New Zealander Daniel Smith spent a year living in the United States. Once he returned home, the question he was most asked was “what the hell is going on over there?” Today, on the day Trump leaves office, Daniel attempts to answer that question, and yes, it has something to do with wrestling.
The first time I saw Donald Trump standing before me I was staring at a life size cardboard cut-out at a fair in a small town in Northern California. Beside the cut out, a man made of flesh was standing clad in a leather vest with a gun in his hand. He stood in wraparound sunglasses protecting the sanctity of the cardboard image with the threat of lethal force.
I approached the cut out and asked if I could take a photo. The guard assented but hovered just out of frame making sure that I wasn’t an ANTIFA stooge attempting to desecrate the image.
For an outsider it was strange to see clear political extremism so casually tolerated. A man with a gun was defending a cardboard image of a political leader. No one blinked twice.
Now, I am no expert, but I think to discuss how this situation occurred you need to unpack the strange brand of unreality that American culture seems particularly susceptible to. To do that, we need to talk about professional wrestling.
Professional wrestling is a theatre of baby oil and brawn. Its athletes are loud and brash. What it lacks in refined strategy it more than makes up for with a strange combination of brute force and gymnastics, the beauty of which can leave grown men in tears.
The lynchpin of pro-wrestling is the concept of kayfabe; the wilful suspension of disbelief in the “fakeness” of the act which allows it to maintain an emotional appeal while being clearly not real.
I learnt first-hand about kayfabe when I attended an underground wrestling match in a dingy warehouse behind a recycling depot south of downtown Los Angeles. I saw a man covered in oil beat another man unconscious with a puppet that appeared to have a life of its own. Another man who claimed to be half-dinosaur was beaten to a pulp and with a roar came back from the brink of extinction to win the match.
When written down the wrestling sounds cartoonish, and it is, but in the midst of a screaming crowd, cartoonish can become something more. The mob mentality takes hold. As the throat gets shouted raw, emotion rides roughshod over the rational elements of the mind.
Emotional fidelity is what defines Kayfabe. New York Times journalist Nick Rogers wrote that “Kayfabe … is a philosophy about truth itself. It rests on the assumption that feelings are inherently more trustworthy than facts.”
When applied to supporters of Trump, this concept explains the question many New Zealanders have watching T.V. reports of screaming Americans: “Do these people really believe in this crap?”
The answer is maybe they do, but they don’t have to to be screaming. Kayfabe only requires their emotional conviction, not any logic behind it.
This is what makes the politics of Trump so dangerous. All he requires of his followers is little more than the suspension of belief in reality. It is an easily accessible and hollow system that brings with it viral appeal of the righteously enraged.
When you are a New Zealander overseas, people are interested in you as a specimen of a country known only as the origin place of hobbits, orcs, and socially inept folk musicians.
But, say what you will about this country, I think the people here are pretty straight up. We don’t engage in double-speak, we aren’t as fame obsessed, most of us don’t think of our lives as stories with feature film potential. I think the reason that New Zealand has never had a truly great reality TV show is the same reason that I hope we never have a Trump. We seem to lack that particularly American tolerance for blatant bullshit.
But we shouldn’t get smug just yet. Like America this country also has a violent past that we have not yet openly addressed. Like America this country was built on stolen land. Like America, elements of this country reward politicians who employ racist, dog-whistling rhetoric.
If Trump has shown us anything in his time as POTUS, it is what happens when the truth is disregarded. We should not be so smug as to assume that the same thing couldn’t happen here. The longer it takes this country to reconcile with the truth of our past, the closer we come to descending into emotionally charged unreality that has gripped American politics these past four years.