translates into English as “the thirty glorious” (years). But it wasn’t just France, the entire Western world experienced a run of many Glory Years in the post-WW2 environment, the epoch of Gorgeous George. The years 1946-1975, were a time of working-class prosperity brought about by the implementation of Keynesian economics. Elites back then embraced the concept of noblesse oblige by allowing the conditions for near full employment and in providing a bountiful welfare state in both Europe and the US. For example, during this era California rolled out its public university system: a world class set of institutions which provided working class access to elite universities. During this period of prosperity social stability reigned. This stability is manifested in the lack of audience ambiguity during the wrestling spectacles that Barthes describes. Although intrigued by the heel’s devious antics, the crowd supports the hero (face), booing and hissing the dastardly heel on cue. Barthes explains that:
“It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the 'bad' wrestler always being supposed to be a Red).
Red here signifies a follower of Marx, not Trump. Wrestling producers by blending the specter of Marx into the villainous qualities of the heel created a hybrid; a Marxist heel. Using the heel’s malevolent character to embody this ideology can be dubbed “heeling Marx.”
Post-WW2, the forces of Marxism appeared to be marching on the “right side of history.” The Red Army had recently crushed Hitler’s National Socialism, gifting Stalin an eastern European empire and the gratitude of much of the world. China had just flipped red; as had half of Korea and Vietnam. Many other parts of the world seemed to be on the verge of being submerged in a red tide. To contemporary observers, the forces of Marxism seemed headed towards at least Eurasian if not global domination.
In response to this red wave, a chastised ruling class endeavored to save the West. Spooked by the red scare, Elites put capitalism on its absolute best behavior and the result was a economic flourishing within the “free world”. While direct Marxism was expanding and painting the globe red with its Eastward expansion, the Western correction was a form of “indirect Marxism” that fueled the Glory Years of capitalism in the West and cemented moral cohesion and peace between the classes.
Time moved on and the Soviet Empire collapsed. In the West individualist libertarian ideologies rose, the New Left cancelled class-based politics and the process of globalization was launched. Ruling class behavior regressed towards a parasitical elite urge to monopolize wealth and power. Without the disciplinary presence of a Marxist alternative to spook ruling elites into sharing the splendors of capitalism, the wealthy launched a tantrum of greed focused on concentrating wealth. Keynesian economics was replaced with liberal austerity. Economic nationalism was replaced by globalization. Socialism was reserved for the rich and occasionally for the very poor.
As factories starting closing during the 1990’s, something strange started happening in the world of wrestling. Almost imperceptibly at first, heels were becoming more popular! Crowds were turning against the morally upright faces and began rebelliously rooting for those despicable heel bad guys. The audiences began thumbing their noses at symbols of authority as globalization spread destitution among the Western working classes. Wrestling stage managers became more confused as their audiences were off-cue booing the good-guy wrestlers, and openly embracing the anti-establishment ethos of the heels. Wrestling officials were eventually forced to start scripting heel qualities into the personae of the good guy wrestlers. Globalization was heeling America and the fake theater of pro wrestling was empirically demonstrating this fact. The simple binary cis-moralities of the Glory Years were being replaced by a complex moral fluidity throwing the meanings of face and heel into flux. Fast forward to 2016, and heeling America was in acceleration, thanks to the Iraq War, Subprime Crisis, and an ever-increasing wealth and cultural chasm between the rich and poor.
“Five, 10 years from now — different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party,"
Donald Trump, May 25, 2016
Donald Trump has a long history promoting wrestling. He once appeared in a wrestling match scripted as a good-guy face but he flubbed his lines and ended up inadvertently projecting strong heel vibes instead. Nowadays in US politics, Trump plays the archetypical heel. In 2016, Trump carefully constructed his heel political persona. With the process of heeling America in full swing, the audiences fell head over heels for his schtick. He astutely packaged his showbiz fluff with a substantial working class-friendly political program which included worker scarcity measures combined with promises to end forever wars. He even mused about the GOP eventually becoming a worker’s party. Hillary Clinton attempted to play the good-gal face role but Trump’s relentless attacks succeeded morphing her into “Heel-ary.” In a battle of heels, the better heel won.
After his victory, the calls for worker scarcity and ending forever wars were pushed off into the shadows as the larger-than-life heel antics of Trump took center stage. Having a heel promote anti-ruling class policies makes it easier for many, even within the working class, to reject them as the mad ravings of a despicable heel. Trumpism’s policies were being undermined by Trump’s heel persona.
