Fourteen months until the general election, and think of the wacky political headlines we’ve already seen: Rick Perry threatening a Texas-style beat down of the Fed Chairman and declaring Social Security to be a Ponzi scheme; Michele Bachmann claiming to be animated by a serial murderer and “discovering” a heretofore unknown cause of “mental retardation”; and Sarah Palin, who is busy… well, she’s busy being Sarah Palin (which might or might not include cocaine snorting and fornication with an NBA star).
And these are just the presidential hopefuls! There’s no telling what we’ll see once the House and Senate races heat up, though we might soon get a preview: news out of Connecticut is that Linda McMahon, ex-President and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is taking another stab at the Republican nomination for the Senate seat vacated by Joe Lieberman.
Recall the eye-catching stories when McMahon ran in 2010, when the anti-McMahon mob uncovered the sordid details of her professional wrestling empire? There were accusations of gross insensitivity toward the mentally challenged, a culture of rampant steroid use, and a deeply troubling history of premature deaths—all of which were meant to show that McMahon was unfit to represent the State of Connecticut.
And these were the criticisms that came during the primary, from McMahon’s own political Right! When the Left came at her during the general election, they clobbered her with the WWE’s gross displays of sex, violence, and the degradation of women.
No doubt we can expect a similar line of attack as the election season heats up.
Linda McMahon plays Linda McMahon
If, like me, you’re a political junkie, you’ll eat this over-the-top political muckraking up—even as you’re well aware that these tactics largely boil down to the same kind of empty grandstanding and aggressive posturing found in the world of professional wrestling. Yes, the candidates will “fight,” but it will be the fake fighting of canned slogans and predictable partisan indignation; no one will land any kind of “real” policy blow. As in WWE programming, we will witness scripted political feuds that rehearse the same boilerplate themes week after week, interview after interview. The much-ballyhooed presidential debates, like wrestling matches, are designed primarily to rile up partisan audiences and sell advertising time.
Perhaps the reason this election cycle lunacy appeals to me so much is because I’m also an unabashed aficionado of professional wrestling; the two genres look so similar to me.
For example, the evening news might introduce candidate Perry as the Governor of Texas, but when I look at him, I see a campaign-trail version of WWE superstar J.B.L., with his big-talking, big-folksy, big-Texas ways. The broadcasters might introduce candidate Bachmann as a Minnesota Congresswoman, but to me, she looks like the WWE’s Vicky Guerrero, whose own rise to power teetered toward mad-hatter craziness. Candidate Romney might be the ex-Governor of Massachusetts, but to me, the far right’s reaction to his just-your-average-guy shtick (“you’re not a real Republican!”) is eerily similar to fan reaction to the clean-cut image of current WWE Champion, John Cena (“you’re not a real wrestler!”).
I’m even more confused—pleasantly so—by candidate Linda McMahon. Her connection to wrestling is even more obvious; and not simply because she used to run the WWE. No, McMahon has experience as a wrestling character. Get this: for years McMahon appeared in WWE shows in the role of a corporate executive who belonged to a dysfunctional management team vying for “control” of the WWE. Her in-character name: Linda McMahon. No doubt McMahon’s experience playing the character Linda McMahon has prepared her well for her role as a political character, Linda McMahon.
Interesting as this politics-wrestling connection might be, what truly gets me excited is this: as a political junkie and professional wrestling aficionado who is also, at the same time, a religion scholar, I am especially well-positioned to jump into the McMahon-for-Senate melee. For, as most Pew Forum surveys about electability show, if you truly want to land a political blow, you don’t go after a candidate’s blasé attitude toward the mentally challenged, or her possible connection to steroids usage; no, you go after something the electorate really cares about, something that gets almost everyone on both the right and left fired up: a candidate’s connection to religion.
Think back to 2008, when two of the most damaging anti-Obama attacks were the (completely contradictory) claims that the Democratic candidate was a secret Muslim and a devotee of an America-hating black Christian preacher.
As a 2007 Pew Survey shows, in presidential elections, being a Muslim is really, really bad, while being (the right kind of) Christian is, unsurprisingly, quite good.
Congressional races like Linda McMahon’s, however, are obviously not the same as presidential races, as the election of the first Muslim congressman demonstrated back in 2006. But candidates at any level need to hold the “right” views about religious matters—“right” being defined by the views of one’s particular electorate.
And this is precisely where my politics-wrestling-religion expertise comes in: if McMahon’s primary opponents really want to land a blow,* then they may want to shine a spotlight on the WWE’s portrayal of religious figures in the wrestling ring. Surely this would “prove” whether or not McMahon holds proper religious views. Just as McMahon’s opponents in 2010 mined the WWE for sordid details about steroids and misogyny, this time around they should mine it for its religious content, content that may well provide the political equivalent of wrestling’s “finishing moves”—potent blows that send one’s opponent down for the count.
Here, therefore, are my contributions to the arsenal of wrestling moves in the 2012 McMahon-for-Senate brawl, which shall henceforth be known as WrestleMcMahonia II.
Wrestling Move #1: The “That’s What She Said” (pronounced Sa-YEED)
Who Should Use the Move: McMahon’s opponents on the Left when speaking to crowds of Democrats. Or, McMahon’s supporters on the Right when speaking at Tea Party rallies.
