Young Americans! WrestleMania 23 airs on Pay-Per-View this Sunday, 01 April. Be sure to cast your boo!
In February 1988, before a television audience of millions, the irredeemably evil Andre the Giant stole the World Wrestling Federation heavyweight championship from virtuous superhero Hulk Hogan. Hogan was not pinned; he clearly lifted his shoulder well before the one-two-three. Still, the referee made the count, and the timekeeper rang the bell.
The more dedicated and ambitious journalists of the day would eventually discover that loyal WWF referee Dave Hebner had secretly been replaced by his evil twin brother, Earl. In the meantime, those in attendance and outraged viewers watching from home knew that Andre had not legitimately defeated their “Real American” hero, but the wicked Giant was nonetheless awarded the championship.
Having already seen Optimus Prime slain at the hands of Megatron but two years prior, the youth of America felt something die inside at this latest injustice, which goes some considerable distance toward explaining why they frankly couldn’t care less when, 12 years later, the most farcical presidential election in American history concluded with a theft even more implausible, ridiculous, and embarrassing than the one perpetrated by Andre the Giant.
Ever notice news is staged like TV wrestling shows, with Reagans and Khaddafis cast as cartoon villains and heroes?—Dead Kennedys
Today, young Americans have largely abandoned pro wrestling, with ratings for World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship RAW series plummeting in recent years until they’re hardly more encouraging than the latest voter turnout statistics. The time has come to admit to ourselves that young America’s polite indifference towards partisan politics and the wrestling industry stems from the uncomfortable but increasingly undeniable fact that the two have grown indistinguishable from one another.
Skeptical? Then dig, if you will, the picture: A pair of unconvincing actors square off in a heated debate, reading from clumsy, cliché-filled scripts, only pretending to disagree, while everyone in the audience knows who’s going to win ahead of time. Now riddle me this: have I just described two wrestlers, or two politicians?
With its merciless, cutthroat in-fighting and its disgusting tendency to manipulate consumers by pandering simultaneously to their ignorance, fear, and sentimentality, the modern American political landscape resembles nothing so much as an every-man-for-himself steel cage brawl on a late-night wrasslin’ show. Meanwhile, power-mad wrestlers like Triple H and Hulk Hogan (who recently admitted during a radio interview that he refused to appear at April’s Wrestlemania 23 because he found McMahon’s suggested compensation inadequate) are accused by wrestling’s most critical fans of abusing their “political power” backstage, while underhanded politicians are said to “fight dirty” with their smear campaigns, which often have all the eloquence and insight of the self-aggrandizing threats and taunts of a professional wrestling interview.
Specifically, could California’s gubernatorial recall election of 2003 have been any more absurd as an over-the-top-rope Battle Royal? Was the Kennedy family, with its surface charisma obscuring severe dysfunction, anything but the political equivalent to wrestling’s Von Erich, Hart and McMahon clans? Would it surprise anyone at this point to discover that the puppeteer pulling Bush’s strings wasn’t Cheney or some shadowy political insider, but instead WWE CEO Vince McMahon?
Actually, it would surprise me, because Vince McMahon isn’t devious enough for the world of politics. McMahon is a dangerously perverted turd of a human being, make no mistake; among other fetishes and personality defects, he has taken in recent years to pulling down his pants and forcing wrestlers to kiss his bare ass on live television. Still, you could argue that at least McMahon pays these poor bastards, that each wrestler ultimately chooses to pucker up, that any one of them could decide to quit rather than suffer such an indignity. You’d be right, of course, just as you’d be correct if you suggested that the paychecks these wrestlers receive for joining Vince McMahon’s Kiss My Ass Club bear a striking thematic similarity to Bush’s $300 tax cut of 2001.
Politics is the art of controlling your environment. –Hunter S. Thompson
What elevates McMahon above your average politician is his willingness, indeed his eagerness to own up to his own inherent nastiness as a human being, whereas presidential candidates invariably promote themselves as concerned Good Guys, politely but firmly insisting that they’re towing the moral line (training, saying their prayers, and taking their vitamins, as Hulk Hogan used to say.) And while we all know better, we still boo and cheer whoever we’re programmed to boo and cheer.
Not so with wrestling fans; Vince McMahon’s heavy-handed story mandates be damned, wrestling fans boo or cheer whoever they want to boo or cheer. Admittedly, this might have less to do with cleverness or some sort of playful defiance on the part of the wrestling fanbase and more to do with the fact that wrestling is simply more accessible than politics, and thus better equipped to accommodate a postmodern, subversive approach on the part of its followers. After all, wrestling’s violence and humor are painted in such broad strokes that even a lobotomized hamster could follow along, and its histrionic announcers are always on hand to spoon-feed the (relatively) subtler nuances of the action to the audience at home.
