after all, it’s only theater: on Trump, wrestlemania & evangelicals

The first time I remember seeing Donald Trump on television, I was 9 years old watching Wrestlemania.  It was many years before Trump ever took part in a wrestling storyline, “feuding” with WWE founder Vince McMahon—he was just a fan and wealthy patron of professional wrestling, then…going on soon after to host Wrestlemania IV and V at his casino.  These were the days of the villainous Honky Tonk Man smashing his guitar over the heads of unsuspecting opponents, of George the Animal Steele eating the stuffing out of the turnbuckle, of Macho Man Randy Savage delivering the flying elbow off the top rope, and of the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase attempting to “buy” the WWF title.  Jake the Snake Roberts carried his python to the ring, Koko B. Ware had his parrot on his shoulder, and Brutus the Barber Beefcake carried scissors to cut the hair of his opponents whenever he rendered them unconscious with his sleeper hold.  In short…Hulkamania was running wild.

It was entertainment, then, the closest thing we had to the Roman Colosseum.  Stereotypes abounded, from the “redneck” Hillbilly Jim to Virgil the black subservient; Kamala the “wild savage” cannibal from Uganda to Akeem “the Dream” (a white man with an affected “brotha” accent”), to the nationalistic storylines between foreign nemeses like the Iron Sheik against patriots like Hacksaw Jim Duggan or Sgt. Slaughter. But wrestling was a glorified cartoon then.  However problematic some of the characters would be now, it had a light touch by today’s standards. 

The content became darker and more hyper-sexualized in the years after my childhood, taking the mythology of Wrestelmania into more disturbing places in our collective consciousness.  But all along, professional wrestling dramatized our search for meaning.  The mythology that emerged was an important one for white America.  From Chris Hedges’ underrated, brilliant masterwork of prophecy, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

The bouts are stylized rituals. They are public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge.  The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drives crowds to a frenzy. These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives. The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for high energy pantomime.  And the most potent storyline tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement to a heartless, tyrannical corporate employer. For most, it is only in the illusion of the ring that they are able to rise above their small stations in life and engage in a heroic battle to fight back.

 Indeed it may be that professional wrestling is the only thing that might make sense of the three-ring circus that is Donald Trump’s first week in office.  Professional wrestling is a world that succeeds only insofar that it successfully blurs the line between truth and reality.  Fact and fiction are not categories in wrestling—it is a colorful entire alternate universe that brings back viewers every week eager to suspend reality.  There is no true or untrue; the only test that matters is whether or not the wrestler can sell the gimmick.  A popular “face” can turn into a “heel” at any moment, or a “heel” into a “face,” but even those categories—of good guys and bad guys, matter less than they used to. 

Yes, some of the familiar tropes are still there that pull on populist stereotypes—where the good guys are American patriots, and the bad guys may still be one-dimensional cartoon characters who are seen as evil precisely because they seem unlike us.  But this is the era of the heel, the antihero, in which often those who behave the most badly may be the most celebrated.  We learn to love roguish antiheroes who were not hemmed in by the “rules.”  Hedges notes that “the referee, the only authority figure in the bout, is easily disputed and unable to administer justice…The failure to enforce the rules, which usually hurts the wrestler who needs the rules most, is vital to the storyline…The system of justice in the world is always rigged. It reflects, for many who watch, the tainted justice system outside the ring.”

 This is the world that gave birth to Donald J. Trump—not the real estate mogul precisely, but the entertainer.  He puzzles people who attempt to care his speeches—in style, content, cadence and character—to other political figures.  But Trump speeches self-aggrandizing speeches and manic feuds are no mystery at all to anyone familiar with professional wrestling…it’s not Ronald Reagan’s speeches that illumines Trump talk, but Ric Flair’s pre-match interviews.   This is where “The Nature Boy” would strut and “WOOO” and talk about all the ladies lining up to take a ride on space mountain, or say “to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man!”  “I’m Ric Flair! I’m the stylin’, proflin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss stealing son of a gun!” 

