by Tenzan Eaghll
I don’t know if Donald Trump is a sexist, racist, misogynist, bigot, or even if he is a neo-fascist, but he sure played one in this year’s election. Just like the World Wrestling champion Hulk Hogan, who presented himself as a raging patriot out to destroy all traitors and foes who challenged his vision of America, over the past year and a half Trump played the role of an American hero to crowds of supporters, promising to destroy all corrupt enemies and forces of globalization. Of course, to his detractors, the role Trump played was more akin to the World Wrestling champion Rick Flair, the pompous and arrogant millionaire who cared only for his own reflection, and they can’t imagine this orange horror clown in power, but in both cases we are dealing with stereotypes that Trump himself gave us; he presented himself as both a political savior and a bigot. At the moment, I think it is fair to say that none of us know how Trump will act once he is in the White House―it is unclear whether he will continue to race bait and engage in demagogic activities, or whether he will try to appeal to a broader portion of the electorate by toning down his rhetoric―but what is clear is that Trump was successful in the political arena precisely because he lent himself to these divisive and clichéd interpretations. In this year’s election Trump created a spectacle of good vs. evil that his supporters and detractors ate up with glee, and American politics will never be the same. Formerly, the American presidency was always held by elected officials or generals and one measly scandal could sink a candidate. From now on, star power and scandal may be what fuels American presidential candidates to victory. After Trump, it may be the candidate who presents the most grandiloquent form of truth that is granted power, not the candidate with the best policies or upstanding moral character. American politics has entered an age of spectacle.
In Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, he clearly articulated the power of spectacle in American culture when he wrote about the difference between wrestling and boxing. Whereas boxing is a sport based on training, talent, and personal excellence, American wrestling is more akin to Greek drama and bullfighting, and doesn’t even deserve to be called a sport. Boxing is about a fair contest between evenly matched opponents, controlled rules, and fairly judged decisions, whereas wrestling is about emotion, dazzling lights, and sharp contrasts to shock the audience. Boxing is a sport where you train to compete for many years and with clearly defined rules, but wrestling is about showmanship, popularity, and breaking all the rules for entertainment. Moreover, in boxing the winner is determined by training and form, but in wrestling neither of these ultimately matter, as victory is given to the opponent who can best muster the most passion and command the spectacle of images. As Barthes writes,
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.
As one political commentator noted last year, Trump’s success in the political arena has been marked by his ability to campaign like a wrestler fights. While all of his opponents were engaged in a skilled game of political boxing, he was engaged in the spectacle of wrestling, and this was true both in the Republican primaries and in the general election. All of his opponents thought this was a contest of excellence, skill, and training, but Trump treated it like a classical drama or an endless cage-match. And while all of his opponents tried to keep the fighting clean and obey the rules, hoping for a fair decision, Trump relied on dazzling emotion, sharp acerbic comments, and surprise. As his opponents went high, he went low. With this strategy―whether it was intentional or not―Trump demonstrated that in modern American politics what counts now is not a code of ethics or playing by the rules, but dominating the news cycle with showmanship, circus, and games. He commanded the media by playing to the political passions and fears of his supporters and detractors, not logic or facts, and this, more than any other reason, is why he bested his opponents. I would suggest that the sexist, racist, misogynist, and bigoted form these passions and fears took is secondary to Trump’s larger goal: to win the presidency through shock and awe. Trump began his campaign with a clear message, “make America great again,” and he constantly drew stark, comic-like contrasts between himself and his opponents to construct his vision of America. For his supporters, this was a matter of calling a spade a spade and making evil intelligible, and for his detractors it was simplistic at best and neo-fascist at worst, but from the perspective of strategy it was all part of the spectacle.
