This article was written on 29 Apr 2016, and is filled under Theory.

Truth, Trump, and the Poetics of Professional Wrestling


Carlito (Carly Colón) executing a dropkick against Eric Cairn. Photo by Tabercil. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Key terms.

Work: 1) An event meant to perpetuate a story line.

    2) To make someone believe something.

Shoot: An event that presents a truth that seems to challenge or resist a story line.

Kayfabe: 1) The totality of story lines in wrestling.

         2) Practices and conventions meant to keep pro wrestling’s secrets confidential.

Pop: Positive emotional intensity or crowd reaction.

Heat: Negative emotional intensity or negative crowd reaction.

Blow-off: Cathartic climax of a series of pop and heat events that closes a particular story line.

Getting Over: Achieving popularity with the crowd.

Heel: A wrestler that gets over by angering the crowd and generating heat.

Face: A wrestler that gets over by pleasing the crowd and making it pop.


Both Donald Trump and pro wrestling tell fantastical stories which are often difficult to reconcile with our everyday understanding of truth. From in-ring appearances to behind-the-scenes funding, Donald Trump also has a long and storied history with the professional wrestling business. It should not be surprising, then, that American politics increasingly resembles pro wrestling. But while our current political reality is actively converted into a stream of spectacularly marketable falsehoods and half-truths, pro wrestling fashions real truths out of apparent falsehoods and theatrical conceits. Now, it may be objected that while pro wrestling is fake, the consequences of the rise to power of a populist demagogue like Donald Trump could be catastrophically real.  However, such an objection misses the point of pro wrestling.  Even if pro wrestling isn’t real, what matters is that pro wrestling can be true.

A Google search will show that comparisons of Trump’s political campaign to pro wrestling are nothing new.[1]  However, they almost uniformly fail to take pro wrestling seriously enough to account for its narrative complexity.  As an example, a recent article concluded that calling Donald Trump an “entertainer” in no way undermines his political legitimacy because, “this is as effective [as] running into the middle of the ring during WrestleMania and yelling: ‘This is all fake!’ You are correct, but you will not be received well.”[2] This article’s conclusion is right but for the wrong reasons. It betrays an oversimplified understanding of the truth conditions unique to the narrative logics deployed and refined in the practice of pro wrestling.  Such a reductive understanding of pro wrestling actually invites the hostility that it warns against and obscures what wrestling teaches us about how stories can construct a relationship to truth.

The wrestling audience is traversed by very different understandings of what truth looks like and where to find it.  Just as some people really believe that Donald Trump would be the best presidential candidate, many people at any given wrestling match also believe that the struggle in the ring –or at least many aspects of it– is indeed real.  Pro wrestling fandom is divided by a relationship to truth: some fans, known as “smart-marks,” are aware of possible narrative manipulation, while others, “marks,” are so fascinated by the sheer immediacy of the spectacle that they either don’t know or simply don’t care if what they see is “really” happening. Unlike naïve marks, smart-marks embrace pro wrestling’s basic conceit and derive enjoyment or advantage from their own knowing contribution to shaping and perpetuating the story being told (Ben Carson, who endorsed Trump shortly after dropping out of the race despite his previous, vehement opposition to Trump’s rhetoric, is following the opportunistic logic of the smart-mark).  Marks, smart-marks, and non-fans alike all look for the truth of pro wrestling in different places, and wrestling is at its best when its narrative manages to fascinate all of these different gazes at once.

As evidenced by its vocabulary, the truth of pro wrestling depends on who tells the story and how it is told.  There are three basic ways to describe an event in wrestling: “work,” “shoot,” and “worked shoot.” Rather than directly reflecting the truth of an event, dividing the truth of wrestling into a “work” or a ”shoot” instead posits a specific sort of relationship between an event and the dominant narrative meant to explain it.  A “work” is an event coordinated with a dominant story line and decided upon in advance to ensure that a match or set of matches credibly arrives at a desired conclusion.  A comparable version of this logic is also present in political pandering, especially when mannerisms and opinions are feigned in order to ensure a political advantage.  Whenever Hillary Clinton adopts an ill-fitting southern accent to parrot Rev. James Cleveland, it is probably safe to assume that this is a work.  These “worked” actions are the building blocks of the poetics of wrestling, and together they constitute the all-encompassing narrative totality known as “kayfabe” (from “confabulation”) or “the work.”  A “shoot,” by contrast, is an action which seems to break with, defy, or threaten what kayfabe represents as the truth.  A shoot event can be something as banal as making an inopportune insider reference on camera or being overheard discussing how to improvise the match by a poorly-placed ringside microphone.  But shoots can also provoke a rupture with the narrative by being too real and causing a shock to the spectator.  A broken nose or rib from a purposeful and ill-intentioned blow can ruin a story line and a wrestler’s career just as quickly as bad writing and unconvincing characters.  And while it might seem easy to determine which events are “worked” in pro wrestling, figuring out just what might have been a shoot is far more difficult.  This leads to a third, hybrid configuration of truth in wrestling: the “worked shoot.”