  Traditional American politics do not account for the open bluster and bravado, nor the seeming randomness of Trump’s feuds, nor the speed in which he can make an alliance or bury the hatchet if the feud no longer serves his purpose.  But professional wrestling fans understand—they understand all of it.  They understand the drama of the interview outside the ring, the hype and emotional connection that always turns out to be far more important than the actual matches—because it is in the flamboyant interview with Mean Gene that drama is kindled, tension is heightened, and stakes are raised.  Trash talking is not an impediment to success inside the squared circle; it is the key to it.  Wrestling fans have seen Hulk Hogan make an alliance with the Macho Man Randy Savage, to become the MEGA POWERS, only to have a nasty falling out and vicious feud. 

 This surely, at least in part, explains why Trump survived the gauntlet of would-be contenders in a protracted, contentious primary: Trump was doling out knife edge chops to the chest, like the Nature Boy; flexing like Lex Luger, preening around the ring like the Million Dollar Man.  His opponents set out to win the debate, while Trump set out to be the last man standing in the Royal Rumble. 

 While others in the primary were playing more or less by the rules of the collegiate wrestling team, Trump was hitting opponent in the nuts, insulting their wives, sneaking in the foreign object and grasping for the steel chair. If a blow landed, he bled hard and from the scalp, like the American Dream Dusty Rhodes.  Even watching the way he absorbed them was entertainment—like when Flair would be thrown into the turnbuckle in the corner, stagger three steps back toward the center of the ring, then flop on his face like a drunk. 

 As it is in professional wrestling, all the foreigners are simple-minded bad guys who are easy to understand.  You can speak in generalizations about Mexicans as murderers and rapists, just like you can speak of the savageness of “the Wild Samoans.”  Trump stirs up fears of refugees, the same way wrestling made us fear "the Iranian" Iron Sheik.  The only plot twist is that professional wrestling is a world in which the red scare never ended, whereas now it feels like Putin could be part of an alliance of rule-breaking, devil-may-care badasses we love to hate—like when the ultimate face Hulk Hogan became Hollywood Hogan and turned heel to join the “New World Order.”  Like any good wrestler, the heel is not afraid to give up the cheers, so long he doesn’t have to give up the crowds.

 I fear that this could read like some kind of a clever running metaphor for the Trump campaign, when I mean it much more on the head, much more literal than that: professional wrestling is precisely the world in which Trump really learned how to create a character broad and exaggerated enough, to capture the heart of the fan on the back row of the Pontiac Silverdome.  These fans, historically comprised of disenfranchised whites, are precisely the people he came to win over, and the exact people who put him into office.  And because in professional wrestling the best way to respect the fans is not to cater to them directly per se (the heels cater to no one), but to preserve the integrity of the story that gives their lives meaning. Trump is right to believe there is no character too broad, too loud or too large for us to believe in—the only rule is that you never break character

 Trump understands you don’t fill the stadium at Wrestlemania by playing small—they come to cheer or even boo larger than life warriors that emerge from the depths of our collective psyche.  He understands the cocktail of simmering rage in America’s heartland, our adolescent wet dreams of power.  He heard our cries, for a people’s champion.  He reached out and touched us, with well-manicured hands.  He made the long walk down to the squared circle, with Hulk Hogan’s theme song “I am a real American” playing in our heads, and he let us touch the hymn of his garment when he passed.  

 “Don’t worry,” the preachers told us.  “It’s all just theater.” 

From professional wrestling, to reality television

For Hedges, wrestling is our culture’s way of assuaging our fear of death, of holding out hope that we might, too, come out from among the unsung masses and triumph with the grace and fortune of our celebrities. Thus we “happily pay for the chance to suspend reality. The wrestlers, like all celebrities, become our vicarious selves. They do what we cannot.”  We believe in their mythology, because it gives us permission to create our own.  I will let the wrestlers be as large as they want, because deep down I believe that one day I, too, might be the next American idol—that one day he, might be me.   

 Professional wrestling then, in turn, gave birth to reality television as we know it—and thus to Donald Trump, reality television’s undisputed chief gladiator—it’s Goliath, it’s juggernaut.  Trump owns reality television the way Jimmy Swaggart owned a stage, prowling like a cat with a cordless microphone, sweat dripping from his brow.  He owns reality television with the confidence of Jerry Fallwell in the days of The Old Time Gospel Hour.  While faith never seemed to play a prominent role in his life historically, Trump intuitively understands that celebrity culture doesn’t need to battle religion for supremacy—it too easily co-opts religion, tames it, absorbs it.  Celebrity culture, according to Hedges, is “a hostile takeover of religion by consumer culture.”  The promise of celebrity culture is nothing less than immortality, utilizing the epistemology of deceit.  It is a culture based on sleight of hand and parlor tricks; like a leg-lengthening charismatic faith healer or again—the professional wrestler, selling his punches.     

