“Don’t let President Trump bait you into a fight that you can’t win.” This has been the refrain of Matthew Ingram, Jon Stewart, me, and everyone else laboring under the delusion that we can resurrect the corpse of civility after it drew its last breath in the tar pits of Election Day 2016. While it may be indisputable that the media can’t win this kind of fight against the president, it’s certainly worth exploring why.
Back in August, Jonah Goldberg scratched the surface of this question but didn’t dig quite deeply enough. Goldberg framed the fight between Trump and the media in pro-wrestling terms, asserting that Trump likes to set up WWE-style matches where he plays the character of Super Successful President Man and forces the media to play his hapless foe. The media lose this game, Goldberg argues, because Trump wrote the rules in his favor.
The truth, however, is that these WWE-inspired rules aren’t Trump’s. They’re ours. As long as the media fail to fight according to those rules, the president will always win. To understand this more fully, let’s have a little crash course on professional wrestling terminology and WWE history.
Some Key Pro Wrestling Terms
Kayfabe is the illusion that what happens in the wrestling universe is real. It’s pretending, for example, that the punches are genuine and that two feuding wrestlers legitimately hate each other.
A gimmick is a wrestler’s persona or character. For example, Ted DiBiase’s gimmick was that of “the Million Dollar Man,” a wealthy villain who stuffed dollar bills down the throats of felled opponents and tried to buy off fellow wrestlers.
A babyface, or simply a face, is a wrestler whom fans generally consider to be a good guy. A heel, on the other hand, is a bad guy. A monster heel is a terrifying baddie who actually poses a threat to the face, unlike the average pathetic, only-win-by-cheating regular heel.
Getting over is what happens when fans have accepted a wrestler’s gimmick. When a face gets over, the fans reward him with cheers. When a heel gets over, the fans assault him with boos and hatred, also known as heat.
As for history, in the 1980s, the face-heel division in professional wrestling was clear. We hated cartoonish heels like the Iron Sheik and Mr. Perfect because they dripped with cruelty, arrogance, and deceit. We adored larger-than-life faces like Hulk Hogan and Hacksaw Jim Duggan because they espoused patriotism, confidence, and honor.
By the Attitude Era of the 1990s, however, the simple “good versus evil” storylines of Ronald Reagan’s America had been replaced by the cynical pragmatism of the Bill Clinton years. We no longer wanted faces who shimmered with virtue. We wanted faces who shared our vices and defiantly spat in the faces of heels who dared to judge people like us.
Gone were the days of Hulk Hogan telling kids to say their prayers and take their vitamins. This was the era of Stone Cold Steve Austin, a man who became one of the most over babyfaces in history by swilling beer, flashing the bird, and mocking the religious beliefs of other wrestlers.
President Trump Gets Over, But the Media Doesn’t
So why does the media lose every fight with President Trump? It’s because the media doesn’t know how to get over and President Trump does.
A funny thing happens when representative republics don’t feel very representative. After enduring decades of empty promises and ineptitude, many Americans will come to view politics the way the average wrestling fan views an episode of “Monday Night Raw,” saying to themselves, “I know these guys behind the microphone don’t mean what they’re saying. I know that all this high-stakes drama is staged. But it’s also kind of fun, and I’d like to be a part of the show.”
If someone comes along who offers them that chance by saying things they like and smashing guys they hate, they’ll cross their fingers and hope he’s for real. In our current political climate, sincerity plays second fiddle to showmanship. Put on a good production, and we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on everything else.
President Trump picked up on this shift in thinking and, due to his experience in the WWE, he knows how to put on that show. He understands that, in political wrestling, the way you win is not by having the facts on your side but by getting over more than your opponent.
He understands that you won’t get over with fans if your gimmick is inconsistent. More than anything, Trump’s political gift is knowing how to offer a hybridized-yet-consistent gimmick to fans from a variety of demographics.
Here’s Trump’s Winning Gimmick
Trump understands that Boomer conservatives want to relive the glory days of the 1980s, so he embraces the President Reagan Redux gimmick by draping himself in the flag, and touting the virtues of American supremacy and religious freedom. Attitude Era conservatives want a face who’s not afraid to pull some heel tactics in order to take down the libs who need owning and the snowflakes who need triggering, so he also embraces the President Stone Cold gimmick.
Why does the president insult the intelligence and the physical appearance of his enemies? Because that’s how you cut a promo that your fans will love. Why does he refuse to apologize for his cruelty or admit when he’s lied? Because doing so would be an admission that all of this is just a show, and you don’t keep your fans loyal by breaking kayfabe.
Likewise, Trump also knows how to get himself over with progressives. Liberals may hate his gimmick, but with all their “literally Hitler” hysteria, they’ve also made it quite clear that they want in on the WWE-style fun by treating him as a heel.
Here’s the thing about heels: it’s not just that we hate them. It’s that we want to hate them, something the president understands. The Resistance media wants him to be a lying, sexist, white-supremacist-dog-whistling monster. They don’t want to be persuaded that he’s not as one-dimensionally evil as WWE owner Vince McMahon’s “Mr. McMahon” character.
