I've avoided writing about Donald Trump, because his participation in presidential politics has seemed equal parts inconsequential and absurd, the difficulty in attempting to understand the situation has always outweighed any possible benefit.
Then, I was provided with a metaphor, in an interesting piece in Think Progress, by the improbably named Judd Legum, who is not, am I told, a sort of pea.
Judd argues that the work of French literary theorist Roland Barthes is critical to understanding the Trump campaign. If I may be a bit European myself, then - "bollocks." However, Legum and Barthes do point us to a familiar vehicle, one that will allow us to drive to the heart of this madness.
Greater minds than mine have been obsessed with professional wrestling, and with good reason. Wrestling is a distinctly modern theater.
It's also something that resembles presidential politics - color-coded costumes, identifiable teams, stage personalities, masterful prowess, good guys (faces) bad guys (heels), cameras, referees, talking heads, and a singular dedication to providing spectacle for the audience.
Like wrestlers, politicians perform for the crowd, the people with the signs, shouting for blood, crowding the arena. They bought the tickets, they take the ride, they have their favorites and they're here to see them, win or loss be damned.
Donald Trump probably understands this more than he'd like to let on. Trump's been involved in wrestling before, and he was a good fit for this thing that is a lot like politics. A lot of people claim Trump is not fit for office, but that's naive to the point of self deception. Con men and outrageous outsiders running for office and ruining the political system - that's been a staple of American fiction since the days of Mark Twain, and the only reason it stays fictional is because in real life, these sociopaths get into and fit into politics just fine.
Now is a good time to bring up "kayfabe," which is the reason that nobody cares that wrestling is "fake." Kayfabe is the mutual agreement between fan and entertainment, that sure, things aren't as they appear, but they are on the up-and-up. Kayfabe is the relationship between magician and audience. It's what keeps wrestlers alive, since otherwise they'd have to genuinely be thrown off a roof into a table, instead of using their stuntman skills to survive.
Political parties have kayfabe. The professionals climb onto the stage and promise they're going to give us more stuff for less money. Taxes are going down and services are going up. The government's going to do more, but not get in your business.
When a U.S. Senator of a few decades gets in front of a crowd and tells them he's a "Washington Outsider," we don't shout him down and drag him off his podium to be lashed in the streets. The state security apparatus has a very intense interest in maintaining kayfabe, not "law and order." Protest the actions of the state or their corporate buddies and you get tanks and secret prisons. Riot because your football team won? Or lost? You get a pat on the back, buddy. Thanks for playing.
Perhaps you'd like a less anarchistic example. Fine. Let's take Campaign Finances. On the surface, it's obvious bribery. A group gives a Senator money to run for office, then, they get some favorable legislation in return. If you or I gave an official thousands of dollars in exchange for legal preference, that's bribery.
But, much as it is too much to ask a professional wrestler to fight without their professional stunts and maintain the interest of a jaded crowd, it is too difficult to get our entrenched, unintelligent and uninterested legislators to come up with a fair way to allow people to congregate along lines of mutual interest and pool money to go about the expensive business of modern publicity without becoming irredeemably corrupt. And, just as a professional wrestler would never create a wrestling organization in which they had to genuinely fight and maim one another to win, no politician with influence and ability is going to throw away their mounds of money and power in order to come up with a more honest system.
In order to maintain the horse-race of democracy, kayfabe must be maintained at all times. Dropping character can cost a candidate the election. There's a word for it - the "gaffe." The media, which in this metaphor is a professional wrestling referee, endlessly looks for the gaffe - breaking the rules. But, what is the "gaffe?" It is a brief glimpse that reveals the man behind the candidate costume. It is breaking character. It is forbidden.
Let's put it to you another way (I can tell you have doubts) Do you think that Ted Cruz acts that way at home? Do you know anyone who really believes campaign promises?
Now you know why the endless truthful reportage on corruption is ineffective. Yelling "politics is corrupt" in the media is like yelling "wrestling is fake" at a match or "they're not really wizards!" at a Penn and Teller show.
So what about Donald Trump? We're getting to that. In case you need a recap - there is kayfabe in politics and wrestling. Donald Trump has been involved in professional wrestling longer than he has politics. Politics is a lot like professional wrestling.
The more wonky political blog types, the people who do awful things like "read Politico" and do unethical shit like waking up in time to watch "Meet the Press," the criticisms they've leveled at Trump are generally along the lines that he is "not political." He's "an entertainer," as though that were somehow more offensive than being a lifetime political operator. (Hint: It's not) The political writer assumes that Trump is committing faux pas (breaking kayfabe) by saying racist things in public, shouting about hedge fund managers while being a billionaire, and never performing the required public penance when he does something dumb - instead, as the wrestling heel would do, he demands apologies from the media.