 Hedges does not write of Trump in particular in 2009, but of reality television in general: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television show, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality tv show.”  Such a culture plunges us “into a moral void” where “no one has any worth beyond his or her appearance, usefulness, or ability to ‘succeed.’”  Now the “highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest, and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained.”

 In turn, our endless fascination with the idiosyncrasies, failures, foibles, and triumphs of our celebrities become, in Hedges’ useful turn of phrase,  “pseudo-events” that we call news.  The movement, for Hedges, is that as reality television reigns supreme, literacy declines precipitously.   “Functional literacy”, Hedges writes, “is an epidemic.” The Roman circus distracts us from what is really going in the world, and without developing the critical thinking and intellectual curiosity derived from long form reading and thinking, we soon cease to care enough to even raise critical questions.  Hence Trump himself famously doesn’t read books, so much.  Trump, like a wrestler, is an expert in making and sustaining myths—a task for which reading, quiet and reflection would inhibit his native skills, rather than enhance them. 

 One might think that if times become hard enough, the illusion might be broken.  But as Hedges demonstrates, the pain of reality serves to underwrite the illusory, rather than to undercut it.  Thus,

The worse reality become—the more, for example, foreclosures and unemployment sky-rocket—the more people seek refuge and comfort in illusions.  When opinions cannot be distinguished from facts, when there is no universal standard to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship, or in reporting the events of the day, the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe.  This is the real danger of pseudo-events and why pseudo-events are far more pernicious than stereotypes. They do not explain reality, as stereotypes attempt to, but replace reality. Pseudo-events redefine reality by the parameters set by their creators.

 The trivialities of these-pseudo events bombard us every waking second, events that have nearly nothing to do with what is actually happening in the world around us; making it nearly impossible for us to think critically about what happens outside this tightly-constructed, largely chosen alternate reality.

    high stakes performance art

I still have plenty of nostalgia for old school professional wrestling. It was an alternate reality that I loved.  Back in Charlotte, I used to get my hair cut at the same place as Ric Flair—where he would get that platinum blonde hair freshly dyed every two weeks.  I geeked out at every glimpse of him.  Once he walked into the neighborhood deli, with his pretty young newest wife, and I talked to him for a good while.  The Nature Boy slips in and out of character as naturally as breathing in his real life.  “WOOO!!!” As he puts the four horsemen sign in the air, while we wait to pay for our sandwiches.  When I told him what I did for a living, he turns to the pretty young wife and says, “You see there?! HE GETS IT. THE MAN OF THE CLOTH, HE GETS IT.”  He points to her and says, “Just like SHE gets it!” And promptly pulls a Ric Flair action figure out of her purse, and again the famous “WOOO!”  It was hilarious, and surreal.

 Now 67, I don’t know whether or not he was ever able to separate himself from the mythology that was created around him.  If not, that would make me deeply sad.  He never seems to fully retire, because through and through, he will always be a professional wrestler.  But what we have in the Oval Office right now, this particular love child of George Orwell and Vince McMahon, is not a fading entertainer, but the ostensible leader of the free world.   However business savvy he claims to be, he seems dangerously unable to sort fact from fantasy in the legend of his own making.  There is an unhinged quality that belies all the initial analyses, that it’s all just performance art.  It is indeed a kind of performance, but the stakes are much higher than that of a steel cage match.

 And yet I continue to hear the same kinds of things I heard during the campaign, “that a lot of this is just theater.”  As I write this now, President Trump has just signed the order to ban Syrian refugees entirely from the United States for now, and we are actually having to have a public conversation as to whether or not it is okay to offer preferential status to Christians over against Muslim refugees.   This is in the same week that we are having an actual conversation, as to whether or not torture is unethical.  This is a man voted into power by a wide, overwhelming margin among white evangelicals. 