The president is happy to sell that gimmick because the more heat he gets from the media, the more love he gets from his fans, and the more over he gets on both sides of the aisle, which enables him to defeat the media more easily in the next tussle.
The Media Can’t Embrace How Bad They Are
The media, on the other hand, can’t get over because they can’t figure out how to obey the “be true to your gimmick” rule of the wrestling that we instinctively expect them to follow in the WWE-style political world we’ve built. By all accounts, the media wants to be a face, but they also love embracing heel tactics like misrepresenting issue after issue in order to attack the president, sitting on information to derail his SCOTUS nominee, blaming him for pipe bombs and synagogue bombings, publishing presidential assassination porn, and threatening to dox someone for making a WWE-themed meme of Trump beating up CNN.
The media might be able to pull this off if they were willing to be the kind of Attitude Era face who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty fighting the bad guys, but the media simultaneously purports to be the kind of pure, virtuous face of the ‘80s. The Washington Post wants the world to hear it shout “democracy dies in darkness.” Christine Amanpour wants journalists to be seen as the navigators of truth and the checkers of facts. Jim Acosta wants to position himself as the hero who stops the president from destroying the press, our nation’s most essential institution.
But if you don’t act respectable and objective, no one’s going to buy your gimmick as Respectable and Objective Journalist Man. Trump fans won’t accept you as a face because, for some reason, they won’t root for the guy who stands in the middle of the ring, screaming that Trump is the devil and all his Donaldmaniacs are racist morons.
Conservative Trump skeptics also won’t accept you as a face because they heard you bark the same hysteria about every Republican before Trump and because they know the only way to shed the “racist moron” label is to disavow conservativism itself.
Even Liberals Can’t Buy the Schtick
In fact, the media won’t even get over with liberals because a face is never over if his fans hate the heel more than they love him. And how much does the left hate Trump? How much heat did he get with liberals when he won the 2016 election?
Imagine the crowd reaction if, at Wrestlemania III, Andre the Giant pinned Hulk Hogan, then cut out his heart and devoured it three inches from the faces of a hundred weeping seven-year-old Hulkamaniacs. That’s how much. Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon may receive praise from the left, but their potency as heroes pales in comparison to Trump’s as a villain.
Likewise, today’s anti-Trump media can’t get over as heel for conservatives because smarmy, sneaky little preeners don’t strike fear in anyone’s heart. Bluster as they might, the media aren’t terrifying monster heels like King Kong Bundy or Brock Lesnar. Rather, they come across as sniveling little mid-card weasels like the Genius. They may score the occasional, instantly forgettable count-out win on “Saturday Night Main Event.” But they’re never going to headline against Trump at Wrestlemania.
They Could Win, But They Don’t Want to Do What It Takes
Another reason the media struggles to get over is because they aren’t willing to try a conservative face turn. To define another term, a face turn is what happens when a bad guy becomes good. (The opposite is called a heel turn.)
They’re remarkably easy to execute. The fans won’t require you to take a polygraph in order to prove that you’ll be a trustworthy good guy. All you have to do is punch a fellow bad guy in the mouth and, voila, you’re now on the side of the angels, and all your past transgressions are instantly forgotten.
Face turns are also no sweat when politics becomes pro wrestling, something else Trump understands on an almost subatomic level. Sure, he’s a thrice-married, serial adulterer who supported partial-birth abortion until approximately five seconds ago. But he understood that you don’t have to write an essay on biblical ethics in order to win the love of religious conservatives. You just have to attack the pro-choice and anti-Christian heels that they hate.
Trump was happy to do so and, as his reward, the religious right won’t stop comparing him to King David. (In fairness, if a president’s appointments accurately reflect his heart, Trump has given us plenty of reason to believe that his support of the pro-life cause is genuine.)
If the media want to pull off the Virtuous Journalist gimmick, they have to do something similar by executing a right-leaning face turn and winning some trust among conservatives. Hardcore Trump supporters may require too much groveling to make that tolerable, but wooing the average conservative wouldn’t take much. Journalists just need to show a little willingness to put liberal heels in their place when necessary.
Stop claiming that the only scandal of the Obama administration was Tan Suitgate. Take Dianne Feinstein to task for her Chinese spy problem. Quit ignoring the hundreds of thousands who show up for the March for Life every year while pretending it’s a watershed moment in American history when a half dozen Handmaid’s Tale cosplayers mumble a few protest chants outside a Chili’s after learning that Mike Pence really digs those Bacon Ranch Chicken Quesadillas.
The problem is that far too many journalists seem to lack the stomach for such a face turn. They don’t want to hold their own side accountable, especially if it imperils their preferred political policies or brings joy to the wrong people. They don’t want to give up that glorious hypocrisy of employing vulgarity to criticize President Trump for his vulgarity.
They don’t want to embrace a new gimmick as the rugged loner who’ll suplex anyone, friend or foe alike, should he step out of line. Instead, they much prefer to pat themselves on the back for furthering the legacy of Edward R. Murrow while President Trump repeatedly dropkicks them in the head.
If that’s what the media want, fine. But if you’re going to keep defying the laws of WWE-infused politics, don’t complain when President Trump continually steamrolls you like the Ultimate Warrior squashing the Honky Tonk Man at Summerslam ’88.