Nick Rogers has a theory as to how people like Donald Trump and Alex Jones keep their audience despite being exposed frauds (“How Wrestling Explains Alex Jones and Donald Trump,” The New York Times, 4/25/2017). If you want to get the gist of what I’ve written below without nuance, I left a comment on the article that you can read here. But onward:
Alex Jones’s audience adores him because of his artifice, not in spite of it. They admire a man who can identify their most primal feelings, validate them, and choreograph their release. To understand this, and to understand the political success of other figures like Donald Trump, it is helpful to know a term from the world of professional wrestling: “kayfabe.”
Although the etymology of the word is a matter of debate, for at least 50 years “kayfabe” has referred to the unspoken contract between wrestlers and spectators: We’ll present you something clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience genuine emotion. Neither party acknowledges the bargain, or else the magic is ruined.
I disagree with Rogers that Jones’s (and Trump’s) audience adores him because of his artifice—I’m not convinced they know it’s artifice. And to Rogers’s point about how liberal writers pondered whether Jones’s sort-of admission that he’s playing a character on his radio show, well, anyone who doesn’t understand why a Jones fan could simultaneously understand how Jones could admit to acting and believe that he’s not acting has never had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist. They have an answer for everything.
Although Rogers almost gets to the point, he ultimately misses it. The way he interprets kayfabe is reductive; it’s seemingly no more intellectually laborious than “willing suspension of disbelief,” which we regularly deploy when we watch a film or read a novel, that creator-audience contract wherein the creator promises not to pull any tricks and the audience willingly allow themselves to accept the fictive dream as real. Yet the rest of us aren’t fooled by Trump or Jones, or at least we don’t find them entertaining. But the pleasures anyone derives from watching the choreographed combat of professional wrestling or the incoherent, passionate ramblings of Trump and Jones are informed by something larger.
One reason professional wrestling is as popular as it is, and the main reason Trump and Jones are as popular as they are, is that it creates a narrative that constantly vindicates its audience’s beliefs, however ludicrous, and vilifies their supposed enemies. The narrative has shifted over time. As Chris Hedges documents in his book Empire of Illusion (which I would only recommend if you think you possibly can’t be any more cynical than you already are), the heroes of professional wrestling in the 80s were all-American (read: white, blonde) patriots, and the enemies were primarily foreigners—Russians in particular, as the Cold War’s wane spiraled the USSR into collapse. But watch today and the narrative is different. The heroes are down-on-their-luck blue collar dudes, sometimes veterans of our most recent military excursions who have lost a few buddies. They lost their job, or their house, or their wife, or all three. Maybe they drink a little too much. Maybe they’ve dabbled in drugs. They aren’t faithful to their spouses, and their spouses aren’t faithful to them. The enemy? Big, corrupt businessmen who lie and cheat and steal and humiliate good ol’ boys like the heroes of professional wrestling. Despite its larger-than-life portrayals, there is always a grain of truth to the narrative, which is how the audience gets drawn in.
The same is true for Donald Trump and Alex Jones. They validate their audience’s worldview over and over again—that, say, the Mexicans or the government are the cause of all your problems, that they’re out to get you, and they therefore need to be vanquished. The shouting, like the wrestling, isn’t the draw in and of itself; it’s the narrative that informs the shouting that captivates the audience. Without the conflict of good versus evil, without the belief that the one wrestler is like you just trying to do what’s “right,” then you’re watching two sweaty guys roll around in a ring. Add to it the allure of justice through violence in the form of an internally logical narrative, then you’re watching a cathartic outlet for rage at incompetent or evil authority. But the operative difference between the professional wrestling audience and the audience for Trump and Jones is that the wrestling fans generally understand that what they’re watching isn’t real—that’s not the same for people who like Trump and Jones.