We Compete for Championships
How Professional Wresting Ushered In America’s Absurdist Media & Hyperbole Machines
You can’t escape the madness, and you have to pick a side. Every morning millions of Americans fire up their favorite morning program or online echo chamber, eagerly anticipating their daily dose of T-R-U… T-H. Excuse me, Freudian slip; obviously I meant T-R-U-M-P, the greatest character our media-obsessed era has ever conceived. Four years in, then voted out in a cloud of uncertainty, and now with an impeachment trial looming as nothing more than a ritual fumigation, can we even tell the difference between truth and Trump anymore? If we ignore the subjectivity of truth and just call it exactly as we see it, then the truth of the matter is that our nation’s most fundamentally revered institution, the presidency, has transformed into a diabolical, unscripted drama. But is it really unscripted? The media likes to blame Trump the character for the outcome of the show, despite having written the ending themselves days in advance. A festering byproduct of the innate human desires to love, hate, and be entertained all at once, the ascension of partisan media has caused irreparable damage to this country.
Apologies to any remaining idealistic reporters who still practice fair and balanced journalism, but the almighty ratings dollar undermined your profession the day Trump took his first heel turn in the eyes of the media. Print isn’t dead; it’s just been poisoned. Any journalism school in the country will tell you the ultimate priority of the media is to operate as a healthy business first. Ethics should resonate as a natural byproduct of good people seeking the truth, but ethics isn’t the product being sold. In an era of total media inundation and dwindling attention spans, our generation’s classic chicken-or-the-egg paradox unfolds: should media outlets take the blame for blatantly promoting adversarial, extreme, finger-pointing content in an effort to make a living, or is the consumer to blame for continuously stoking the fire of discontent by preferring the lurid over the sensible?
Professional wrestling, long lambasted for being “fake” or “scripted,” showed us that this type of immersive, combustible entertainment worked, and our current mainstream media has copied the wrestling playbook to perfection. Even in a far more sensible time, when Americans possessed opinions but didn’t feel the need to eviscerate each other for voicing them, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Chairman Vince McMahon and his merry band of entertainment athletes knew that the human psyche craves discord and loves taking sides. Thanks to a steady dose of good versus evil and interesting character arcs, Wrestling has managed to stay relevant for decades despite a meteoric rise in available content and a rapidly changing culture.
Politics and the business of covering politics have become hyper-relevant by following the same script. Anger, hatred, and passion dominate the discourse, as if our two candidates were destined to meet in a ring and do a dance of suplexes and kicks. Subtract the physicality of wrestling, and you’re left with a clash of good against evil, with an arena full of screaming onlookers holding up signs and choosing sides. In a 1999 interview detailing the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” McMahon said, “we realized we could put me in a venue where the public could express its anger.” Of all the emotions to exploit at an entertainment event, McMahon recognized anger as the most profitable because of the natural high that summarily sweeps you away from the trappings of real life. “People love it because it’s an escape from the drudgery and stress of their regular lives,” McMahon told The New York Times in 2008. “We are so consumer-oriented. We never lift our ears from the ground. We give the public what it wants. We broke the mold.” The juggernauts of corporate media would like to thank you, the insatiable hater, for acting exactly as your father did when Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III.
The similarities don’t just end with emotion as the primary motivation for engagement. The true brilliance of the professional wrestling business lies in the conceit that every day, by design, is the most important day in the history of the company. The industry enjoys no offseason, no All-Star breaks, and no rearview mirrors. Unlike a book that you put back on the shelf after finishing, the wrestling business has your next adventure queued up and ready, complete with action figures and apparel. The inherent hype needed to capture an audience for years on end depends on elevating the mundane to the mythical: athletes are called superstars, dolls are called action figures, and belts are called championships. Stop me if you’ve ever heard someone refer to Trump as an unsavory mass murderer with a penchant for sauerkraut. At CNN, apparently Nazis are called capitalists.
