What is the attraction of Donald Trump? What is the reason for his popularity, even though he is viewed unfavorably by fifty-eight per cent of voters nationally? Why has he dominated the polls since last August and defeated at least sixteen other Republican contenders? The answers to these questions have so far stumped the political pundits.
One person who could possibly have understood Trump’s popularity and staying power was Roland Barthes. Never heard of Roland Barthes? I am not surprised. He is not exactly a household word by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Barthes has been dead since 1980, but even so, I find his words to be utterly relevant to an understanding of the political phenomenon known as Donald Trump.
Roland Gérard Barthes was a French philosopher, literary theorist, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology and post-structuralism. In 1980, in what French Existentialists would call an “absurd” event, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris and one month later succumbed to the chest injuries sustained in that accident. Barthes was just sixty-five years old.
Barthes most famous essay, published in his 1957 anthology, Mythologies, focused on professional wrestling of all things. Barthes was not writing about Donald Trump, of course, but when Barthes wrote about professional wrestling as a “spectacle of justice,” I believe he may have been onto something worth considering in understanding the Trump phenomenon. It is worth noting here that before he was a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was an active participant in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and in 2013 was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
I find it more than mere coincidence that Barthes essay, “The World of Wrestling,” focuses on a “sport” that is heir to none other than boxing. Barthes refers here, not to the modern day collegiate sport of wrestling, which appropriately maintains many of the same rules as its Greek origins, but to the much more lucrative version that most of us would recognize as WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment – with the emphasis on the word, “entertainment.”
Barthes does not make a value judgment about either boxing or wrestling. He simply broadcasts the fact that, like a Broadway show, a wrestling-match is about smoke and mirrors, whereas a boxing-match is about the precision of science. In fact, the draw for many boxing aficionados are those rare moments when a contestant, seemingly dominated by his competitor physically, somehow manages to endure the physical punishment long enough to weaken his oppressor merely by absorbing his energy. Muhammad Ali, for instance, was famous for this style of fighting late in his career when he came to terms with the fact that he had grown slow and heavy compared to his earlier career. He would taunt his opponents, inviting them to hit him and actually allow them to do so in many instances. The idea was to have his opponents use up as much energy as possible and then in the third or fourth round unleash his own reserve of energy at the very moment that his seemingly superior opponent had grown weak. This was also a game of psychology, of course. It must have been somewhat mentally debilitating for Ali’s opponents to hit him as hard as they possible could just to see him smile and say something like: “Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right – when he knocks you down, you’ll sleep for the night; and when you lie on the floor and the ref counts to ten, hope and pray that you never meet me again.”
To bring all of this back to the current state of affairs of politics in the United States, and in particular, to Donald Trump, I must say plainly that I find the Trump phenomenon to be nothing more than a wrestling-match and that Donald Trump is not playing politics; he is presenting spectacle. Trump is a wrestler, and perhaps better than any presidential candidate in history, he knows how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of justice as though it were the very concept itself.
When I was exposed to Barthes essay on wrestling in Mythologies for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the obvious connection I saw between the way Trump is running his campaign and the way a successful wrestler draws the audience into his camp from inside the ring. In the current campaign, Trump has behaved like a professional wrestler while his opponents have conducted the race like a boxing match. Figuratively speaking, as the rest of the field measured up for their next jab, Trump decked them all by hitting them with a metal chair. Democrats should take note of things to come. This will be a bruising, bashing fight to the finish with only one person standing when it is over. In Trump’s mind, that person will be Donald Trump, of course.
Others in the Republican field have been concerned with the rules and constructing a strategy that, under those rules, would lead to the nomination. But Trump has not concerned with such things as rules. Instead, Trump has focused on each moment and eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment – and his supporters have loved it and still do.
Trump knows how to define his opponent – whether that opponent is China, or Mexico, or illegal immigrants, or hedge fund managers, or “Crooked” Hillary, or “Goofy” Elizabeth Warren – and pledges to go after them with unbridled aggression. If, in making his case, he crosses over a line or two, so what! It is all in the game and all for the better as far as Trump and his followers are concerned.
For a pro wrestler, energy is everything. A wrestling fan is less interested in what is happening – or the coherence of how one event leads to the next – than the fact that something is happening. On that score, Trump delivers as well. Along those lines, Trump’s favorite insult – which he employed repeatedly against Jeb Bush and then against Ben Carson – was that his opponents were “low energy.”
He is omnipresent on TV. When he cannot make it in front of the cameras, he simply calls into the morning TV shows. When he is not on TV, he is tweeting boasts, insults, and non-sequiturs. When he runs out of things to tweet, he retweets random comments from his supporters. He is, above all, a master at manipulating the media.
Uncontrolled action is suicidal for a boxer, or for a traditional politician. But Trump is not a traditional politician and therefore is not bound by those limitations. The crazier things become, the more Trump’s supporters love the chaos.
Some of the most successful fights are crowned by a decisive unrestrained finale where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring, and the limitations of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder that overflows into the hall and carries off wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators. With the Trump phenomenon, Americans have been swept away by a triumphant disorder, and some believe that it needs to be brought to an end by reinstating the rules and regulations of the ring.
So why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act, just a spectacle? It is obvious that it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. Perhaps this is why the attacks on Trump have been so ineffective. When Rand Paul and others took to calling out Trump as an “entertainer” and a “con artist” rather than as a legitimate candidate, this approach was about as effective as me running into the middle of the ring during a WrestleMania event and yelling: “This is all fake!” I would be correct in my accusation, of course, but I am equally correct that no one would really care.
One of Barthes’ central points is that boxing, represented by traditional rules and decorum, is not morally superior to pro wrestling. In fact, for all its deceit and phoniness, one could argue that pro wrestling today is a more noble pursuit than boxing, which is hopelessly corrupt and fraudulent. Similarly, Trump is able to take advantage of the obvious dysfunction of the traditional political system. Compared to this system, the things that Trump is offering – passion, energy, and a sense of justice – may not seem so bad to many.
Does this mean that Donald Trump will be the next Republican president of the United States? At this point in time, no one really knows – and I, for one, sincerely hope not and will not vote for him under any conceivable circumstance – but what we do know is that traditional punditry has thus far been incapable of understanding his appeal. Roland Barthes has been dead now for some thirty-six years, but I believe that what he wrote in 1957 about the world of professional wrestling and boxing has considerable application today in understanding the political phenomenon known as Donald Trump. A little Barthes might be very helpful right now.