“Kayfabe” is the fourth wall in professional wrestling. It’s a code, a principle, the relationship of the pros to the audience. The “feuds,” the “unmaskings,” the “leave-town matches,” are portrayed as absolutely genuine. A magician must never reveal her method; neither must a wrestler give fans any indication that the matches are indeed scripted and staged. Two “feuding” wrestlers who are friends in real life must never be seen fraternizing outside the ring: they are damaging the fiction, ruining the con. They are “breaking kayfabe.”
Before the World Wrestling Federation was forced to admit in 1989 that it produced scripted entertainment — to avoid being regulated like a genuine sport — kayfabe was dead serious and almost inviolable, like the dark secrets of grizzled carnies. The scam was so good that the rubes bought it. So good that when I lived in Georgia in the early Seventies, I remember hearing the sports reporter read the evening’s wrestling results on late-night network-affiliate news broadcasts. It wasn’t that the sportscaster believed. But his viewers did. Some of them still do.
Kayfabe divides wrestlers into two types: “heels,” or bombastic, thundering bad guys who will goad, cheat and lie; and “faces,” short for “babyfaces,” or virtuous, humble souls who compete on athletic ability alone. A heel can change into a face, and vice versa, in a storyline called a “turn.” Many if not most serious fan-favorite topliners since WWF promoter Vince McMahon admitted kayfabe in testimony before the New Jersey state senate were once heels. A well-executed turn can make even wide-eyed kids love the guy they were booing just two weeks ago.
The Economist, which is wonderfully droll on U.S. news due to its cultural remove, has looked on the current Presidential race with amusement and amazement. It describes one candidate as having “built an outrageous public persona around his gargantuan ego…Uncertainty over whether this is self-parody or undiluted egomania is part of the act. [He] is to public service what professional wrestling, which he loves, is to sport: entertaining and ludicrously implausible, a suspension of disbelief for escapists, a crude deception for the gullible.”
You know who the paper is talking about. Of course you do. But what if wrestling isn’t an analogy at all? What if Donald Trump’s candidacy so far has been nothing more than kayfabe?
Trump has been a classic heel ever since he announced for president. The Economist isn’t the first publication to note that his campaign appearances resemble pre-bout interviews with a bad-guy wrestler. His ego knows no bounds. He bellows about how he’s the best, smartest, winningest, and his opponents are weaklings, boring, losers. He rails about immigrants and Muslims, he out-jingos Ted Cruz, he makes meanspirited fun of his opponents. He sucks up media air like a bad guy who knows people don’t go to the matches to find out what his face opponent will do. They show up to see the heel.
I got to thinking about this after an appearance by Keith Olbermann last year on REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER. The two men were discussing Trump and Olbermann said when they met, Trump couldn’t have been nicer, kinder, or more considerate. It was all about your needs, he said: are you comfortable, can I get you anything? I was shocked when Maher seconded this appraisal. He had met Trump too, he said, and in the one-on-one setting, Maher had had the same reaction. I know what you’re thinking, and Olbermann said it out loud: either the blustery campaign persona or the respectful gentility is an act. But which one is it?
Could Trump be playing a heel to get attention and votes, beginning today in Iowa? (Remember, that’s what the crowds like.) Does he break kayfabe in private? Could he be planning a turn once he nails the nomination, and if so, could that storyline play to anyone beyond the gullible? Trump in the general: all of a sudden he’s a face? I hope I don’t have to buy a ticket.
2/3/16: A day or two later, somebody more verbally agile than I went here too.
6/7/16: And, incredibly, Trump IS the Pub nominee in the general. Unless the star chambers manage to do something about it before their quadrennial convention.
11/9/16: Holy shit.
4/26/17: And a year later, after the unthinkable, a sociologist goes over the same turf. As Paul Krassner once said, the truth is Silly Putty.