Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary today, and Jeb Bush gave up the ghost and suspended his campaign. Few people, including those of us at Agreeing Loudly, thought Trump would be able to defeat Cruz’s organized ground-game. I also thought Bush remain in the race in spite of a series of defeats. How wrong we were.
How quickly the dramatic fall came. Yesterday, Jeb Bush was laughed at because he made embarrassing YouTube videos, and relied on his brother and mom to convince people to play nice with him. Tonight, his detractors listened to his surrender on live TV, turned to Twitter, and crowned him a good man and ideal statesman who found himself in a time that was not his own.
Of course, all of this reminded me to the over-the-top melodrama of professional wrestling. Jeb’s fall and spiritual redemption reminded me of an article I read about the time “Macho Man” Randy Savage was bitten by Damien, Jake the Snake’s attack cobra. Read the following, replacing “Macho Man” with Jeb Bush, and Jake the Snake with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz:
“During one broadcast, Jake the Snake captured Macho Man, dragging him into the ring. Jake tied him to the ropes and menaced him with a cobra which sprang and bit him on the forearm. The camera was jostled from side to side by people racing to Macho’s assistance and panned abruptly trying to follow his hysterical wife as she ran in horror to ringside. A reaction shot shows a child in the audience reduced to tears by this brutal spectacle. Yet, at the same, the camera refused to show us an image ‘too shocking’ for broadcast. Macho Man’s arm and the snake’s gaping mouth were censored, blocked by white bars…A few weeks later, the ‘uncensored’ footage was at last shown, during a prime-time broadcast, so that viewers could see ‘what really happened.’
…Such campy self-acknowledgment may be part of what makes male spectators’ affective engagement with this melodramatic form safe and acceptable within a traditionally masculine culture which otherwise backs away from overt emotional display….The plots of wrestling cut close to the bone, inciting racial and class antagonisms that rarely surface this overtly elsewhere in popular culture, while comic exaggeration ensures that such images can never be taken seriously.”
-Henry Jenkins III in “‘Never Trust a Snake’: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama” (51-52)<x>
Like Macho Man, Jeb Bush struggled to free himself, to win this fight, until he felt the fangs of right-wing populist rage sink deep into his bicep. We knew it would be bad, but we also believed that Jeb would keep up the fight to the very end. He owed us that much at least. After all, he had all the things a man needed to conquer the world: a loving family, lots of money, the support of management, and favorable odds.
Tonight, the cameras jostled, panning abruptly as we, the audience, caught fleeting glimpses of his shocked and horrified family. Nearby, those who believed in Jeb the most—the children, the press, and the establishment—wept as they sought to make sense of the brutal spectacle. Behind the curtains, a shadowy figure lept in celebration as the favored hero contorted in pain, venom slipping through his veins. The shadow watched as his mentor slid silently beneath the waves of consciousness, knowing that his time had finally come.
Despite his elation, young Marco could not help but feel he was somehow not up for the task. As the audience picked up the body that once was Jeb Bush and carried him into the burying grounds, Marco saw the cobra’s red eyes turn towards him. For all of his faults, Jeb was no pretender, nor was he without political talent. His demise, and the cold hard stare of the cobra, combined to make young Rubio all to aware of his own shortcomings—his inexperience, his reliance on scripts, his inability to connect with ill-educated white working class voters, and (perhaps most importantly) the steel robot heart that beat in his chest.
Like in wrestling, we are drawn to politics partly because it is dramatic. Unlike wrestling, politics rarely demonstrates a sense of “campy self-acknowledgement.” Jeb Bush was defeated in part because he lacked such self-acknowledgement. Ted Cruz lost because he could not exploit his melodramatic potential. Donald Trump won because he knew that while a snake was next to useless when it came to winning a wrestling match, it was invaluable when it came to stealing the show.
Donald Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows that his success relies on his ability as a storyteller. He knows that while people believe in rational arguments, they act upon what they feel. By being melodramatic, angry, villainous, and absurdly confident, Trump give license to his fans to do the same. Cruz, Rubio, and Bush appeal to Republican primary voters; Trump empowers and emboldens them to be part of his story.
For a large portion of Americans who have been largely ignored as irrational and blindly loyal to the Republican Party, Trump embodies their desire for liberation from economic decline, political decline, demographic decline, political correctness, and religious and sexual pluralism.
While Ted Cruz can often tap into these sentiments, Donald Trump always embodies them. Cruz can robocall old white South Carolinians about Trump’s lack of support for the Confederate flag, but Trump is the Confederacy itself. Cruz can talk about anger and populist revolt, but Trump is anger and populist revolt. Cruz is a great technical wrestler, but Trump is a goddamm natural showman.
And those who canonized Jeb Bush the patron saint of respectable and mature politics after his concession speech fell for the gimmick. You’re marks, and you’ve been taken by the bit of carnival that surrounds spectacles like wresting and politics. But go ahead and continue to suspend your sense of disbelief.
We’re all living in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Try to keep up, because it’s gonna be a helluva show.