The resulting juxtaposition of bad with good means ruling class opponents of Trump were cast as the good guys: morally upstanding faces opposing the bad orange heel. In this alignment, the mainstream media plays the role of referee valiantly exhorting the heel to play within the rules of the spectacle. Both the media and the ruling class bask in a bright aura of decency and justice: the spectacle’s necessary negation of Trump’s dark villainous antics. Playing the heel may feel subversive, but systemically heelish excess simply serves to establish the bona fides of the ruling class. The heel plunges good policy proposals into shadow as the media gaze craves his vile image.
The beneficial impact a heel has on the establishment can be demonstrated by the wrestling concept of a “heel-face turn”: a bad guy turning good. The classic literary example of this trope is Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol. A heel to turn face by attacking a more evil heel. Spent, washed up heels seek redemption by verbally body slamming the reigning the heel-in-chief. George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and countless other neocon villains left the dark side and crossed into the light simply by denouncing Trump. Better still if the orange heel cowardly sneak attacks a lesser heel. John McCain was elevated from warmongering racist heel to ruling class sainthood through this gambit. War criminals grant themselves a strange form of presidential pardon every time they denounce the orange tyrant. One wonders what the reaction would have been had Ted Bundy lived long enough to issue a stern condemnation of Trump?
“Heels of the world unite” seemed at times to be Trump’s foreign policy: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Benyamin Netanyahou, and Jair Bolsonaro, these international pariahs all expressed varying levels of support for Trump. Subverting “Axis of Evil” type thinking is crucial for stopping forever wars but why not in the name of ending forever wars add Iran and Syria to this Coalition of Heels? Trump aligning with global heels only reinforces the heroic good-guy image of the hawkish foreign policy establishment, which is now salivating to launch a new war. It’s been nearly twenty years since the last real war. A ruling class narrative of “heeling America” has Trump performing a face-heel turn on US foreign policy, transforming the US from an international savior into an international heel in the eyes of our allies.
Trump’s attacks on China, while necessary and justified from an ideological point of view, create a reaction similar to his attacks on McCain. By most definitions, China is an arch-heel state. While Trump was denounced for his Muslims lists and Muslim bans, China built actual existing Muslim concentration camps. But Trump is an international heel as so his attacks against China give establishment figures cover for doing business in China. The NBA can promote “social justice” at home while keeping business as usual with a China basking in the moral light created by Trump’s heelish attacks.
The current pandemic offered a golden opportunity for Trump to make a dramatic heel-face turn. The scene was set for him to drop the anti-authority schtick and embrace the persona of a wise leader harnessing state power to save lives. But as if sent from central casting, Trump has proven to be a one-trick heel. And try as he might, Trump failed to bring Joe Biden to heel. Enough of the audience had grown tired of the heel’s antics for Trump to fail in his reelection bid.
To turn the GOP into an effective workers’ party, Trumpism without Trump has to turn away from these self-defeating spectacles of excess in two ways. Firstly, the next leader must reject the politics of the heel and instead play the role of a face. Necessarily this leader must take an anti-establishment stance, but the narrative and underlying images has to be that of a good-guy Luke Skywalker fighting an evil establishment empire. Tucker Carlson seems to fit this description. Political and media space will then be opened to Trumpism for the second requirement: a program of economic justice for the bottom fifty percent of the population.
To build a workers’ party, it’s vital to take an intellectual stance towards Marxism. To be sure, this in no way implies simply adopting Marxism. Given how many varied versions of Marxism exist, this would prove no easy task if attempted. No, the key is to critically analyze Marxism with an eye towards developing an ideological coherent Trumpism that can lead to the development of a GOP based workers’ party. The goal is the deployment of direct Trumpism to turn economic justice tide in favor of the working class. While far more likely to provoke repression, there is also a slight chance that fear of resurgent Trumpism—a second red scare—will prod the ruling class into changing their destructive ways.
Barthes in his essay contrasts wrestling with boxing:
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future.
A GOP workers’ party will have to abandon the self-defeating spectacles of excess that Trump started the movement with. The metaphor of boxing are more appropriate to a true workers’ party slugging it out against the plutocrats’ party. As boxing is a sport, a political confrontation between a workers’ party and a bosses party would be meaningfully democratic. But to get there, many a partisan box based on identity need subverting. Only with the battle is clearly drawn along economic lines can popular worker-first policies allow an emerging Trumpism to effectively partisan box the wealthy classes within the ring of class struggle.