The tweeted video of Donald Trump at a professional wrestling match attacking a person with the CNN logo covering his face sent me into flashbacks sitting with my grandfather as he watched professional wrestling back in the 80’s. My mother’s parents lived with our family growing up, and I recalled that on Saturdays, after the morning cartoons were done, the TV belonged to Pappy for WWF wrestling. He watched those matches with the fervor of a bloodthirsty Roman plebeian raucously cheering the grudge matches at the Colosseum.
The “Golden Age” of Wrestling
I can still remember his hoots of joy watching the sweat-shined wrestlers like Jimmy “SuperFly” Snooka, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and Tito Santana pound each other, appearing to knock their opponent senseless with body slams. My normally gentle and kind grandfather – a man who fixed my bike, planted our family’s garden, and drove my siblings and me to music lessons – would nearly froth at the mouth screaming for his favorite wrestler to “kill the guy!” I watched in horror as the wrestlers catapulted themselves off the rubbery ring ropes, then climb the posts above their opponent writhing on the mat, falling in a belly flop that sent the receiving body into twitching spasms of pain.
But what really got him riled up was when the managers pulled a stunt like the one in the Trump video. As Pappy and the crowds on the screen egged them on, men like Oliver Humperdink, Mr. Fuji, and Lou Albana (Pappy’s favorite) would hurl insults across the ring at the wrestlers and each other, spit flying. And then one of them would grab a metal folding chair, or his cane, or any bludgeon-worthy object, and launch a sneak-attack on his enemy, while some skimpily-clad buxom woman nimbly hopped out of the way in her high-heeled shoes.
It was when I first saw blood on the head of one of the wrestlers and cried in horror (while my Pappy laughed and hollered in glee), that my mother pulled me into the other room and explained what was really happening.
“It’s not real,” she said. “They’re actors. They’re faking everything. Don’t worry. Nobody really gets hurt.”
I looked at her in disbelief. She said, “Hold still and trust me.”
She swung her fist to my face and stomped her foot, drawing up short of my cheek. I flinched. But no pain!
“How did you do that?” I asked in awe.
“Watch them. They do the same thing. There are microphones under the ring to make everything sound loud. It’s actually choreographed. They practice to make it look real. Like the Three Stooges. But none of it is real.”
I was relieved.
But I was still confounded that my grandfather found even this fake violence so entertaining. This man was a Christian, attended the Christian Missionary Alliance church, took care of my grandmother, and cleaned up after us kids. But he was transformed into a crazed maniac by professional wrestling. I knew I had to help him.
So the next Saturday when I would normally get up after my cartoons were over, I stayed in my seat as the painted faces and bulging bodies strutted out to the ring. As soon as the first blow landed with a simultaneous foot-stomp, I said, “Pappy, you know this isn’t real, right?”
He turned to me, furious. “What?! No! You don’t think this is real? Look at that dropkick! Gittim, Hulk!”
I knew my grandfather was not a stupid man.
He knew how things worked. He could fix cars and bikes and furniture. But something about professional wrestling seemed to affect his brain. It tapped into a hidden seam of primal id-emotions normally kept in check by his superego. It turned him into something and somebody I did not recognize, let alone relate to.
When I was older, I learned that he had, in fact, physically abused my grandmother and aunt when my mother was a child. By the time I came along many decades later, that rage had been tamed and worn down. But on Saturday afternoons I caught a glimpse of the hyper-masculine violent side of him, unleashed right there in front of the TV.
I see it now.
As I watched the Trump wrestling video, the thought occurred to me that if he were alive today, my grandfather almost certainly would have voted for this man. That realization hit me as hard as a piledriver, and indicates how naïve I’ve been. I mean, yes, I realized Trump is a reality-show tycoon. I understood his penchant for theatrics and the con job he has pulled on this country. But it wasn’t until I saw that footage that I realized just how bad this is. The president of this country is nothing more than a fake trash-talking professional wrestling goon. We are in the middle of Trump’s wrestling match, and it’s only getting worse.
The thing is, I thought at first that the video was fake.
I assumed it had been doctored to look like Trump attacking a man. But no. It’s him. It’s footage from a 2007 Wrestlemania match. He attacks Vince McMahon, the WWE promoter at the time. (McMahon also happens to be the husband of the woman who is now Trump’s Small Business Administration chief, Linda McMahon.)
The U.S. President is supposed to represent American dignity, intelligence, and honor at its best.
But this video, which Trump proudly tweeted, is America at its worst. The problem is that while professional wrestling may all be an act, the harm being done to so many people and our planet, and the threats being made against the media are real. When congressmen start body-slamming reporters, something is not right. When your president is hurling wrestling-ring-style insults at MSNBC’s “Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika,” something is very, very wrong.
I wish somebody would just pull me out of this nightmarish scene into the real world and explain it all away: “It’s not real. They’re actors. They’re faking everything. Don’t worry. Nobody really gets hurt.”
But it is real. People are getting hurt. And I need to stop being shocked.
As social behaviorist Robin Chancer explained in her excellent article, “How To Stay Sane If Trump Is Driving You Insane: Advice From A Therapist,” I need to come to terms with this reality and find ways to move forward. She reminds us that “people are complex webs of goodness, love, selfishness, and aggression. Allowing the co-existence of opposites is the essence of dialectic. Individuals are not selfless or selfish; they are selfless and selfish. Our political terrain includes progression and regression.”
My Pappy was no different.
He was, indeed, a complex web of goodness, love, selfishness, and aggression. And those who voted for Trump and support his behavior are similarly complex. Millions of them who had kept their white-rage in check for years are now screaming like WWF fans on a Saturday afternoon at any and all who have been designated as an enemy by their favorite manager-goon. Women, people of color, people with disabilities, Muslims, “libtards,” you name it – they’re all targets in Trump’s pro-wrestling soap-opera.
Chancer offers step-by-step instructions on how to use a technique called Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) to maintain radical mindfulness that can empower us for concrete actions of resistance. Her article helped me to put things in perspective and strengthen my resolve to work for positive change. But as I’m raising my own children who are watching this dystopian reality unfold around them, even Chancer’s helpful advice falls short.
Because I have to admit – I’m scared.
When I hear about a white man fatally shooting a young black woman in a fit of road rage, it makes me fear for my life. I worry about my husband and kids. I worry about my friends of color, my LGBTQ friends, my female friends, and those who will be completely unprepared for the sneak attack by the goon with a cane or a gun. I worry now when I drive – what might I do that sets off the white-male-rage? I worry that someone like my Pappy, taking his cue from our president, will turn on me in a fit of self-righteous fury and attack with unrelenting anger.
“Don’t think this real? Look at this fist, this gun. Gitter!”
I know it’s wishful thinking, but I want my kind-hearted and gentle Pappy back. I want what I thought was America back.
But as a friend of color recently reminded me, the America I thought I lived in was only an illusion I enjoyed as a white person of privilege. I must accept the reality about this country that I had thought was just a fake TV show. It’s real. The complexity of my Pappy was real. And I need to find my way in the real America.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
Leah will be presenting at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Spring, NC, July 14 and 15! Her session info is available here: http://wildgoosefestival.org/sessions17-24/. Enter the special code BEMYGUEST for a 25% discount on tickets!