Warning: We’re going a little out of the box this week, but bear with me. In professional wrestling (told you, out of the box) there has historically been an effort to portray the events taking place in the ring and in storyline as real-life events and competition. The term used to refer to this illusion is “kayfabe.” For the majority of the history of professional wrestling (which began as early as the late 19th century), wrestling had been portrayed as real competition with real combatants who really despised each other. In fact, as recently as the mid-‘90s, most performers would go out of their way to stay in character even while not performing so as to keep the illusion alive for the fans. Good guys would only travel exclusively with good guys. Bad guys would only be seen in public with other bad guys, and would even behave as the character when sighted. All of this was in the name of keeping up the impression that wrestling is real.
Politics was the other way around. For the vast history of American politics, politicians were open rivals and friends at the same time. This goes back as far as the rivalry/friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential Founding Fathers of this country. While being fierce rivals in politics, they remained close friends outside of the political sphere. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan (R) was close friends with House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D), who once said to Reagan, “Old buddy, that’s politics. After 6 o’clock we can be friends; but before 6, it’s politics.” And of course, there is the long-standing and well-documented friendship between the Clinton and Bush families, which was highlighted in 2018 following the passing of George H.W. Bush and the subsequent ceremonies. Back in 2014, George W. Bush even challenged Bill Clinton to complete the Ice Bucket Challenge.
But around the late 1990s, the political sphere and the wrestling worlds flipped. The cause of the flip? The internet. With the increasing ability to document and share information, the curtain of Kayfabe began to crumble. Good guys and bad guys were seen more frequently together, private videographers were able to slow down the combat to determine how the combatants were hitting, but not hurting each other, and storylines began to fall apart. This led to WWE Chairman Vince McMahon making a public statement that wrestling is choreographed, and no longer wanted to “insult fans’ intelligence” by claiming that it’s real.
At the same time, it became increasingly easy for people to share their political opinions online. As these opinions began being shared, the country itself began to be more divided on politics, and increasingly more polarized and passionate. With that, constituents no longer wanted politicians to be friends; they wanted politicians who were as divided as they were. Out went civility in the political sphere, and in came raw hatred for the opponent. It’s now gotten to the point where political rivals conflate character with opinion, meaning that a rival is classified as a bad person because of their political beliefs (i.e., John McCain or Mitt Romney), or a person shown to be of poor character must have bad political opinions (i.e., Bill Clinton or Donald Trump). Nobody attacks character on its own or politics on its own anymore; it’s all intertwined.
Today’s wrestlers aren’t so open about their off-screen relationships. However, they are certainly more noticeable than they once were. With Dwayne Johnson and John Cena entering the mainstream eye, along with the ever-increasing popularity of Twitter and Instagram, fans get a much more in-depth and behind-the-scenes view at the performers than ever before, and what is left of the once-revered kayfabe is pretty much dead. On the other hand, political rivals are never seen in public together anymore. In fact, it has gone so far that some people won’t even debate one another in a public setting so as not to give credence to the views espoused by their opponent. What has essentially been created is a political kayfabe, where the public persona of politicians and pundits match their political ideologies. However, it is entirely plausible that behind the behind-the-scenes, the politicians are still good friends.
In recent months, the American public has become privy to exactly what happens when political kayfabe is broken. In February, following a heated exchange between Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Mark Meadows (R-NC), wherein Tlaib insinuated that Meadows is a racist, House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) came to Meadows’ defense, calling Meadows “one of my best friends.” This did not sit well with many. Writing for Root Magazine, Terrell Jermaine Starr claimed that Cummings “threw Rashida Tlaib under the bus” and that he was playing the “token Negro” just because the two are friends.
Then in March, Joe Biden made the grave mistake of calling Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.” Failed New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon chastised Biden on Twitter and claimed that Pence could not possibly be a decent guy because of his LGBTQ stances. Biden immediately acquiesced to this charge, and indeed said that “there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the vice president.” In the span of one month we went from “you can’t be friends” to “you can’t say nice things about each other.”
And of course, just last month, only weeks ahead of the first Democratic primary debate, Joe Biden once again made the grave mistake of invoking the names of known segregationists Senators James Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA), the latter of which Biden called “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.” Biden’s remarks were made to illustrate that even though there were bad actors in the Senate, we were still able to work together to pass laws upon which we agreed, and that sometimes you have to work with bad people to get things done. These comments were met with predictable opposition by the likes of fellow candidates Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both of whom demanded apologies for even thinking of the idea that it was okay to speak of these racist senators. In fact, in the debate last week, Harris went a step further and claimed that Biden had “praised racists,” a claim that is factually inaccurate. Biden at the worst told a neutral story about one said racist, and certainly made a negative statement about the other. So for those keeping track at home, we went from “you can’t be friends” to “you can’t say something nice” to “you are not allowed to work with them or even mention their names.”
This is very disheartening. It’s one thing if an entire sector of the entertainment industry decides to veil themselves for the sake of their craft. At the end of the day, nothing wrestlers do really affects the population as a whole (save for the one guy who is in the WWE Hall of Fame who currently runs the country). However, if politicians are displaying one public persona that is simply there to pander to their base, and an opposing private persona that is actually what they feel, we have entered into a time in political history where people no longer care so much about what you say or do, or even who you are as a person. Rather, voters now weigh how much a politician resembles an actor. Can he play the part? Does she remember her lines? How well can he pretend to throw a punch? How well can she sell the punch and make him seem like the bad guy? Ironically, in a moment of profound clarity, Biden explained that “today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Politics has literally devolved into WWE, circa 1991 (when it was still WWF), and was pretending to be real just to sell tickets. Except now, people are not lining up to watch Hulk Hogan body slam Andre the Giant; they want to watch Trump vs. Clinton and Beto vs. Ted and now Harris vs. Biden. And they are not looking for substance; they are looking to see if their guy can deliver a chair shot to the detestable villain.
Izzo Zwiren works in healthcare administration, constantly concerning himself with the state of healthcare politics. The topic of healthcare has led Izzo to become passionate about a variety of political issues affecting our country today. Aside from politics, Izzo is a fan of trivia, stand-up comedy, and the New York Giants. Izzo lives on Long Island with his wife and two adorable, hilarious daughters.