Saturday, December 3, 2016

What the Downfall of World Championship Wrestling Says About Trump.

The attempts to explain what Donald Trump being elected president of the United States of America remains one of the big themes of what I've been reading about lately. Theories of course abound, so much so that it's hard to keep track of them. If you want a refresher check out David Robert's great piece at Vox for a great rundown of the most popular ones, as well as some valuable insights of his own as well.

Which one's are right and which ones are wrong? I honestly really just don't know, although I have a few pet favorites. But while we're trying to sort things out please let me outline an idea that's been kicking around my head about Trump's shocking success. And to do it I'm going to have to talk about the rise and fall of World Championship Wrestling.

First a brief history. The thing we now know as professional wrestling was invented largely as a carnival attraction back in the 19th and early 20th century. After World War Two it gradually rose in prominence as a wealthier society with more free time and increasing access to television looked for new hobbies. By the 70's it was something of a cottage industry controlled by regional promoters who agreed informally not to directly compete with or poach each others talent.

This all changed in the 80's when a guy named Vince McMahon owner of the New York area World Wrestling Federation (or WWF, later to become World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) through a combination of media savvy, ruthless business tactics, and luck was able to eliminate most of his competition.

Except for a few hold outs, including one southern promotion named Jim Crockett Promotions which having over extended itself trying to compete with the WWF was bought out by yet another egotistical rich dude with things to prove named Ted Turner. He renamed the company World Championship Wrestling (or WCW) and decided to take on the WWF head to head.

(I know this all sounds very boring but I am going somewhere with it I promise.)

The upshot of all this was that the world of professional wrestling in the 90's was dominated by two rival companies, backed by two egotistical gazillionaires, with powerful TV networks in tow, wanting nothing more than to trample their enemy into the dust. There was a phrase for it, The Monday Night Wars, named after the two companies' flagship Monday night cable shows.

The story of the Monday Night Wars is a long an epic saga, Wikipedia summed it up pretty well:
In the mid-1990s, WCW dramatically improved its economic performance, largely due to the promotion of Eric Bischoff to Executive Producer (to guide the overall direction of the on-screen product); the strategy of hiring former WWF main eventers; the introduction of the Monday Nitro series on cable TV, and the resultant Monday Night Wars with the WWF's Monday Night Raw; the successful creative and marketing execution of the New World Order (nWo) brand/stable of wrestlers; and other innovative concepts...
...WCW eclipsed the WWF in popularity throughout the United States for much of the latter-1990s. However, numerous financial and creative missteps led to the company losing its lead over the WWF.
At the core of these "creative missteps" was a man named Vince Russo who by the late 90's had been put in charge of "booking" (deciding who wins and loses matches and how) and writing creative story lines for the whole company. Russo was obsessed with a theory of television he called "Crash TV." That is the key to keeping wrestling fans, or anyone watching really, was to just do more of everything, because more is more is more is more is more. (Russo's many critics inside the weird world of wrestling fandom have long said he based most of his "theories" of television entertainment on The Jerry Springer Show.)

Wikipedia sums the results up well:
"...only at an accelerated pace, including edgier storylines, more lengthy non-wrestling segments, constant heel [bad guy]/face[good guy] turns [changes in character], an increased amount of sexuality on the show, fake retirements, more backstage vignettes, expanded storyline depth..."
This strategy of hyper stimulating the audience can work for a time, not unlike how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire came to dominate television in 1999 and 2000. But pretty quickly the audience will start demanding ever more and if you can't provide it you're finished.

That's basically what happened to WCW which began losing tens of millions of dollars, lost it's TV deals, and was bought up by WWF for a pittance in 2001 after Ted Turner himself got tired of bankrolling the whole thing.

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, Trump's no stranger to professional wrestling, in fact he was featured in a major story line in 2007 where his chosen wrestler beat Vince McMahon's champion in "The Battle of the Billionaires", allowing Donald to both win owners of the WWE's RAW show and get to shave Vince's head.

This might seem totally idiotic and irrelevant to you (and it sort of is) but I still think there's something to be learned here. In many ways Trump has been running a political version of "Crash TV" which has allowed him to beat 18 other rivals for the GOP nomination and win a close election in which the Republican nominee was slight favorite. In no small way it's turned him into the WCW of the political world: whatever anyone actually thinks about it, it can only be expressed by talking about him. "What Trump Doesn't Tell Us About American Politics" is a story nobody is writing. Indeed his inauguration will probably be a bit like a nWo promo from WCW's heyday: even if you think it's stupid you agree its a bit fascinating to watch, at least once.

WCW of course didn't last forever. Russo's constant attempts to escalate his
"Crash TV" style of programming led very weird things like B movie actor David Arquette being crowned World Champion among other poorly thought out stunts. It didn't take long until the company was bankrupt.

Trump has been following a WCW "Crash TV" style of politics for a long time now. He's dominated the conversation stem to stern whether you are talking about grabbing women by the their genitals, or chants of "lock her up", or threatening to "spill the beans" about Ted Cruz's wife. Indeed this weekend's news has been heavily dominated by Trump flying to Indiana to save 2,000 (actually 850) jobs from being sent to Mexico and radically altering American foreign policy by arranging for a call with the president of Taiwan.

Does trying to bully every single factory in America one by one make sense? Does changing a decades long American policy towards China  via a phone call you didn't bother to run past the State Department make sense either? Who cares! It's  political "Crash TV", the point is to grab the spotlight. And since most political journalists don't really cover policy issues at all anymore you're unlikely to get push back.

Trump's strategy obviously paid of for him electorally. Political scientist Matt Dickinson did a great job of explaining how Trump used the "Crash TV" style of politics to his advantage during the GOP primaries. Read his whole piece but it could be summed as pointing out the media covered Trump overwhelmingly from the beginning and in a very positive light that focused on that he was "winning". Since most voters (even in primaries) don't follow what's going on very much, really good press about how your wining can carry you to 40% of the vote which makes you win under the GOP's byzantine delegate allocation system.

Dickinson (and I) thought at the time that this strategy wouldn't work in the general election. But then again the cycle favored the GOP nominee, add in a political press that in many ways doesn't care about issues other than email servers and if you're Trump you're on your way...

One of the reasons I got this election so wrong is that I assumed there was some sort of inflection point that would make Trump's media strategy run out of gas. I kept thinking that losing some states, or narrowing the field, or GOP rival deciding to go after him could be that inflection point during the primaries. But even after he won the primaries "fun is fun, but now this is serious" was the line that seemed to sum up my thinking through out the summer and fall. Surely his corruption and double-talk would sink him. Surely boasting about sexually assaulting women on tape would sink him. Surely Hillary whipping his ass in no less three debates would count for something.

But no. Like "Crash TV" each outrage and failure seemed to make him stronger. Like terrible booking and creative decision that are rewarded with more viewership.

I still think that inflection point is out there. I still think most white people will stop thinking he's funny and cool once the economy goes into recession or President Game Show Host blunders us into a shooting war with China for no good reason. But I could be wrong.

World Championship Wrestling's business model worked for a while, but not forever. My fear is that we the American people will have to pick up the tab once all the fun and games are over. Ted Turner seems to have washed his hands of this whole business a long time ago.

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