Back in the day I thought professional wrestlers fought to win but then my Dad burst my bubble. While I don’t recall his exact words, “Son, they follow a script” will suffice.
I was taken back to that faint recollection by an article sub-titled, “America’s favorite form of theater overlaps with conspiracy theories and politics.”
The article in The Economist exploring politics and Conspiracy Theater, noted: “The two worlds also share an omerta-like code. Wrestler’s commitment to “kayfabe”, the imperative never to break character in case it ruptures the suspension of disbelief, occasionally borders on ludicrous.”
Kayfabe sent me to the dictionary, while the article recalled my Dad’s revelation. Wrestling is theater—very successful theater. Take a look at “Raw and Smackdown” on the World Wrestling network. Revenue was $265.6 million in the second quarter of 2021.
But, I have always had a hard time understanding the audience. Do they think the match is real or have they decided to become minor actors in the drama—paying actors? Can they totally suspend disbelief?
And so it is in politics. Donald Trump went from a largely scripted reality show (so-called) to the White House. MAGA was his script, the other side was villains and he led the chorus of applause and scorn.
Trump worked hard to stay on script. Unfortunately for him even the best impresarios have trouble controlling Washington much less foreign capitals. The former President was doing a pretty good job controlling the script and then Covid intervened. It became the daily life and death story. He had villains in China and the self-cocooning elites, but the medical realities at home went way off script.
Covid 19 doesn’t play fair. It defies the White House press conference routine. It entangles those with scientific credentials who struggle with consistency. And it races headlong into strongly held views about freedom. It probably brought down Trump and is now working its destructive power on President Joe Biden; as the President says “get vaccinated but stay masked.”
And, the pandemic became too convenient for people who research, write and report. Its import overwhelmed all else—budget stories, foreign policy and, more recently, a 21st “New Deal” filled with conceits. But, if we look across a broad range of public policy issues and their rhetorical devotees, we discover more actors than thinkers. Actors, who regardless of facts, refuse to break character—they understand kayfabe.
People with public responsibility need to be curious. Jettison the scripts. History will judge authenticity. A theatrical edge can help but only if the story has a good ending.
I was on the set of Cheers, the popular 1980s TV show, some years ago and spent a few minutes with Ted Danson. Danson was the bartender/impresario, Sam Malone. Danson, a master of comedic one liners said “you guys in Washington are just like us—we’re all actors.”
The joke unfortunately, was more than a joke. We all want to tell our story or expound on our theories or enjoy the limelight. Yet, when the mission is the public trust, the elected and appointed should step back and those they serve, the voter, should hold them accountable for more than an agile tongue. A suspension of disbelief is corrosive.
We, those who don’t depend on politics for our ego satisfaction or paychecks, should refuse to play along. We pay for the ticket to watch, we should never become part of the script.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.