by Irvin Muchnick
For more than three decades, I have turned the pro wrestlingization of American culture into the black hole of my career. The triumph of spectacle over substance is a feature of empires on the downside. With the collective psyche battered by the bill for global hegemony, endless war, and a national security state, and with the new communications technologies supporting them, the algorithm seemed ripe — first as metaphor, second as reflection, and third as full-blown hostile takeover.
Intermittently, the media were more than willing to give voice to such a perspective, so long as it was vestigial, anecdotal, visual, and above all, servicably trendy.
Imagine my chagrin, then, when the virtual note-for-note culmination of this phenomenon played out right in front of my nose during the 2016 presidential election season — and I remained as oblivious and in denial as the most conventional pundit or pollster.
Tomorrow Donald Trump, embodiment of all values pro wrestling, most especially its defiant anti-intellectualism, will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.
Trump’s business crony Linda McMahon, designated head of the Small Business Administration, is arguably one of the more technically qualified members of his cabinet of crackpots and swamp occupiers. She is the wife of WWE visionary and impresario Vince McMahon, and was CEO for a time of this now billion-dollar publicly traded company, before twice failing in carbon-copy $50 million self-funded campaigns for a Senate seat from Connecticut. Vince and Linda’s $5 million donation to the fraudulent Donald J. Trump Foundation was its single largest — a de facto payoff for Trump’s participation in the lead skit at the 2007 WrestleMania, which garnered the highest pay-per-view buys in the 32-year history of that event.
In 1954, the year I was born, Jacques Barzun famously wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
Today, students of how Trump won over the comparative handful of voters in the few states that swung his fluke Electoral College win would be better served mastering the elimination procedures of the Royal Rumble than the intricacies of the infield fly rule.
Pre-inaugural insomnia has sent me back to YouTube videos of old World Wrestling Federation syndicated shows from the early 1980s from Allentown, Pennsylvania — the time and place where Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, who died this week, got away with killing his girlfriend. A young Vince McMahon was the host. Back then, few knew that he had already bought the company from his father. Fewer still saw coming the national promotional war, spurred by the growth of cable TV and Reaganist deregulation at the Federal Communications Commission and at state athletic commissions, from which McMahon would emerge as the last man standing; or the creeping, sweeping changes in our popular culture that wrestling under his aegis would both mimic and spur.
Close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack of McMahon’s promos on those YouTube clips. You will hear the beginning of the learning curve of a master showman in full-tilt carnival barker incoherence. He is more than grammar-optional; he is the creator of a new American lexicon, a syntax of willed silliness turned triumphant. “Next Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Ivan Putski, the Polish Power, is in individual competition. Notwithstanding that, Andre the Giant meets Black Jack Mulligan. And indeed, from ’der, World Wrestling Federation champion Bob Backlund defends his title against the number one contender, Superstar Billy Graham.” It is the Twitter feed of its time.
Now fascism has landed in America, in the person of Donald Trump, child of pro wrestling.
What I have come to believe is that human beings simply have a tropism for fascism. Even the admired figures from portions of the ideological spectrum not usually associated with this term — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and for that matter Barack Obama — inevitably become overlaid with the cult of personality. It seems that every institution, every nation, gropes toward a dangerous locus of authority, a father figure. At its most grotesque, the authority becomes the Dear Leader. Celebrity, royalty, monotheistic religion: these are some of the many tabloid or spiritual side streets taken by democracies-on-paper as they sublimate the people’s fervent wish to be ruled, rather than to rule.
And every culture’s appointment with fascism grows out of different soil and is mediated through different types. In Germany, the humiliating aftermath of defeat in the Great War was the springboard for a charismatic speaker. In Italy, the failure of liberalism in a collapsing global economy, along with an inchoate desire for nationalist purpose, swept into office a self-confident strongman. In Argentina, political chaos made for vulnerability to a twist on the biological baseline of female seduction.
In the United States in 2017, we get a reality TV clown. Like Vincent Kennedy McMahon, Donald John Trump does not have classic intelligence. He is just that rich businessman, a businessman whose singular business is making money and “winning” for his “brand.” He is that guy sitting next to you on the bench in the steam room, spouting off with inarticulate precision about everything and nothing. We don’t bother stopping him from holding forth by pointing out that he got rich through manipulating and stiffing others. That’s because what he possesses is something more precious than mundane intelligence: he knows things the rest of us only suspect.
So let’s see what happens next.