“Worked shoots” problematize the very notion of truth by capitalizing on the plurality of gazes constitutive of pro wrestling spectatorship.  In a worked shoot, an event first appears to break the rules of kayfabe by challenging kayfabe’s narrative of a specific truth.  Then, with the speed of a judo hip toss, it redirects the spectator’s interrogation by calling into question the gaps in the way kayfabe tells all of its truths.  The worked shoot forces the aporetic realization that the apparent defiance of the story line might have been anticipated by kayfabe all along. This gives rise to an interesting paradox: the fundamental lesson of professional wrestling is that, to the extent that spectators of pro wrestling try to determine what “really” happened, everyone getsworked.” Marks miss the symbolic contest between the subtleties and slippages in reality and the limitations of kayfabe, which limits their ability to appreciate the physical and narratological finesse demanded by pro wrestling practice (although it may in no way detract from their enjoyment).  Smart-marks become captivated by the greater narrative of kayfabe and get suckered in by the promise of totally seeing through the illusion to a truth beyond the deformation of mediation and spectacle.  Nevertheless, the non-fans and casual commentators get “worked” most of all, because they fail to grasp that wrestling, like truth, is not less meaningful because it is structured like a fiction.  And this Lacanian insight cannot help but recall another: “Les non-dupes errent.”

In the politics of neoliberalism, Donald Trump functions as a wrestler because he has succeeded largely by exploiting the logics of pro wrestling far better than he ever did inside the ring.  Fans from a broad audience have always given his pro wrestling cameos a fairly tepid reception. The formal structure of pro wrestling is a unique and contradictory amalgamation of theater clothed in the conceits and conventions of spectator sport, so it is not coincidental that Donald Trump qua professional wrestler endlessly espouses his own personal dominance and uniqueness.  Similarly, Trump the political wrestler insistently portrays himself as “the best” because the poetics of pro wrestling respond to the same basic question that Roland Barthes successfully uncovers in his phenomenology of sport: “What is sport? Sport answers this question by another question: who is best?”[3]  The singular aim of pro wrestling is to tell a thrilling, credible, and lucrative story in response to this question.

Professional wrestling tells a story that is larger than life by sidestepping the question of what really happened and instead asking questions about a greater truth regarding the nature of justice and what should have happened.  The truth produced by the poetics of pro wrestling is encoded as a conflict between two types of characters: wrestlers are generally either “faces” (“babyfaces”) or “heels.” The opposition between faces and heels is commonly understood as the same as that between “good guys” and “bad guys,” and the ring is the primary site of combat where justice will be delivered or denied. Nevertheless, this understanding of faces and heels is too reductive because being a paragon of virtue or evil is not in itself what makes a wrestler a successful face or heel.  Instead, the audience’s reception of each character largely determines their success or failure.  Indeed, the actions of faces and heels are sometimes indiscernible because the narrative logics that sustains both character types have the same aim: to “pop” or “get heat with” an audience by fascinating it and causing the spectators to performatively indicate their acceptance or rejection of each wrestler.  This performance on the part of the audience then influences how the spectacle will play out in the future. The truth of wrestling is made manifest to and through its spectators, who function like Barthesian sports enthusiasts: “[…] Whereas in the theater the spectator is only a voyeur, in sport he is a participant, an actor.”[4] When the audience pops with chants and cheers or sizzles with the heat of boos and jeers, a heady brew of positive and negative emotional intensity is generated by the spectacle and can reach a climactic point.  Kayfabe’s narrative needs crowd reaction to survive. In pro-wrestling, popularity with the spectators is the ultimate virtue.

