The Great American Smackdown
By Alcy Leyva
Politics is like an awful off-Broadway play that can’t decide whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy.
Or maybe it’s something else altogether.
With less than one month left until we choose our next president, I can honestly look back on the time we’ve spent with some of these characters and find that it’s been nothing short of explicitly wild and fondly depressing. I spent the previous two elections writing candidly about my adventures following the far right and the far left lunatics that seem to sprout up every four years. From this, I thought I knew the extent to which politics can devolve into a circus sideshow. But back then, that slice of homegrown Americana still felt underground, just below the radar. To listen to Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh in those days, it would have been easy just to write them off — something akin to overhearing your next door neighbor shouting into a ham radio. To me, an outsider, both sides sounded like they were spouting crazy blue and red jabberwock. But it never felt close to home. These talking heads seemed strained through a filter. It was a zoo, but I was on the right side of the bars.
But then this election hit and suddenly we’re swamped in email espionage, itchy Twitter fingers, and secret tapes on a daily basis. Suddenly, in this election, there aren’t any candidates left, only characters with live microphones and hot sauce in their bags and sniffles. I see now that I was mistaken in thinking that the “pistols at dawn” persona U.S. politics wants to pass itself off as is real. For all its talk of taking the high road, I see that this country has probably been saving its tinfoil brain defense scanners for this very moment in time. Now it’s time we make them fashionable.
To deal with these larger-than-life characters, I have found a pretty solid coping mechanism: I see politics as an offshoot straight out of World Wrestling. Now I can watch CNN and Fox News without breaking out in lesions. Now I can sit through an entire debate without noticing the immense dip in brain cell count. Now it’s all just bloody entertainment.
I grew up watching wrestling, and though I no longer watch it with the same wonder and excitement as I did as a kid, I now view it as a vehicle for a story. I no longer care for big wrestling spots and Pay-Per-Views, but I am instead part of an intricate collective of knowledgeable fans who plot out story arcs, watch for the rise and fall of beloved characters, and ultimately stand as passengers who feel they can handle this whole honking vehicle better than the folks behind the wheel. Wrestling has changed a lot over the last ten years, since I wrapped myself in a blanket to watch Saturday afternoon wrestling shows. But not to a degree that I can’t see our current political landscape as a massive squared circle. Because as much as I want to say how smart we are — we, a nation of observant voters — both wrestling and politics are structured to treat everyone, regardless of our allegiances, like idiots. It’s a perfect marriage. Plus, we kind of know it’s all rigged somehow.
So slap on the spandex, layer on that baby oil, and let’s “wrastle.”
All Hail the Heel
It wouldn’t be right to start this entire thing without comparing the biggest, most orangest character of either party: The Donald; a guy who we hate, and who we love to hate, because he speaks both delusional hogwash and absolute truths while actually being successful in achieving his goals. This is what wrestling calls a “heel.” Heels are arrogant yet successful. They realize that there wouldn’t be a story, no one would give a damn, if they were not there. This empowers the heel, enables them the added bonus of self-actualization. You see, heels may talk about winning the “big prize,” about crawling to the top of the smoking heap of bodies just to crown themselves victors. But the beauty of a heel, a legendary heel, is that they will win and still not be satisfied. True satisfaction to these characters is always material wealth, though what they really sustain themselves with is the ire of their detractors. The term for this in wrestling is “heat,” and all of the best “bad guys” can turn this into fuel.
Trump epitomizes the heel of both parties. He speaks about himself as being the model of success, and shrugs off any type of actual provable evidence that says otherwise (p–sy grabbing or not). I think we can all agree that when The Donald has a microphone, he knows which is the business end. He knows — almost by instinct alone — where the ebb and flow (and bigotry) of the room can take him. He prances when he wins, acts petulant after he loses, and sees a conspiracy in everything and everyone. To his supporters, this reveals him to be truly authentic. Who cares if he’s selling snake oil? It’s American snake oil and he made millions off of it last year. What cannot be denied is that Trump serves as a mighty heel who survives in the wild using his bright orange color and his ability to inflate his own ego to ward off predators.
It seemed like everyone had a lukewarm response to Trump’s presidential announcement. He seemed like a gimmick guy, all (gaudy) style and no substance. Gimmick wrestlers are always the worst possible lot you can have in life. Basically, we thought that he would be “jobbing” to the bigger names. We knew that he should be nowhere near the ring, nowhere near being a contender. And yet like that mangy, Tang-colored cat you know you should shush away the first time it shows up at your doorstep, we fed him instead. All of us. The GOP, Dems, talking heads. And yes, even social media— the origin of every bridge-lurking troll on the planet— failed to smell fire when Trump was handing out matches. And in the end, Donald was no idiot (no heel ever is), and just like that orange tabby, he sat there and took the free lunch. And by the time it was too late, he had made himself at home.