Angles, storylines, feuds, and heel-turns drive a train of enhanced reality that insiders call kayfabe, or the portrayal of the predetermined. At its core, kayfabe demands that the viewer “buy in” to the character if he wants to enjoy the show. As character stories bleed into interviews and promotional appearances, the line between real and fake becomes as blurry as the consumer wants to make it. In 1998, McMahon explained his unique persona in an interview with New York Magazine: “I am the most reprehensible individual on the planet. … Uncaring, a powermonger, manipulative, very manipulative, always trying to get what I want and being very clever about it. Art imitating life and vice versa. It’s fun because some of it’s true, you know what I mean?” Knowing the ride is a bit absurd but ultimately entertaining is what makes kayfabe fun, but where the WWE uses athletes to tell its stories, political media uses the livelihood of its readers to establish the stakes. For this they should be deeply ashamed, but as a wise man once said, if it ain’t broke why fix it? Ridiculous storylines and divisive actions work in both wrestling and political media, and yet kayfabe is only enjoyable when the predetermined raises the standard for everyone involved. Entertainment may be the new business model for mainstream media, but trying to reproduce kayfabe with the fears of actual oppression is cruel and irresponsible.
Larger than life WWE superstars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin ushered in the sport’s most bombastic and lucrative era, a hyperbolic echo chamber of sorts where story-driven hype and character development seemed to transcend the actual wrestling. At the absolute peak of his achievement in 2005, McMahon told Esquire, “Years ago, the promoters tried to tell the world that this was 100 percent sport. It was an insult to the audience. Professional wrestling has always been a show. When Abraham Lincoln wrestled, it was a show.” The WWE could get away with whatever they wanted because they always promised authenticity at their core. As long as the product refused to apologize for its bravado, wrestling became immune to the need for public relations almost entirely. Herein lies another major flaw in trying to emulate the mystique of wrestling in the media space. Because the stakes of winning or losing are unfairly high in politics, and anger is the predominant emotion being exploited, “having fun” demands an unfairly strict set of rules for everyone to follow. The fun in wrestling was in the absurdity, of getting swept up in an elaborate game of silly, violent semantics. Now semantics completely dominate every aspect of the news cycle, and as a result, pop culture in general.In their effort to capture the bravado of wrestlers through their canonization of politicians and politically correct speech, journalists created a society where the exact opposite of fun would spring forth.
Knowing that they had backed themselves into a corner, and that many emotionally troubled people had fully bought into the protective cocoon of liberal PC slant, the media doubled down on their bastardized version of kayfabe. Truth became secondary to narrative, and nobody in the media dared tried to undermine their gross money-making creation for fear of being labeled a hypocrite. Where the WWE speaks for all of its fans, the media decided that pitting fan against fan was the only way to justify their over-the-top portrayal of Trump as the ultimate heel. As seen by our smoldering cities and broken discourse, the media’s decision was an abject disaster for the country.
Vince McMahon has famously declared that he knows what the consumer wants better than the consumer himself knows. Is it still T-R-U-T-H we crave? Political media has decided the answer is a resounding no, so we’ll continue getting fed a steady dose of T-R-U-M-P until we decide to change the channel. American media, originally intended to protect the masses from the overreach of centralized power, has been manipulated and twisted into the most overhyped Pay-Per-View wrestling match since the Attitude Era. Common sense tells us that if everything is a big deal, then nothing is a big deal. And yet, the little boy who cried wolf can find lifetime employment at the WWE or in partisan political media. We have to recognize as a country what is meant to entertain us and what is meant to destroy us, because they are two sides of the same coin sometimes. The evidence begs the question: do we as a society even want closure of our political strife? Even if one side of the aisle ever collectively threw up their hands and admitted total defeat, would the other side even celebrate the victory, or just slowly slink off the stage in utter confusion with no more battles left to fight? Do we care more about integrity, or the suplex?
Until collective social consciousness starts examining the causes of our dysfunction instead of symptomatically throwing sarcastic, anonymous rocks at our perceived adversaries, the wound will continue to fester. Walking around with an open wound leads to apathy and weakness; it’s time that all people reject the lies of partisan mainstream media, and see them for what they are: a frail, sad imitation of our longest running reality show. McMahon pointed out to The New York Times in 2008 that “[consumers] get charged by the action and the humor, and caught up in the drama, like a soap opera or reality show.” You wouldn’t blame professional wrestling, or its superstars, or its writing team for your own sad lot in life, so why blame the media’s deliberately deceptive portrayal of a politician for your stead, either? Blindly hating a Republican or Democrat because the media demands it may make for some good entertainment, but it makes you inherently weaker because you relinquish your power to think for yourself. If bloodsport is what you crave, don’t flip on CNN; go watch some amazing athletes with unlimited charisma entertain thousands of screaming fans. Choose the right side of the coin.