The Monday White(house) Wars: Trump Shocks… Clinton Reigns???
I wrote the precursor to this piece, comparing the theatre of politics to that of a wrestling match, during the 2016 primaries. It’s an analogy that I still consider to be true, perhaps even more resoundingly than before, but one in which the form of the subject is in a state of extreme flux.
In my initial post, I’d said that whilst “both primaries seem destined to become 1-on-1 matchups between an ‘establishment’ and an ‘outsider’ candidate right to the wire, the mainstream still resonates among large portions of the electorate”. In the cold, hard light of a Trump presidency, this might seem to have overstated the influence of traditional voters, and although I could point to Clinton’s victory in the popular vote as justification it would be irrelevant… But my real mistake was in confusing registered Democrats – or people involved enough in politics to register to vote in primaries – with the wider electorate. Within this group, to the detriment of the world, Clinton won.
The Democrats delivered us Clinton, even though Sanders outperformed Trump by huge margins in every nationwide poll during the primaries. The election, in turn, delivered us Trump. Why? Because the Republican Party adapted better to suit the demands of an electorate that demanded something new, while the Democrats maintained that their old guard would continue to serve them, unchanged, as they had in the past. And if this sounds familiar to wrestling fans, that’s because it is. It’s because US politics is now firmly in its own Monday Night Wars.
The WWE, formerly WWF, is known as being the dominant Wrestling promotion in the world. This has pretty much always been the case since the demise of the NWA and a more regionalised wrestling landscape. But during the 90s WWE was driven almost to extinction by an insurgent WCW, who offered an edgier, more exciting brand of wrestling. They were the first company to air their show live, and their more violent and sexually explicit content rapidly drew viewers away from WWE. The cartoonish delivery of the WWE format seemed so… 80s, by comparison, and between 1996 and 1998 WCW racked up 83 consecutive weeks of dominance in viewership (on Monday nights, get it?)
And in all of this, delivery and tone was key. Just as Trump has begun to stuff the Whitehouse with Republican hacks from the fringes of the party, the main players in WCW were former WWE wrestlers: Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Hulk Hogan. But what made their characters succeed in WCW was with a healthy dose of reality, or more accurately, “reality”. Yes, some genuine realism did enter the narrative of wrestling for a time (“defecting” wrestlers, contract disputes, the “Montreal Screwjob”, etc.) But the route to success was as simple as correctly identifying your audience – something the Democrats failed miserably to do during the election.
In 1997, in what arguably marked the turning point for WWE, Vince McMahon – the owner of the company – delivered a promo to the fans saying they must be “tired of having [their] intelligence insulted”, in a move that signalled the dawn of the “Attitude” era. This meant more radical story lines and more realistic characters, a recipe for success, but their brightest assets were to be found already in the ranks of the roster. The Ringmaster Steve Austin re-emerged as Stone Cold; Rocky Maivia re-emerged as The Rock. Similarly, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren must re-emerge as party figureheads.
In my last piece, I made the following assertion:
The only way to avoid perpetual alienation from mainstream voters is to re-define politics as legitimate in spite of its performance narrative […] although Trump is essentially repackaging the notion of assumed authenticity as a performance attribute in the traditional sense, and to great effect.
Perhaps people will never accept politics as a wholly legitimate sport? Certainly the performance element is still striking, but that shouldn’t underplay the power of realism – it should strengthen it even. Trump is reality TV, not reality, and like WCW his administration will be fraught with incompetence. If the Democrats evolve in time, as WWE did, in line with the demands of their audience, there is a bright future for all of its supporters. But the Party establishment is a creature of habit, and views Clinton and her ilk as the WWE does Roman Reigns and John Cena. You can push them out there, but you can’t make people cheer. The question is, when will they realise?