A big enough pop or enough heat from the crowd can change a wrestler’s status as a face or a heel at any moment: one night’s rejected hero may become the next night’s villain you love to hate. From a formal standpoint, faces and heels are just two different ways to use character to tell a story. Rather than being moral positions, faces and heels are forms of character that play off each other as foils to engage the audience’s emotions and canalize them toward a “blow-off,” or closure of a story line.  The blow-off should cause a maximally cathartic pop. In pro wrestling, heels and faces succeed in different ways.  Heels get heat and “get over” (achieve popularity) with the audience by defying kayfabe’s norms, rules, and sensibilities, thereby flaunting the ideal of justice represented by the narrative.  Faces get a pop and get over by reestablishing and confirming that same idea of justice and serving as a heroic point of identification.

This understanding of the dynamic nature of character in pro wrestling shows why calling Donald Trump a heel only tells part of the story.  For one thing, many of Trump’s supporters are presumably marks, and for them he is a face, not a heel. His misogyny and race-baiting echo the truth that these marks have been “worked” to believe: namely, that Mexicans, Muslims, and a socialist Kenyan are ruining the USA.  In this case, even Trump’s continued attempts at “shooting” against the establishment remain a work, because they perpetuate the story of Trump as a political outsider who “says what everyone is thinking.” Marks are blind to the difference between work and shoot, but smart-marks think they are in on the game. Trump’s smart-mark supporters believe that his attacks are actually a form of worked shoot.  From this angle, Trump’s more hateful and violent outbursts are at once true (inasmuch as he is “saying what he really thinks” against the grain of established political discourses and “political correctness”) and false (since his supporters will argue that their validity or truth has been distorted and misreported by insider political elites and the “liberal media”).  When Trump speaks, his wrestling repertoire and ability to generate heat engage his potential supporters from a variety of angles at once.  The only problem is that, as polls continue to show, the same brash, loudmouth character that keeps Trump’s most ardent supporters coming back for more is a heel, not a face, in the eyes of a general electorate. And it can be exceedingly hard to make a heel into a hero: just ask Ted Cruz.

Unless Trump can miraculously transform himself into a face for a general election audience, he is bound to learn the true meaning of “heel heat.”  As legendary heel CM Punk puts it: “That’s my job: to get people to want to see somebody beat the hell out of me. A lot of the time they themselves want to beat the hell out of me.”[5]  This is why Trump’s success as a heel in the political arena will ultimately also be his political undoing.  Like a worked shoot, the absurdities of his campaign may have called the very meaning of truth in politics into question, but they have also totally destroyed the possibility of Trump gaining credibility as a babyface with an audience broader than that of his hardcore base supporters.

Trump may be a wrestler, but wrestling reveals the limits of Trump.  The poetics of pro wrestling classify heels and faces by the way they emotionally engage an audience, not by their moral fiber or mastery of technical performance.  If we only focus on character and ignore its relation to kayfabe and audience reaction, we lose sight of the way the spectacular whole enforces its justice on the meaning of every character and every match to keep fans coming back for more.  Appreciating the poetics of pro wrestling on its own terms provides new insight into its unique narrative logics. And it might also allow us to tell a more alluring story about the victory of the people, one that doesn’t end with Donald Trump wearing the championship belt.

[1] For excellent recent treatments on the subject, see particularly O’Sullivan, Dan. “Money in the Bank.” Jacobin. 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2016., Willis, Oliver. “How Professional Wrestling Explains American Politics (Especially Donald Trump).” Medium. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016., and DeVega, Chancey. “Donald Trump Is a Professional Wrestler: How the Billionaire Body-slammed GOP Politics.” Salon. 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

[2] Legum, Judd. “This French Philosopher Is The Only One Who Can Explain The Donald Trump Phenomenon.” ThinkProgress. 14 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2016. <>. I am also tempted to suggest that a more apt metaphor than that of WrestleMania might include declaring that “Santa is a lie!” in a crowd of holiday shoppers or shouting “God is dead!” during a packed church worship service.  The point is that the question of truth is central to all of these metaphors, but there are still meaningful differences in the way that “truth” should be defined in each case.

[3] Barthes, Roland. What Is Sport? Trans. Richard Howard. 63. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

[4] Ibid 59.

[5] “WTF with Marc Maron Podcast Episode 444 – CM Punk.” Interview. Audio blog post. WTF with Marc Maron. 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.


One Comment

  1. Jon Cogburn
    May 2, 2016

    Fantastic article.

    Aren’t some wrestlers sort of in an indeterminate place between face and heel. Wasn’t this what Brett Hart was upset about during the “attitude era” where people acting out of the heel’s repertoire ended up getting positive heat (Degeneration X?). Could Trump end up working something like that?