For instance, in the primaries, when Trump was up against Jeb Bush and the latter challenged him on policy and character, Trump simply ridiculed him and called him “low energy,” upending the GOP frontrunner in the process. Or in the general election, when Hillary dominated him with facts and figures during the debates, he just repeatedly lied and said “wrong” into the microphone. All the pundits were aghast at these techniques and usually gave the debates to Hillary, but Trump was the one who grabbed the headlines, for good or ill. Moreover, whereas his opponents like Jeb and Hillary spent hundreds of millions on advertizing, he sent out free midnight tweets that dominated the headlines for days at a time. Of course, you can call this demagoguery and bemoan the demise of the political, but it worked because American politics is no longer a boxing skilled-based practice that takes place on a debate stage, but a 24h wrestling match that is determined by media coverage. Everything in American culture lends itself to this spectacle, from McDonalds to Twitter: consumption is determined by images that can be packaged with ease and brevity, not nuance and complexity.
As Barthes suggests in Mythologies, the power of wrestling in America lies precisely in the immediacy of its signification. In contrast to boxing, everything in wrestling takes on an absolute simplicity and clarity. In boxing, signification is wrapped up in the overall factors of the contest; victory is not determined by spectacle but trainers, arm reach, previous fight experience, endurance, etc; it is a sport of scientific precision. In wrestling, in contrast, you can often tell who is going to win by simply looking at the dress of opponents or the emotion that accompanies their action. The winner is usually the most masculine, the strongest, and the most quintessentially American bred hero. He is the one who not only hits his opponent within the ring, but outside of the ring as well, using and breaking every possible rule to his advantage. Remember that Hulk Hogan became World Wrestling champion in 1984 by beating the Iron Sheik, and you didn’t even have to watch the match to know that Hogan was going to win. In the world of wrestling there is no way an Iranian can beat a real American hero because we are not dealing with skill but spectacle; we are dealing with a world of flattened signification where white males carry the banner of truth. As Barthes writes, this is why the bodies and costumes of wrestlers are so important, as they determine an ideal understanding of things raised above the ambiguity of everyday happenings. In this world of images, signs correspond to causes without contradiction:
The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight. But this seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in a gesture. The different strata of meaning throw light on each other, and form the most intelligible of spectacles. Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious.
In a similar manner, Trump won by playing into every conceivable stereotype. On a personal level, he played the role of a rich business man with a beautiful young wife, so you never once saw him out of his suit and rarely without a beautiful blonde to support him (Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, etc.). Often politicians take off their blazers and roll up their sleeves to look like ordinary working folks, but Trump never once took off his blazer or that dopey power tie. This is comparable to the fact that you never saw Hulk Hogan without his yellow shorts and his Hulkamania headband; when you are playing a stereotype you must always look the part. On a political level, Trump based all his ‘policy decisions’ by using preconceived stereotypes of Mexicans, Muslims, women, and most importantly, his opponents. With Trump, we were always dealing with an absolutely flattened form of signification, and the one he made about Hillary Clinton is the one that won him the election: “Crooked Hillary.” This is a wrestling name, make no mistake about it, and it is meant to garner an immediate emotional response in both her supporters and detractors.
By playing the role of a wrestler battling forces of evil in an attempt to make America great again, Donald trump turned himself into an object of adoration for his supporters. He separated good from evil in clear and straightforward terms that caused many liberals to gasp and shudder, but it made his supporters fall in love with him because it made justice intelligible. As Barthes suggested, this is how gods are made:
When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship.
In 2016 we tend to think of wrestling as passé and as an irrelevant spectacle of excess, but it is important to recognize that it beautifully expresses the nihilism of contemporary culture. In the future, I think we will have to get used to seeing stars and scandal driving presidential elections, not moral character or public policy, because it is the former which generates spectacle and commands the 24h news cycle. Get ready for the campaigns of Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and George Clooney. The age of political boxing is a relic of American history, it has been replaced by sound bites, stereotyped candidates, and twitter wars… wrestling has triumphed.
Tenzan Eaghll received his Ph.D. from the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, in 2016. He is currently an English Instructor at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Bangkok. For his publication and contact information see: https://utoronto.academia.edu/TenzanEaghll