What shall we call contemporary Republican ideology? Is it conservatism? Libertarianism? Authoritarianism? Trumpism? Fascism?
How about kayfabe?
It’s a term that emerged from the sweaty, steroidal locker rooms of that most American of art forms, professional wrestling — but it’s a philosophical rubric that can be used to understand a wide range of phenomena: entertainment, business, religion and, especially, politics. Kayfabe rhymes with “Hey, babe,” and its linguistic origins are obscure; perhaps it’s corrupted Pig Latin for “be fake,” as some speculate. That would be appropriate, given what it denotes.
From pro wrestling’s very beginning, as a circus sideshow in the late 19th century, it has rarely been a legitimate athletic competition. Unlike the wrestling one might see in a school athletics meet or at the Olympics, the outcome of a pro wrestling match is determined ahead of time. The storylines and trash-talking monologues are crafted by writers. The most famous wrestlers — people like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — are often performing wild exaggerations of their own personalities. The grappling action between the combatants is a cooperative, semi-choreographed illusion of superhuman strength and impossible-seeming pain. Pro wrestling is, to answer a still-recurring question from outsiders, fake.
However, for that first century of the art form’s existence, the fakeness was never to be intentionally acknowledged to the public.
Kayfabe refers to pro wrestling’s central conceit: that everything the audience is seeing is real. As an adjective, it simply described something that was fake — for example, if two unrelated men were billed as brothers, that would make them kayfabe brothers. As an imperative verb, it meant staying in character: If you wrestled as a noble Native American character, you couldn’t let the press find out you were actually a womanizing Swede, and so forth. As a noun, it referred to the entire system of manipulations that upheld the industry.
The old-school kayfabe system — an oligarchy controlled by promotion-owners who acted as puppet-masters, giving wrestlers their marching orders about whom they had to pretend to be furious at for the next show — already had aspects that deeply resembled politics. Elected officials, too, pretend to be foes while actually being drinking buddies. Candidates sometimes tell rich backers one thing, and the public another. Election statements often sound ridiculous to those not caught up in the heat of the campaign.
So, too, did wrestling seem absurd to those who weren’t fans. In fact, it was absurd to many fans, too — even a child can notice, after a while, that some wrestling moves are impossible to perform without cooperation between the fighters. But these enthusiasts didn’t care that it wasn’t on the level; they loved the personalities and the spectacle, and they longed to lose themselves in the illusion. They wanted to believe. Whether out of pride or shame, fans would rarely acknowledge to detractors that their beloved “sport” was fixed. To defend its honor, they upheld the lie that it was real. Even if fans didn’t know the word, they were complying with kayfabe.
That is, until Vince McMahon killed it.
Mr. McMahon bought the World Wrestling Federation (or W.W.F.; it is now known as W.W.E.) from his father in the early 1980s and went on to make the material on the company’s shows even more outlandish. The wrestlers looked and acted like cartoon characters, all neon colors and improbable traits.
At Mr. McMahon’s behest, the W.W.F. started calling its product “sports entertainment,” a sly and unprecedented wink to the audience about what was really going on. Mr. McMahon and his wife — eventual Trump cabinet member Linda McMahon — pushed hard for the sport to be reclassified so that it did not need to face more challenging health regulations and taxes required for sporting events by quietly telling state legislatures that the pastime was fake; in lawsuits, they would sometimes admit the same fact. The admissions relied on simple, deeply misleading logic: If something was fake, how dangerous could it be?
When this very newspaper revealed in a February 1989 news story that the W.W.F. had confessed to fakeness in deregulation testimony, it was a seismic event. Without old-school kayfabe, the wrestling art form was naked. For years, the W.W.F. and the rest of the industry chugged along with their existing strategies, to greatly diminishing artistic and financial returns. Then, a remarkable, lucrative and dangerous breakthrough occurred.
In the mid-1990s, wrestlers and promoters started juicing the audience by tossing them little teases of once-taboo reality. A grappler trying to “get over” (industry lingo for winning the audience’s attention) as a villain might reference a fellow wrestler’s real-life personal problems in a cruel in-ring monologue, just to make the audience hate him more. An owner might direct a wrestler to pretend he’s going rogue against the company in an outrageous monologue, then tell gullible journalists that he’s in big trouble with his employer, all to juice interest in what might happen next on the show. You knew wrestling was usually fake, but maybe this thing you were seeing, right now, was, in some way, real. Suddenly, the fun of the match had everything to do with decoding it.
