When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, there was a patronizing effort from national and international media to “understand the Trump voter.”
Journalists from big media outlets parachuted into places like Welch, in McDowell County, attempting to rationalize — more to themselves, it seemed — how someone so unpresidential could become president. West Virginia was a natural focal point, because Trump won it with nearly 68% of the vote in 2016.
A lot of us at the Gazette-Mail fielded calls from big-outlet reporters asking where they should go or who they should talk to, as if we were sherpa guides who knew the pathways to the summit of a remote mountaintop.
I always tried to be polite in these situations, hopefully steering folks away from hurtful stereotypes, which is how I found myself sitting down at a table in Charleston with a documentarian for a public broadcasting outlet in Europe.
She was perfectly nice, very professional and seemed to want to produce a genuinely informative piece. I tried to be as helpful as I could in a way that wouldn’t be exploitative. But she kept asking me why these people had voted the way they had.
First off, I didn’t think I had the right to speak for those people. Secondly, I found it ironic that a documentary filmmaker from Europe didn’t get why someone with authoritarian leanings could garner mass appeal and attain public office.
The only thing I offered up was a theory, and I was explicit in noting it was just that, and it might not apply to anyone, let alone everyone.
“Have you ever heard of pro wrestling?” I asked.
She was confused at first, but eventually we reached an understanding of the subject matter. It’s not like that’s just an American thing. But I explained how popular that type of entertainment was in parts of the United States, and how it was especially ingrained in the collective psyche of many West Virginians.
Trump was basically a kayfabe character to whom people could rally, I suggested. He knew how to stir a crowd. He knew how to strut and posture. He knew how to make complicated things, as he himself would say, “so simple.” He offered a return to some time in the hazy public memory when things could be fixed with a punch in the mouth. He promised. He threatened. He menaced. He preened. He formed clear lines.
I don’t know if that’s why some people voted for him, but the comparison itself seemed to stick over the past four years. To me, the Trump presidency was a plain example of what can go horribly wrong when a shallow, flimsy persona doesn’t possess the competence for the job, but has been given real power and the backing of millions of people.
Unfortunately, you can’t fight a pandemic with a fist or a threat. And no matter how many people insist that the lies of the pro wrestling president were true, they weren’t. The news, by and large, is real. It’s wrestling that’s fake.
It seemed so fitting that this character left D.C. not to “Hail to the Chief” or “God Bless America,” but the Village People’s “YMCA” blaring over the public address system. “Yakety Sax” probably would’ve been even more appropriate as the pro wrestling president boarded a plane bound for Florida, promising he’ll be back.
Hopefully, that’s just another lie.