Nothing better epitomizes the content-free showmanship of President Trump’s governing style than the White House Rose Garden ceremony he held in May after the House passed their version of a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Never mind that such a ceremony is “typically reserved for legislation that is being signed into law, not for a controversial bill that passed just one chamber” or that weeks later he called the legislation “mean.” And then there were his “confusing remarks to senate Republicans on healthcare” as he implored senators to pass something—anything—so that they could “all go over to the Oval Office” and hold another signing ceremony to celebrate. The content of the legislation and the details of the policies mattered less than the made-for-television spectacle of Trump’s performance.
The rise of Trump may have ushered in “a depoliticized era bereft of content,” indicative of late capitalism’s “fetishizing style over content” (Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram 2016). No doubt, as both candidate and now president, Trump has exhibited a “flagrant indifference to the details of public policy” (Grunwald 2016). Trump’s appeal on the campaign trail instead arose, as Kira Hall and colleagues show, from his carnivalesque comedic performances that simultaneously empowered supporters and horrified critics—compelling supporters and critics alike to behold the spectacle.
Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) concept of the carnivalesque provides insight into Trump’s ability to subvert dominant political conventions through humor and chaos, maximizing entertainment value as he flouts presidential norms. But this concept alone cannot do full justice to explaining the ongoing, day-to-day spectacle of Trump’s presidency. To better understand the Trump phenomenon, I suggest we borrow a concept from the world of professional wrestling where hyperreality converges with spectacle to produce the same strange amalgamation of bravado, hyperbole, and exaggeration (and outright lies) that marks Trumpian politics. That concept is kayfabe.
Originating with carnival workers, the term kayfabe passed into the world of wrestling “to mean the illusion of realness” (Smith 2006) or “wrestlers’ adherence to the big lie, the insistence that the unreal is real” (Schoemaker 2013). Kayfabe involves a “willing suspension of disbelief that allows fans to buy into often fictionalized storylines, larger-than-life personalities and match results” (Stodden and Hansen 2015). In other words, as sociologist Nick Rogers (2017) explains, kayfabe is “the unspoken contract between wrestlers and spectators.” That contract goes like this: “We’ll present you something clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience genuine emotion. Neither party acknowledges the bargain, or else the magic is ruined.”
Kayfabe ensures that Trumpian political discourse is largely read through what Jane Hill (2000) calls the “discourse of theater” as opposed to the “discourse of truth.” Whereas the discourse of truth relies upon the referential function of language to convey information that can be deemed true or false, the discourse of theater provides a lens for viewing political statements as a type of performance art. Truth and accuracy become less important than the entertainment value of words, gestures, and tweets, and the emotional tone and ideological stance they carry.
But kayfabe is more than just an interpretive framework that privileges the discourse of theater over the discourse of truth. Kayfabe allows Trumpian discourse to create its own internal reality filled with “alternative facts” that are used to determine what is true. In other words, kayfabe ensures that questions of truth and accuracy are not judged according to standards established outside the fourth wall of the theater, but inside the storyworld constructed on the stage or in the wrestling ring—or on the reality-television set of the Trump White House.
Like the drama of professional wrestling, Trumpian politics consists of continually advancing a compelling storyline. The precise content of that storyline matters less than the spectacle it creates. Wrestling characters include “faces” (good guys) and “heels” (bad guys). Matches involve “angles” (scripted feuds) between the characters, and the unfolding storyline contains a number of “swerves” (shocking turns) to elicit “heat” (crowd reactions, especially negative ones). Success in the ring is measured by the amount of heat generated: drawn-out matches are filled with the “spectacle of excess” (Barthes 1957).
Stodden and Hansen (2015) claim that we have “a population which is largely conditioned to see heroes and villains in politics the same way they see heroes and villains in professional wrestling.” Trumpian politics certainly feeds off and plays into that conditioning. Whether one sees Trump as a “face” or “heel” depends upon one’s political perspective. But even heels can be crowd favorites: “These were characters that most fans loved to hate but that many fans also idolized because they represented the breaking of norms with impunity.”
Trumpian politics is filled with wrestling’s larger-than life characters, angles, and swerves that generate (mostly negative) heat as Trump breaks norms with impunity. Trump’s feuds take place within his own party and even within his own administration, not just across party lines. Trump versus James Comey, the FBI director he fired in an apparent effort to obstruct justice. Trump versus Jeff Sessions, the “beleaguered” attorney general that he himself appointed before embarking on a cyberbullying campaign against him. Trump versus Robert Mueller, the reputable special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation that Trump’s team is working to discredit. And, of course, the always ready-to-resurrect Trump versus Hillary Clinton grudge match. Trump gets help from tag team partners like Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House communications director who joined “The Donald” with his own ready-made stage name (“The Mooch”) and a complementary no-holds-barred demeanor.
The next swerve, or shocking turn of events may involve any number of angles; but certain tropes are frequently exploited to maximize the spectacle. In both wrestling entertainment and Trumpian politics, the angles inevitably involve nationalism, xenophobia, race, and class. “Since the early days of professional wrestling,” Stodden and Hansen (2015) point out, “the ‘foreign menace’ has been a standard go-to tactic used by promoters to draw crowd interest.” Beginning with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Wrestle Mania IV, kayfabe has inspired crowds to respond to the “foreign menace” with chants of U-S-A. Trump campaign rallies do the same and add chants of “build the wall” as Trump incredulously tells the audience that Mexico will pay for it—or that maybe Congress will pay for it under threat of a government shutdown.
The lack of logic or verifiable content behind the showmanship does not matter. “Kayfabe isn’t about factual verifiability,” Rogers (2017) emphasizes, “it’s about emotional fidelity.” It’s about creating a spectacle that validates the audience’s feelings and provides a cathartic release. Trumpian politics may approximate the carnivalesque, but it closely mirrors the kayfabe of wrestling entertainment.
Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011), and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.
Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2017. “Wrestling with ‘The Donald.'” Anthropology News website, September 5, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.593