Although Mr. McMahon was not the sole inventor of what we might call neokayfabe, he was the one who made it the default policy. What’s more, he turned himself into the main on-screen villain of his programming, shouting and wrestling as the demonic figure known as “Mr. McMahon.” He profited off fans’ hatred of him by exaggerating for them everything one might find repugnant in a billionaire. In real life, he conquered the industry, wiping out other major wrestling companies by 2001, and remaking pro wrestling in his image.
Nothing was off-limits in neokayfabe. Mr. McMahon and the performers could say the unutterable, do the unthinkable — the more shocking, the better — and fans would give it their full attention because they couldn’t always figure out if what they were seeing was real or not. The human mind is easily exploited when it’s trying to swim the choppy waters between fact and fiction.
Old kayfabe was built on the solid, flat foundation of one big lie: that wrestling was real. Neokayfabe, on the other hand, rests on a slippery, ever-wobbling jumble of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, all delivered with the utmost passion and commitment. After a while, the producers and the consumers of neokayfabe tend to lose the ability to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. Wrestlers can become their characters; fans can become deluded obsessives who get off on arguing or total cynics who gobble it all up for the thrills, truth be damned.
Does all that remind you of anything?
Neokayfabe is the essence of the Republican strategy for campaigning and governance today. That’s no surprise, given Mr. McMahon’s influence on G.O.P. politics. His product, filled with bigotry and malevolence, was a primary cultural influence on countless millennials, especially during the W.W.F.’s late-century peak (in 1999, Gallup estimated that 18 percent of Americans, roughly 50 million people, counted themselves as pro wrestling fans), and those millennials have entered the Beltway — and the voting booth. Ms. McMahon has become a major Republican fund-raiser, candidate and official. And, most important of all, there’s the Trump connection.
Mr. McMahon and Donald Trump have been close friends for nearly 40 years. Even before he met Mr. McMahon, Mr. Trump had been a lifelong fan of pro wrestling — as well as a chronic dissembler — but it was Mr. McMahon who ushered Mr. Trump into the world of neokayfabe. Mr. Trump acted as the “host” of two installments of “WrestleMania.” Most spectacularly, Mr. Trump performed as himself in a story line where he and Mr. McMahon pretended to be bitter enemies, sending proxy wrestlers to engage in trial by combat at 2007’s “WrestleMania 23.” Mr. Trump is the first — though possibly not the last — member of the W.W.E. Hall of Fame to occupy the Oval Office.
Before he met Mr. McMahon, Mr. Trump had probably never worked a rowdy arena into a bitter, liberated frenzy by feeding it a mix of verboten truths and outrageous lies. But that skill, so essential in wrestling, would become Mr. Trump’s world-changing trademark.
We’re being too generous to other industries if we single out politics as the only place where neokayfabe has taken over, whether through wrestling’s influence or by convergent evolution. Think of entertainment: Some pop stars’ massive success largely rests on fans’ assumption that carefully choreographed “behind the scenes” hints about inspiration and heartbreak are legit. Or finance: Many C.E.O.s speak with blinding optimism about their companies because they cannot distinguish between their own truths and falsehoods anymore. Or, dare I say it, the news media: Pundits compete for attention, and nothing grabs outraged clicks quite like planting a ludicrous argument in the soil of an inarguable truth.
In May of 1999, when Mr. McMahon was approaching the peak of his cultural influence, a wrestler named Owen Hart fell more than 70 feet during a failed zip-line stunt at a wrestling show. He hit the ring. The fall killed him. Thousands of people in the live audience saw it happen, and at least some weren’t sure if what they were seeing was real. An ambulance, used for Mr. McMahon as part of a set piece involving a fake injury earlier in the show, took Mr. Hart to the hospital, where he was declared dead. But the event continued, and eventually the crowd was able to cheer along. In the world of neokayfabe, even something as real as death seemed like it could be fake.
I love pro wrestling, but I fear neokayfabe. It turns the world into a hall of mirrors from which it is nearly impossible to escape. It rots the mind and eats the soul. And yet, we cannot return to the world of old kayfabe, either — we know too much. Perhaps the only antidote to neokayfabe is radical honesty. It’s less fun, but it tends to do less material harm, in the long run.
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