See, heels aren’t like us. Any other creature on the planet has an awareness of self. We know that an action which reaps a negative outcome becomes a habit which is earnestly discarded. This is Self-Preservation 101. A mouse shooting through a maze comes across a corridor that shocks him, and it comes to understand, “You know what? That sucks. Not going down that way.” But heels function differently. They take a negative trait in themselves and blow it up into caricature. They feed off the heat we so generously give them, and suddenly we are all codependents. We need to laugh at the heel and the heel knows that we are laughing at him and then laughs harder, until the entire joke’s on us. They make catchphrases out of the things we cringe at. When we say that they’re speaking too loudly, they yell an apology. In other words, if Trump was that mouse in the maze, he would wade through the shock therapy, all the while saying, “You know who’s to blame for this? I’ll tell you who’s to blame for this: these Mexican mice coming over here and taking away all of our non-electrified mazes.”
Trump is a true heel in every sense of the word — and guess what? We need it. Politics isn’t an arena for kid gloves and dainty flips. We say we want hugs and handshakes, but that sure as hell doesn’t make things interesting. It doesn’t nab ratings, it doesn’t blow up Twitter. We may shake our heads every time something sexist/racist/any-ist comes out of Trump’s rally speakers, but we also silently celebrate when we hear it as well. One of the worst heels to come out of wrestling isn’t even a wrestler at all. Vince McMahon can rile up an entire stadium just by telling them to shut up while he’s talking, but we go nuts because we’re now spectators in the Coliseum, jeering, dropping our thumbs in disapproval and calling for his comeuppance (Fun fact: Trump and Vince were actually features in the main event at Wrestlemania 2007).
Yes, we may think that Trump is a detestable human being and we worry about the state of this country in his hands, but the man’s gotten this far because we were all chomping at the bit for his next bout of diarrhea of the mouth. We have to feed him our attention because we’re now invested in his rise or fall.
Towards the end of his run, Ted Cruz also turned full heel, but definitely not in the way Trump was coming off. As much as the GOP raised their alarms and called for a “Never Trump Movement” to take hold, from the outset, they seemed even less reluctant to back what would be his only true opposition. In wrestling — hell, in real life — no one wants to be truly hated. Heat is good for business, but hate? Hate kills careers before they start. We can boo, and they can rain down on Trump like a monsoon and he can just smile and say that rain isn’t real and was created by China. Remember, boo’s are a heel’s currency; it gives him worth. The only jeer the crowd had for Cruz was more like, “God, I hate that guy.” The Internet dug its claws in him early, too. And suddenly the joke was:
Yeah. Trump is a terrible human being. But at least he’s a human being.
Cruz became a joke heel, the worst kind of bad guy you can be. The heat he was garnering wasn’t meticulously planned or used properly. All the while, he was smiling (creepily) and trying to take the high road. The moment Trump pounced on him, it was over. And when Cruz’s full heel came out, it all came off as desperate. He was a pretender; a heel who wanted to be a “face” so bad that he ultimately became that kid with his hand in the air every class, tattling on the boy who was hurting his feelings. It was hard for us to be sympathetic towards the guy. So by the time he had to leave our TV screens, we had long been done with Ted Cruz the wannabe and were already changing our channels to see what other stupid shit Trump had whipped up next.
Rooting for Ole Reliable BabyFace
We don’t have to think too hard for this one. Bernie Sanders more than exemplifies the role of the “babyface” (or just face for short) quite easily. And this isn’t at all pandering to the persona he gives off, but let’s start there.
Bernie, both as a strength and a weakness, was not able to shake the status of “underdog” during the entire race, on either side of the political spectrum. He spoke his mind and vowed to fight for the “people” but not in a way which seemed disingenuous. In many ways, like Obama did during his run, Bernie found the sweet spot of outspoken and humble. We knew he was a long shot, which caused some of us to stand up and care about politics while others felt that he was too below the radar to support. In both respects, Bernie found himself to be “over” fairly early, which is a lot better than it sounds. Being “over” with a crowd makes you accepted and beloved, but that doesn’t always translate into victories. As much as we cheer and want to share the satisfaction of seeing a face succeed against a heel, hell, against the establishment, Bernie came across problems even before the big main event.
And they were all in Hilary’s inbox.