Evidence from WWE Programming: The Sheik was a WWE Hall-of-Famer and perhaps the first Muslim wrestling character to appear in the ring. Playing the role of a wealthy and bloodthirsty Syrian, this reviled villain would stir the patriotic emotions of the boisterous crowds. One of The Sheik’s signature actions was, immediately before his matches, to unroll a prayer mat in the corner of the wrestling ring and engage in a very badly rendered imitation of the Muslim salat (daily obligatory prayers)—something that would elicit tremendous censure from the fans.
A series of Sheik-like copycats would appear in the WWE over the years: The Iron Sheik, General Adnan and Colonel Mustafa, Sabu, and The Sultan. These characters were all variations of the Orientalist imagination: they dressed like extras from Lawrence of Arabia; they spoke in broken English or faux-“Arabic”; they were brutal and blood-thirsty fighters; they hated America and American values; and the crowds hated them back.
In fact, one of the two most hated wrestlers in the last quarter century was an Arab character in the mold of The Sheik, but with a War On Terror twist: Muhammad Hassan played an Arab-American who was fed up with post-9/11 American jingoism, and rampant anti-Arab discrimination. The character, along with his Arab sidekick, Khosrow Daivairi, would sometimes end his anti-American tirades by raising his hands to the sky in praise of Allah. The duo enacted the far-Right’s paranoid delusion of who really pulled the strings in organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations: America-hating religious fanatics, bent on the destruction of this great land.
What conclusion might one draw from the WWE’s consistent displays of Islamophobia? Well, using the same mudslinging logic of the 2008 anti-McMahon campaign, it becomes “clear” that Linda McMahon hates Muslims.
Wrestling Move #2: The “Christian Crippler”
Who Should Use It: McMahon’s opponents on the Left when speaking at events like Methodist-sponsored anti-poverty rallies. The move, however, should never—ever—be used by McMahon’s supporters on the Right.
What the Move Consists of: A claim that McMahon thinks Christians are either comedic oafs or loathsome killjoys.
Proof in WWE Programming: “The Reverend Slick,” a do-gooder wrestling manager, was probably the best example of a Christian-themed wrestler whose piety was used for comedic effect. In one famous storyline, he took on as a protégé “The Ugandan Giant” Kamala in order to convince the African “brute” that he was, in fact, a man, and not the animal that his previous manager had taught him to be. This “humanizing of the African savage” storyline was ostensibly to demonstrate the compassion of the good Reverend, but the entire angle was performed mainly for comedic effect: just as Kamala was a cartoonish stereotype not to be taken seriously, so too was The Reverend’s Christian compassion.
There are other examples of comedic Christian-themed characters, many of whom had very short runs in the WWE: Friar Ferguson, the jolly and perpetually inebriated friar; Brother Love, the unctuous Jimmy Swaggart wannabe; and The Flying Nuns, large men cross-dressing as Catholic School Sisters.
Surely McMahon’s opponents can claim that she has a long and sad history of mocking Christian piety—at least according to the “logic” of political smear campaigns.
McMahon also seems to consider evangelicals to be loathsome and blathering killjoys, as demonstrated by a second category of Christian-themed characters, typified by the second of the two most hated wrestlers of the last quarter century: Goldust/Dustin Rennels, an effusive, bedazzling drag queen who abandoned his prior life of uninhibited sexual deviancy and re-emerged as a Bible-believing, moralizing evangelical convert caught up in an End Times frenzy.
In one storyline clearly designed to lampoon the religious right’s increasingly vocal criticism of wrestling’s morally questionable product in the 1990s, Runnels would air spoof commercials during WWE television broadcasts as a spokesman for the fictitious “Evangelists Against Television, Movies, and Entertainment” (or: EAT ME). During these ads, Runnels would criticize wrestling’s increasingly X-rated storylines and encourage the audience to engage in healthy activities like Bible reading.
In the eyes of wrestling’s fans, however, the Goldust/Dustin Runnels conversion storyline saw the wrestler trade one repulsive wrestling gimmick for another equally repulsive one: the cross-dressing sexual deviant became the meddlesome evangelical who criticized everything that made the WWE’s increasingly lewd content so much fun.
Indeed, a pugnacious and amoral zeitgeist would come to predominate the WWE for years, and a parade of ever more morally-debased characters would gain popularity. Simultaneously, the WWE’s programming evidenced a dismissive attitude toward American Christianity and its prominent institutions and symbols. The WWE would even create a wrestler named “Mordecai,” a character who claimed to descend from God’s right hand in order to execute His judgment on the WWE’s den of iniquity. While Mordecai embodied the same kind of Christian theology brought to life in the extraordinarily popular Left Behind series, in the WWE he was an unambiguous “bad guy” reviled by fans.
On the political battlefield, candidate Linda McMahon is far more vulnerable to revelations about professional wrestling’s storylines that are critical, not only of Islam, but of evangelical Christianity, than to charges of misogyny and steroid use that have been used with little success in the past. The question is: will her opponents pay close enough attention and be fluent enough in the language of pro wrestling to tell this story to the public? Lord only knows.
*The recommended “wrestling moves” in the above essay are meant to illustrate a critical concern of the US electorate and should not be read as indicating a preference, one way or another, in any electoral contest.