 Making this move the same day that we remember the Holocaust—and the same day that Trump spoke supportively of the pro-life march—only underscores the cynicism at the heart of the entire enterprise.  Trump knows how to throw conservative Christians a bone, how to say shibboleth, while simultaneously introducing legislation that rightly makes womb-to-tomb pro-lifers scream.  It is brash and cynical exploitation of people who are motivated by sincere Christian convictions.  Those of us who have worked in the Middle East among refugees, especially with Syrians, know these are the most despised, victimized people in the world.  In the words of Bono, “I’m not dangerous…I’m in danger!”

The protest movement that almost was…and yet could be

The kind of Christianity I believe in—the kind of religion I aspire to—theoretically exists as radical protest movement to this kind of madness.  It is a religion of the cross, a religion not of escapism but of reality, a religion of the real—in short, a religion for the suffering.   Instead, many white evangelical church leaders have largely lined up with the prophets of Baal instead of with the prophets of God, leaping to the defense of a world they co-created.  We are more well-suited these days to rule than to begin a resistance; we exemplify these broader movements in popular culture more than we are exempt from them. 

Lacking any real spiritual formation, we continue to replace any semblance of Christian faith with the pragmatism of the empire.  Of course we believe torture can be useful—we have spent far more hours being discipled by 24’s Jack Bauer, than we have Jesus Christ.  We understand that in the real world, you have to make certain compromises to get things done—whether that is win a war, get the job, or growing a church.  We read the Sermon on the Mount, wink wink, nudge nudge, but anybody with our folksy homebrewed made in the USA God-given common sense knows well enough, you can’t actually live any of that out.

We are, after all, as beholden to all the same television as everybody else, as well as the same bad habits. We are shaped by the same pornography.  No wonder we so easily acquiesced to a leader who intuitively understands that news, in an illiterate, pornographic society—is not something you read, but something you get off on. News is not something to know, but something you feel

 The most egregious examples of the Church’s capitulation to Trumpism would seem to come from nationalistic evangelicals, whose beliefs are so synchronistic with the doctrine of AMERICA, as to raise the question as to whether or not it can rightly be called the same religion.  And yet I somehow find all of that less disturbing than that of the allegedly more enlightened white North American Christians who, have, in the way that privilege and comfort affords, been “above the fray” in a time of cataclysmic crisis for the most vulnerable people in our society.  These are the voices who have no word to offer in such apocalyptic times, other than “now, now…let’s just all settle down.”  They roughly have the same demeanor as Reverend Lovejoy on the Simpsons. 

We do not question those who use to any means necessary to rise to power— we study them and adapt their “leadership principles” into our sermons.  White evangelical church culture is not trained to resist leaders with narcissistic personality disorders, but to reward them.  We know the secret truth, hidden from generations of Christians before us who lived in less auspicious times—that Jesus is for winners.   

I come from the Pentecostal tradition, a radical peace church movement, that at least with regards to its historic witness and global character, could seem to be the Christian expression most well-suited to resist such principalities and powers.  But many North American Pentecostals have largely abandoned the scandals so central to our early history—of women preaching, multi-ethnic worship, the anarchy of the Spirit working in whosoever will through tongues, prophecies, and healing—for a seat at the evangelical table, which is now becoming the king’s table.  And we have waited far too long for this seat, to give it up just now. 

Many of us, like our evangelical brothers, now lack the apocalyptic urgency that gave birth to our movement, the cataclysmic fire of Sinai, of Pentecost, of the Azuza Street revival.  We are now bemused at the alarmist prophets of doom among us, because we have heard many so-called seers who cried wolf.  When we were on the underside of history, we longed for the day that Jesus would come and make things right.  But Jesus did not come, and is probably not coming anytime soon—after all, we just got comfortable, in the world as it is now given to us. 