Running on nearly the same platform of being a “uniter,” Hillary was a different kind of face altogether, and this was the death knell for the Sanders campaign. We can get behind an underdog, but Hillary was “over” for entirely different reasons. The first was the sense of entitlement that came with her name. After her loss to Obama in 2008, she fell to the “midcard.” But a good face fights her way back up, and Hillary never fell out of our good graces. In many ways, Hillary was just like a generational wrestler who makes her debut linked to a legend of the company. There are even times, and this is also the case with Hillary, when a legend then becomes the star’s manager. Bill’s being on the stump for his wife linked Hillary’s aspirations for victory to his own success. Unfortunately, we can’t pick and choose what is remembered of a legacy, and Bill’s presidency had its own questionable moments. Sure, he was a face to us, but some would claim that his record says otherwise. And so, Hillary has had to fight an odd battle of having to deal with being “over” while dealing with almost equal heat for how she comes across. The truth is that we like a well-defined face; someone we can project ourselves onto; someone who makes it feel like they are standing in our shoes as they fight for what they really believe in. That is the appeal of a face. Hillary, even this late in the game, seems to be playing a character, or several characters, which makes some of us uneasy. She is a morally gray face, or a “tweener” as it’s known in the squared circle. Hillary carries herself on good intentions and a clear focus, but she becomes heel-ish every time she grimaces at our questioning, or is associated with a joke that mocks “colored people time.” She seems to be out for “cheap pops” from crowds and applause by throwing in Pokemon and “hot sauce” in her totally not plotted-and-plodded and non-rehearsed remarks. But these aren’t the characteristics of a face. When Hogan “Hulked up” back in the day — when he fed off of our chants and claps — it wasn’t because he needed the popularity boost. He wanted us to feel like we were fighting alongside him, that we were going to climb that mountain with him and share a victory. A true People’s Champ. Sanders should be strutting around calling people “jabroni” for the hell of it.
That’s the biggest concern with Hillary — even now, with the voting machines being dusted off for the big prize, and the main event weeks away. Hillary acts as if she is taking the high ground, but some of us can’t shake the feeling that this tweener (as in “in betweener”) is just someone who feels like they are entitled to reach the top. We don’t want a champ who thanks us for our support. We want someone to tell us that “we” made it, together. This may be a bit too formulaic, but both wrestling and politics can be broken down into 90% character, 10% slogan. Say what you will about “Make America Great Again,” but at least it speaks plainly and attempts to sound inclusive. “I’m With Her” makes it feel like we’ve spotted Hil already sitting at a table but the maitre d’ won’t let us in. “I’m with her” you keep yelling, as Hil slowly spreads too much butter over not enough bread.
We want to feel like the democratic process rewards standout individuals; folks who have proven, on a small scale, that they can expand on the success they’ve had in their towns and in their districts. Whereas Sanders and Trump stand as foils in the ring, some of us cringe at the thought of a Clinton presidency. In fact, some of us are completely baffled by Trump vs. Hillary being the main event. It just seems like the winner of that fight would be decided solely by whose mic is turned up the loudest. Or who can kiss more Mexican babies under an hour. We’re not sure what really gives Hillary her “heely” vibe, but she always comes across as a woman who will stand up on that podium to deliver her acceptance speech and then DDT a Chief Justice through it just to prove that she never needed us in the first place.
And that’s where everything got mucked up. With The Donald being the definitive heel, Hillary’s “tweener” persona completely threw us off. What we needed was a distinct face and heel because it makes things easier to choose. If Darth Vader had a charming personality and a winning smile, wouldn’t that just upend the entire thing? If the heel is rippling with enough heat from the ire of fans, and if the face is one to root for because she really is an underdog, we are there; right in the thick of things, cheering our damnedest. Yes, it’s tough for us to say this, but this whole political main event basically boils down to us choosing between a punch in the face or a punch on the head. And it’s not due to anything to The Donald has concocted. It’s largely due in part to the failure of our faces.
And All the Rest: the Midcard
Kasich, Bush, Christie, Carson, Rubio. Did anyone bank on these guys coming close to winning? From an audience perspective, they were all put in place just to get “buried,” which is the term in wrestling when a talent (who is not necessarily talent-ed, in this case) is shoved into degrading or ridiculous situations to lower crowd support. We don’t want to think that this was all some nutty conspiracy to push a B Team of sideshow clowns onstage just to force the general public into selecting this totally unlikable woman and racist Cheeto-colored man. But it sure does feel like we were being starved for months just to make stale bread taste like filet mignon.
In wrestling, they call people like the midcards “jobbers” — people who lack the skill or charisma to be relevant in the spotlight so they are relegated to dropping fights to the bigger names on the card. A perfect example is John Kasich. My god, we’ve never held such a blasé impression of someone. I’m not sure if you put his picture among twenty librarians that I would be able to pull his face out of the bunch. Kasich was an amazing jobber, better than even the actual jobbers employed by the WWE today.