Indeed, if you look at the Republican debates, with all their dazzling lighting, red, white, and blue imagery, and brilliant marquees that give it a Wrestlemania, Battle of the Billionaires feel, there's a reason the other candidates don't want Trump on the stage - because he's playing the heel, what political horse-race analysts call "riling up the base." The heel doesn't play by the rules, though, ironically, those are the Rules of Being a Heel. He's being the guy that the fans of the GOP love to hate. "Just you wait till the good guys kick his ass and kick him out of the race!" they cry. And when they finally do, they get to feel good about themselves. "See, we're not racist! If we were, Donald Trump would have won!"
A traditional political mind sees this spectacle and asks "What the hell is Donald Trump doing?" I'll tell you - Kayfabe. He is, simply put, not breaking character. Trump invented his persona before he got involved in politics, he is sticking with it in ways that other candidates cannot.
Donald Trump inhabits the character of "Donald Trump" so well that, by keeping kayfabe, he is "speaking his mind" and "telling it like it is" - the two characteristics that Trump supporters consistently espouse as their favorites Trump traits.
"Now, wait, Jerome!" You cry. "Certainly Donald Trump is not some superior actor, able to keep this facade up better than all his competitors!"
Good call! You're absolutely correct. The race for President of the United States is filled with the most sociopathic individuals imaginable. They are capable of lying for decades, a year long campaign season is nothing to them. But why, then, the breaches? The gaffes? The dropping of the facade of kayfabe? Or is something else at work?
In the primaries, it's not as simple as being "always in character." The primary candidate is playing for two audiences simultaneously. First, they're playing for the crowd. Trump does a good job, there. He's a heel, he throws red meat to the crowd, he's big, loud, and spectacular. The people who dislike him weren't going to be voting for him anyway, and the people who despise him weren't going to vote Republican at all. The traditional republican Faces will eventually triumph and the fans will get to feel good.
Secondly, in the primary, the candidates are playing to their donors as much as they are the crowd. Trump doesn't have to do that. So far, he's capable of spending his own money, and raising a few bucks here and there with internet donations and trips to the Donald Trump merc table, where you can (finally) purchase a Donald Trump shirt for your goddamn dog.
The fact is, Trump, a second generation billionaire casino tycoon, is being the "wild card" in a presidential election simply because he does not have to come, hat in hand, to another billionaire casino tycoon to ask for money. Said deranged billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, (no offense to John Hodgman, who is a right and honorable deranged billionaire) has a load of wonderful beliefs that explain why the Republicans, who should be against foreign entanglements and for shrinking the budget (which is mostly the military) are so damn Pro-Israel, even though they're frankly not courting the Jewish vote.
Adelson's not alone. The popular Tea Party bogeymen, the Koch Brothers, the Walton Family, a host of big-spending Democrats, all of them pour money at these guys who no longer even pretend to not be influenced; rather they brag about who has the most money, the most backers, as the refs slap the mat and count the money and tell us that it's all a real game and our vote matters so much that they're going to spend a few billion dollars to get it. (Never mind that they're spending that money on the very media conglomerates reporting on the match)
So that's the cost of the slip up. It's expensive. The gaffe? That's when your campaign financiers see the potential value of their investment dropping. Keep kayfabe in your mind as you consider this: A nationwide presidential campaign is like a movie with a worldwide release. The budget is immense - upwards of one billion dollars. The appeal must be broad, bland, lame. It must appeal to everyone, offend nobody. You thought the Avengers movie was mayo on crackers? Take a look at presidential campaign slogans. "Yes We Can" is right up there with "This Is a Thing" as far as inspirational platitudes go. Kindergarten teachers wouldn't throw that on a wall with a kitten, but it's considered mind-blowing neo-modern bleeding edge art in the world of political campaigns. The reward is HUGE, of course - the government doesn't "waste" money, it goes to the places where congress wants it to go. Bribery is one of the best investments a corporation can make, with lucky winners getting a nice 22,000% return on their uh, lobbying...
There. Professional wrestling explains Donald Trump. He's playing the same game as the rest of them, he's just got one less audience and more practice staying in character. Trump won't spend a billion of his own dollars running for president. When we start getting into the primaries, when he has to pony up to the refs to keep them reporting on him, he'll go to those big donors, find them unwilling to foot the bill, and then he'll tag out of the match with some of the cheapest publicity he's ever purchased. The Republican faces will cheer that they've outed that villainous heel, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief at the victory of a different racist billionaire.
Congratulations, America. You WILL be made great. Again. And again in four more years.