  Why, the world is not coming to an end, child. After all Caesars come, and Caesars go.  We have the faith of the past and a hope of a future, a faith that does not allow us to get all mucked up with the pain of the moment we’re in.   We say all of this, with the faux-elegance of the nouveau riche—as a people too wealthy to be trampled by any Caesar, no matter how boorish he might be.  We, perhaps rightfully, have rejected much of the juvenile apocalypticism of the dispensationalists, in which we believed a beast would one day rise out of the ruins of Babylon, to make war with the lamb, and those who follow the lamb.  We know better than to think, that a man of lawlessness might deceive us with an deception so profound that “even the elect, if it were possible, would be deceived.”   We know better than to think God would ever let the world be destroyed as a natural consequence of our neglect and abuse of creation.  After all, we don’t believe in judgment anymore, we believe in grace! We are none to eager to “go to heaven,” or like MLK and the prophets of the civil rights movement, have heaven come to us—because we like the world well enough the way it is.

 Christians in the west have access like never before to the witness of practitioners of their own faith who have told them an alternate story from the ones we’ve heard on tv: stories from the black church, from Christians in the Middle East and Latin America and Africa.  We are perhaps peripherally aware that others are experiencing the world right now differently than we are—immigrants, refugees, Muslims.  In my quarter of Christianity, we all once sat at the same table—blacks, white trash, latinos, the poor—at the freaks’ table, left outside the gate like the God we crucified.  We know something of such people now, not because we know their faces—but because, like professional wrestlers, we have seen them on TV.  We casually appreciate their novelty, like the high-flying lucha libre, from Mexico.

 White American evangelicals can in fact appreciate some of the stories heard from Christians who are in some way “other,” for the colorful and innocent faith in them.  It is very cute, every so often, to see the unadorned faith of the disenfranchised.  But you see that is where this gets hard to talk about in public, in this “politically correct” world in which we live—many of us don’t trust the “carrying on” we hear right now, especially from women and minorities.  We’d all tell you that we love women—(maybe chuckle and add, smiling, “My own mother was a woman! HA!”) We love black and brown people (“I have a black friend at work” or “I practically grew up on the Cosby show!”).  But we don’t love them as much as we love the status of a people who finally feel like they don’t have to sit at the loser’s table anymore.  That, it seems to many of us, is the trouble with those who say the sky is falling right now—these people talk like they are victims, when we discovered in Christ we are victors!  A lot of them are poor, when we know God wants us to be rich!  These times are not so dire, really—we have read of other hard times, in history books, drinking a glass of red wine and smoking a pipe like C.S. Lewis.  We are cultured, now.        

We came far enough to know, that everyone is going to be fine—because we are fine.  We know that nobody gets in trouble with the authorities, so long as they tuck their shirt in instead of dressing like a hoodlum, and so long as they are respectful—because it has never happened to us.  This wisdom is old, too…passed down from one generation of white men, to another. 

You will know we are Christians by our good manners, sitting refined and unruffled, as becomes men of our good standing.  We have the dignity of the unaffected, the luxury of those who can afford to say, “stop being so sensitive…it’s all THEATER!”  And in a sense, that is true—for some of us, this is our very own high stakes version of Hamilton.  Because for us, the lives of those that are other, are all part of a show we have paid to watch from the balcony.  (We worked hard for that money like anyone else, mind you. “Nobody gave me a handout!”) And while on some level, we may even enjoy the spectacle of spirited women and minorities dancing around on the stage as they do—we appreciate their passion!  We take in the dread and drama of the real lives of men, women and children who are not like us with detachment, as one would watch the WWE—because we are in on the joke.

 For some, these are matters of life and death.  But some of us will keep our cool and stately demeanor, while the most vulnerable people in the world “freak out”—unless they start to get too rowdy, in which case we will solemnly remind them to be polite, no matter what little perceived slights they may suffer.  We aren’t children of the disinherited after all, but children of the inheritance!  We know nothing of hope, only of presumption.  We have no need of revelation—because we have good common sense.  

 We came here for a show, not to have our victorious Christian lives imposed or inconvenienced by the indignity of grief, nor the interruption of protest.  We came a long way from where we started, to become powerful enough to afford indifference.  This isn’t the end of democracy or the collapse of western civilization, here—this is a hell of a good episode of WWE’s Smackdown. 

It is not fair to say that we have no appreciation for our brown and black brothers and sisters, nor for anyone else’s culture.  We appreciate culture plenty—like we appreciated the Junkyard Dog, or when Tito Santana hit his opponent with “the flying burrito.”   It is hard for us to understand, now, what all the fuss is about.  This is not the end of world as we know it—this is just pay-per-view.