Early on, Kasich seemed to only be running on the basis that he was invited. “Hey. I’m from Ohio. I’m alright.” I can’t remember what his running slogan was, but it should have been “I’m alright.” He coasted in the first debate, rode a large pop from his hometown crowd, but otherwise never stood out from the pack. A jobber’s job, his entire existence, really, relies on his ability to make the heels and faces look strong. A jobber manages this in two ways: either by increasing the villain’s heat or by getting squashed by the hero. Yes, “squash matches” don’t last long and aren’t too appealing, but they are in place to make these larger than life figures look unbeatable.
In many ways, Kasich served both functions with Trump. He insisted on taking the high road and merely talking politics. That, coupled with his complete lack of drama, shuffled him out of sight. But even there, in the shadows, he served as a foil for Trump. Kasich had a basis for his talking points, was generally likeable and respectable, and carried with him a reputable persona for being sociable but also a no-nonsense kind of guy. Compared to the school bully Trump, Kasich was honor roll material and carried himself that way. I don’t want to say that Kasich was a gentleman who ran on the “pistols at dawn” ideal mentioned earlier, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he fought with his dukes up, like a mustachioed boxer from the 1910s. After the debate in Detroit, Peter Weber of The Week wrote an article titled “John Kasich was the only adult on the GOP debate stage. But do Republican voters even want an adult?” And the answer is “No.” No, we don’t want an adult. We don’t want a guy who says:
I think the only way you beat Donald Trump is to have a vision bigger than his, and to show that your experience and accomplishments will pull people out of this ditch …
Look at that. I got bored halfway through that quote and stopped writing. No. The way you beat Trump is by picking up a chair, lighting said chair on fire, lighting yourself on fire, downing a beer (preferably a Budweiser with the good ol’ red, white, and blue on the label) and going to town on the guy. That’s what we want to see. We can stomach a face’s optimism because we need one to beat the heel, but a jobber with a heart of gold? Look, to put it plainly: We don’t watch wrestling matches to stare at the referee, and it just feels like underneath those snazzy suits, Kasich was wearing stripes.
Of the other jobbers, there isn’t much to say.
Ben Carson, for all of the waves he made early on, amounted to nothing but a distraction; a duck-call flushing all of the GOP birds into the air at once. It remains to be seen if Republicans would back a black candidate all the way to the White House, but Carson was fed to the fire Cruz and Trump were stirring up and so we barely noticed when Carson went off the air.
Christie found himself out in the cold. He was a heel walking into the run-offs, we all knew that, but someone had already parked his “— uge” ego in the “loud mouth, straight shooter” spot already.
Rubio … said a few things a few times. And was there even anyone else running on the Dem ticket?
The bland midcard this election only made the “superstars” standout, the same way vegetables are served with steak just to make that Instagram picture we take of it more colorful. In the end, we’ll still end up scraping the stuff off to the side anyway. Maybe we should look into a new gimmick for our next presidential run-offs? Someone who jumps up onstage during a GOP debate holding a giant fork and proceeding to sweep unwanted podiums right off the side? I’d watch that. I’d buy that T-shirt.
In short, I’m happy 2016 has turned out like this. This is the first real election that absolutely epitomizes the fanciful American dream: Where a possibly mentally imbalanced blowhard and an untrustworthy mannequin who has magically been brought to life are now moments away from being our next Commander in Chief. Part of me gets a certain amount of joy in tapping my son, pointing to the TV screen, and saying, “You see. Anyone can become president.” Of course, I immediately regret ever saying this because it gives him nightmares for a week.
The era of “Squared Circle Politics” has arrived; where a quaint little town hall debate was replaced with a vitriol-induced slobberknocker of a match. We had special guest stars, taunts and pandering to the crowd, and two refs fighting for control of the proceedings. It was marvelous(ly depressing). And sure, we can point to those preening political pugilists and blame them for turning every television appearance into a Pay-Per-View shoot, but maybe we’re to blame too. Maybe the retweets and front page newspaper splashes, the packed rallies and bumper stickers, the 24-hour news coverage of every sniffle and bowel movement — maybe all of these things have contributed to the state of this country right now. Every cheer and jeer we’ve dished out has served to power that white hot spotlight we’ve shined on these people. Politics have turned us from outspoken activists to rowdy audience members who only vote through T-shirt sales and video “Likes.”
And I fear that this is only the beginning. Maybe we’ve opened Pandora’s box and we’re evolving into a culture that counts every suplex, elbow drop, and chair shot. Maybe our next presidential election will toss out the voter ballot and just hold it in an actual ring. No holds barred, winner take all. It’s not that far from where we are now.
Let’s just hope that someday, the American citizens get to win one. Here’s hoping.
Alcy Leyva is a Bronx-born writer who received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Hunter College and an MFA in Fiction from the New School. His work has been published in Fjords Review and Crossborders Journal. He is also a major contributor at The Millions and Everything For Dads. He currently lives and teaches high school English Literature in New York.
Featured image courtesy of DonkeyHotey.