Steven Monacelli shared this video from Trump's rally in Florence, AZ. I'll describe it in detail after I post his tweet, but it is stunning. The video Trump shared features Biden constantly stumbling and stuttering, set to the theme music of wrestling's Undertaker, in order to declare Biden a failure. See for yourself:
I should have taken more edibles pic.twitter.com/Jwey35iZfi— steven monacelli (@stevanzetti) January 16, 2022
It's important to provide a detailed list of everything in this short video. 20 year old me would not believe a former President could stoop this low. I know students who are trying to understand Shakespeare or learn quantum physics. Who believe that the system roughly works, that they can get jobs and succeed based on what they know and accomplish. The full realization of what actually is the most powerful force in America would be shocking to them. Here's what the video contains:
- "Roughly half of the country believes Joe Biden's unstable," from an authoritative-sounding, newscaster voice
- A TV host who uses the title "Judge" calling Biden "stumbling," "idiotic," "confused," "lying," and a "fool" while funeral bells ring and clips of Biden tripping over his words play
- A clip of Biden falling while trying to board a plane, played over and over, while the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the current problems with inflation are mentioned in menacing tones
- The problems of inflation, gas prices, supply chain blockages, and not enough job growth are made apocalyptic as The Undertaker's intro music blares
- A clip showing President Biden being very close to someone, in order to suggest he's creepy
- A list of what has increased in price; Biden is called a failure on "the world stage;" the words "weakness" and "failure" display prominently while Biden looks down on a lectern (is he praying?)
- While Biden looks down, the audio changes to his verbal stumbling, and the presentation concludes with the message "Joe Biden is a Total Failure"
In short, this is a wrestling promo. A wrestling bad guy, a "heel," will play this sort of thing in order to taunt opponents. My first instinct was to snicker at how ridiculous and over-the-top the whole video was. As soon as I almost laughed, I realized the danger. Jason Stanley has an excellent analysis of how what Trump showed at his January 6th rally was full of fascist and anti-Semitic references. What's happening with the "Joe Biden is a Total Failure" video is dangerous in a different but complementary way, I believe.
The video steals The Undertaker's music. Poor Undertaker. He's a C-type wrestler who can struggle to sell a blow he takes or create a compelling match narrative. He is also, most justifiably, a wrestling legend. I can't say there is nothing appealing about him chokeslamming people through tables:
It's silly and awesome. His power moves have especial impact; the gimmick of being undead lends itself repeatedly to the best moments in wrestling. Below, perhaps the greatest moment in wrestling announcer history. "As God is my witness, he is broken in half," courtesy Jim Ross:
How could any of this be dangerous to a body politic? It takes its toll on wrestlers, but The Undertaker didn't piledrive anyone through, say, healthcare reform. For many of us, it doesn't even make sense to think of Trump as piledriving his opponents. The Presidency and American politics in general are too complicated. Demonstrations of power are not as visible as a hold or a suplex.
What I believe most important in Trump's use of professional wrestling tropes is the combination of ridiculousness with playful innocence. Trump draws strength from the feelings "it's all a silly show" and "no one really gets harmed." Even as evidence mounted during the 2016 campaign that his followers were indulging violence and plotting that much more, these feelings did a lot to help some voters justify their indecision or endorsement of him. Below, I'm going to argue that these are not acceptable emotions to act on. They're wildly dehumanizing, allowing the actual pain of others to be completely ignored, when they don't make a mockery of anything remotely resembling rationality.
The wrestling promo video selects its audience. If you struggled to contain your laughter during the video, or were completely disgusted by it, you're not going to think about it again. It is beneath your contempt.
However, let's say you want to believe everything the TV tells you. You want to repeat the authoritative tones of the newscaster. In watching 10 hours a day of television, you have achieved knowledge and can discuss pressing issues at length. The wrestling promo seduces. The sounds of TV journalism in it are unmistakable, as well as the visuals.
Trump has been in the public eye a long time. First as a playboy developer dominating tabloids with sex scandals. Then as the host of a reality show. Finally, the Presidency. He's done this not by appealing to everyone, but by knowing his audience and catering to them. He wants the combination of news and wrestling to self-select, to push those who think they're above it away. He does not need competition for his audience.
We do know quite a bit about a number of people who attended the rally. Monacelli, in his dispatch for Rolling Stone, highlights the conspiracy theorists who believe JFK Jr. will rise from the dead and inaugurate a new age of American Greatness. You've got a lot of people at this rally, then, who believe everything in the wrestling promo whether or not it sounds or looks like news. It is gospel to them already. To this end, indulging the idea of Biden as creepy or senile is part of a daily routine.
The association of Biden and societal collapse is extremely important. This carries the video far beyond run-of-the-mill "my opponent sucks." All prices are rising and inflation will destroy everything. The economy runs on gas, but gas is too expensive. The US, the most powerful country in the world, is a "failure" on the world stage. This wrestling promo implicitly connects Biden with the End Times. The one image used to suggest his creepiness, then, isn't throwaway. It gives the narrative cohesion. Biden is weak and can't handle anything, according to the video. How could he possibly destroy everything? —Ah, you have to remember the Fox News Extended Universe. All Democrats are Satanists, that's why they're creeps. They made a deal with the devil, and that's the only reason they have power.—
The overtones of professional wrestling are meant to soften and conceal this narrative. If you put it the way I just did, you get your Bible church ready to fight, but not the Bible church down the street. It's too specific even for every right-wing extremist. The ridiculousness of playing The Undertaker's theme suggests innocence in the face of all this: "we're just making a joke, no need to take this seriously. People came to the rally to Save America, not indulge their hate." A Trump rally goer can convince themselves that it is entertainment, a journalist can argue this isn't extremism. The Undertaker, not known for subtlety, is having his music used to doubly deceive.
There's a specific narrative connected to professional wrestling which does no less than define Trump. "Face" characters in wrestling, the "good" guys, typically get beaten, humiliated, robbed, and cheated. Once in a while, they'll be a Superman-type character, avenging and defending other faces, but those faces will be beaten, humiliated, robbed, and cheated. Otherwise, why would they need friendly help?
The "heel" characters often win consistently by cheating and bullying. They bend the rules, they break them, that's how they mastered the game. This can be an incredibly toxic narrative for American life, one which tracks with calling yourself "smart" when others correctly note you don't pay taxes. This isn't to say wrestling created the conditions for Trumpism. Wrestling itself is fairly diverse now, celebrating an array of different styles, cultures, and camp. It is to say that a wrestling narrative has imposed itself on political life, and the body politic doesn't know how dangerous it is.
The narrative does not allow for discussion or policy. It holds, following apocalyptic tropes, that if the people you don't like have power, they must have cheated. —Again, wrestling is the soft, sometimes harmless version of this idea.— It implies that cheating as retaliation is just, and any discussion of the substance of policy, e.g. cancelling student loans, marijuana decriminalization, criminal justice reform, educational funding, masks and vaccinations, is a red herring. The innocents are being robbed by the powers that be! Shouldn't that take priority?
In this way, Trump's wrestling promo is modeled after the grift of Alex Jones. Jones, you'll recall, was considered a harmless crank with lots to say about aliens. The sort of guy, you know, that defines Austin. The real harm he's done to the community of Sandy Hook is as stinging an indictment as any of the US. Jones radicalized his audience by convincing them of their innocence. The innocence wasn't just sold by ranting about abuses of power or conspiracy theories. The key was the ridiculousness of it all, the ridiculousness that got us to look away while others thought they were just playing. I'll say this about a chokeslam through a table: it's nice when some matters come to an end.