Certainly newscasters are no less condescending than wrestling announcers, but there’s also a deliberate distancing act on the part of the news media in the United States. There’s seldom any effort to provide factual context to the latest soundbites; it’s as if those who produce the news do not want the mainstream audience to understand what they’re watching. Country singer Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” comes to mind: “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.”
Politics and pro wrestling also share a rich history of callously co-opting pop cultural trends in order to add a veneer of respect or relevance to their own sad proceedings. Highlights from the comically inept history of this phenomenon include the MTV “Rock n’ Wrestling” craze of the ‘80s, Run DMC’s “Wrestlemania Rap”, Bill Clinton’s Fleetwood Mac campaign theme, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s masturbatory pillaging of his own cinematic oeuvre for silly political catch-phrases and soundbites.
Most relevant to our discussion today, however, would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s presidential convention cameos of 2000. And who, you might be wondering, did The Rock endorse? Point of fact, he appeared at both the Democratic and the Republican conventions, and his speech somehow managed to win over both audiences. Is this a testament to The Rock’s versatility, or to the fact that Democrats and Republicans, like WWE’s dual Raw and SmackDown! brands, are in fact one crayon parading about in two wrappers?
Aside from all the blood spilled, spinal damage, and steroid abuse, all that really distinguishes pro wrestling from politics is that someone who excels at wrestling might eventually earn our admiration, either for their athleticism or their storytelling prowess (if I could choose any 10 storytellers with whom to discuss the finer points of the craft, you can bet that high on my list would be Bret “Hitman” Hart, who often managed to fool me into forgetting that his matches were not “real”.) There have been politicians I’ve (reluctantly, begrudgingly) admired, but everything I respected about them was precisely what made them lousy politicians.
Consider Howard Dean and Ralph Nader; two intelligent men who are both unable to recognize that one simply cannot say honest or provocative things on the political battlefield if one wants to actually win the sought-after office. Or perhaps they know good and well that this is the case, and they are simply too reckless or defiant to care.
Jesse Ventura is of this same misfit mold, and while a valued Monteland correspondent who actually lived in Minnesota during Ventura’s reign has cautioned me against even casually endorsing the man who once went by the nickname “The Body” (for it seems that Ventura neglected to actually, well, govern during his stint in office), we all know that politics is no longer about what you accomplish in office but rather what you say while in office; much as wrestling is more about manufacturing catch-phrases than athleticism or storytelling.
Ventura’s intelligence might be up for debate, but give him this: the man never seems to care whose ire he raises. Had Al Gore worried less about angering elements of the public back in 2001, we wouldn’t have to endure his ongoing public relations efforts, which call to mind the familiar redemptive arc of a wrestling villain desperate to win back fan, er, “voter” approval.
Liberals and conservatives alike still delight, seven years after the fact, in blaming (or crediting) Ralph Nader with mortally compromising Gore’s momentum during the 2000 election. But really, wrestlers and politicians both are at their most charismatic and effective when they forego their tiresome scripts in favor of being true to themselves. In one of the half dozen or so late-90s videocassettes chronicling the astonishing popularity of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Austin himself confirmed that all the industry’s most successful superstars had simply created “characters” who were really just exaggerated self-portraits.
In politics, alas, such honesty can only occur when there is nothing to lose. Had Gore shown a fraction of the resolve, confidence, or charm in 2000 that he’s shown in recent months, he might have won the election. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he might have won by a wider margin. Either way, Gore chose instead to play it safe, to channel his own opponent rather than, say, Jay Bullington Bulworth. He stuck to the script, in other words, convinced that what Democrats wanted was a stolid, sexless, robotic yes-man trumpeting the conservative ideology. Was it Nader’s fault Gore lost the election? Hardly. And I’d wager that WWE CEO Vince McMahon would summarize that political fiasco with but three words: “Gore. Screwed. Gore.”
Apparently, Gore has learned his lesson (now that he has nothing to lose.) You see, Hunter S. Thompson once suggested that, “You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics,” and just this February, An Inconvenient Truth producer Laurie David was quoted in The Washington Post describing Gore: “He’s a superhero now.” The title of the piece in question? “Al Gore, Rock Star”. Indeed, type those four words into Google’s search engine and you’ll be rewarded with an index of no fewer than 1.5 million hits.
While a wrestler whose personality is dull has no hope of achieving mainstream success, Gore proves that a determined politician can at least convincingly pretend to be cool. Whether he decides to let his carefully cultivated hipster status carry him to the White House in 2008 remains to be seen. Either way, it can be assumed that the young will respond with a collective shrug. In the meantime, the inevitable result of the increasing similarities between wrestling and politics is clear, and it should hardly be surprising by this point that the only politician to have recognized it thus far was also once a wrestler. I leave you with the prophetic vision of one Jesse Ventura:
“We need to put a wrestler in the White House in 2008.”