ROCKY: "Why'd you get so crazy on me out there?"
HULK HOGAN (THUNDERLIPS): "That's the name of the game."
— Rocky III
How fitting it is that professional wrestling is turning to partisan politics at the same time partisan politics has descended to professional wrestling.
Last week attention focused on Daniel Harnsberger, a Richmond real-estate agent who wrestles as The Progressive Liberal. It's a great schtick, and Harnsberger has fun with it. "I know how you stupid Trump voters think," he says in one video. "Allow me to illustrate: 'Dur-dur-dur, I love coal. Dur-dur-dur, I love mountains.'"
This makes Harnsberger a natural "heel," as they say in the business: the bad guy in a match, who squares off against the good guy, known as the "face." Generalizations are dangerous, but it's probably fair to say a Venn diagram of the pro-wrestling-fan demographic and the progressive-liberal demographic shows little overlap.
Thing is, Harnsberger really is a progressive liberal. When he says Bernie Sanders would make a great secretary of state and Donald Trump is a con man, he means it.
Hence Harnsberger is acting out a role, but not entirely. He is an entertainer, but he is also making a point.
The same holds true for a lot of people. It certainly holds true of cable news networks, which mimic the pro-wrestling format by having, or at least strongly implying, a good side and a bad side. On Fox, Trump is the face and liberals are the heel. On MSNBC, the roles are reversed. But the script reads much the same.
The same goes for entertainers such as Samantha Bee and Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson. And the guests who appear on their shows. Sometimes the guest is the heel. Sometimes he or she is another face, brought on to tag-team the other side. Either way, the straw men always get the stuffing beat out of them.
The personalities are playing roles, but the roles are not entirely imaginary; they are simply made-for-TV exaggerations, and when one of the characters makes a point, he or she is also stating an actual belief—albeit one that might be stripped of all nuance and doubt for the sake of audience loyalty.
Political campaigns increasingly resemble pro wrestling, too: The rivalries are theatrically exaggerated, the rhetoric over-the-top. Every candidate is always "the most extreme" liberal or conservative ever to run for the office, according to his or her opponent. Every election is always "the most important" in our lifetime, according to all sides. Everything is hyped almost to the point of parody.
In this world, then, perhaps we should not be surprised that Donald Trump has done so well. Nor should we be surprised that he has refused to inhabit the role of president in the manner of previous presidents, by assuming a mantle of gravitas and greatness. He already is playing a role that works quite well for him.
Trump's antics look absurd in the traditional political realm, but they fit the world of pro wrestling perfectly. His ridiculously bombastic boasts about his own greatness are a standard part of the pro-wrestling repertoire. The puerile, high-volume insults he hurls at his chosen targets also are a regular element of any WWE show. His frequent falsehoods are perfectly natural in a medium where everything is fake to begin with.
On Sunday his act reached its apotheosis: Trump tweeted an old video of himself at a pro-wrestling match pummeling someone. In the new version, a CNN logo is superimposed on the victim's face. Many in the media were predictably, and probably theatrically, outraged by what they saw, or claimed to see, as an incitement to violence. But Trump's fans think his offensive tweets are hilarious.
In 1989, to avoid the regulations imposed on boxing, professional wrestling admitted it was all just a big act: not real wrestling, but merely a scripted show. A few fans might think the fights are real, but just about everybody is in on the joke.
The worrisome thing about Trump's schtick, by contrast, is that he might actually believe it.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.