Donald Trump has political pundits stumped.
They’ve been predicting his imminent downfall for months. Every “gaffe” that was supposed to destroy his support has only made him stronger. “DON VOYAGE: Trump Toast After Insult,” a headline in the New York Post blared nearly two months ago. The insult at issue, questioning John McCain’s military service, is so many insults ago that it isn’t even mentioned any more.
Meanwhile, Trump still dominates the polls, leading the GOP field by about 14 points nationally. With the exception of one poll in John Kasich’s home state of Ohio, Trump has led every state and national poll since the beginning of August.
You won’t find Roland Barthes on the Sunday morning roundtables dissecting the presidential race. Barthes is a French philosopher who died in 1980. But his work may hold the key to understanding Trump’s popularity and his staying power.
Barthes is best known for his work in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. But he wasn’t limited to lengthy, esoteric treatises. Rather, Barthes published much of his work in short, accessible pieces breaking down elements of popular culture. The New York Times described Barthes as the godfather of the TV recap.
His most famous essay, published in his 1957 book Mythologies, focuses on professional wrestling. Could an essay about professional wrestling hold the key to understanding Trump’s appeal? It’s worth noting that, before he was a presidential candidate, Trump was an active participant in the WWE. In 2013, Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
In his essay, Barthes contrasts pro wrestling to boxing.
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.
In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair.
Others in the Republican field are concerned with the rules and constructing a strategy that, under those rules, will lead to the nomination. But Trump isn’t concerned with those things. Instead, Trump is focused on each moment and eliciting the maximum amount of passion in that moment. His supporters love it.
The key to generating passion, Barthes notes, is to position yourself to deliver justice against evil forces by whatever means necessary. “Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice,” Barthes writes.
Trump knows how to define his opponent — China, “illegals,” hedge fund managers — and pledges to go after them with unbridled aggression. If, in making his case, he crosses over a line or two, all the better.
For a pro wrestler, energy is everything. A wrestling fan is less interested in what is happening — or the coherence of how one event leads to the next — than the fact that something is happening. On that score, Trump delivers. He is omnipresent on TV. When he can’t make it in front of the camera, he’ll simply call in. When he’s not on TV, he’s tweeting boasts, insults, and non-sequiturs. When he runs out of things to tweet, he retweets random comments from his supporters.
Along those lines, Trump’s favorite insult — which he has employed repeatedly against Jeb Bush and, more recently, Ben Carson — is that his opponents are “low energy.”
Frenetic action is suicidal for a boxer, or a traditional politician. But Trump is not bound by those limitations. The crazier things get — Trump suggesting a popular Fox News host asked him a tough question because she was menstruating, for example — the more Trump’s supporters love it.
Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.
But why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act? As Barthes illustrates, that’s asking the wrong question.
It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.
This analogy reveals why the attacks on Trump are so ineffective. Recently, Rand Paul and others have taken to calling out Trump as an “entertainer,” rather than a legitimate candidate. This is as effective to running into the middle of the ring during Wrestlemania and yelling: “This is all fake!” You are correct, but you will not be received well.
One of Barthes’ central points is that boxing — or traditional rules and decorum — is not morally superior to pro wrestling. In fact, for all its artifice, one could argue that pro wrestling today is a more noble pursuit than boxing, which is hopelessly corrupt and currently dominated by a convicted domestic abuser and unrepentant misogynist.
Similarly, Trump is able to take advantage of the obvious dysfunction of the traditional political system. In 2016, the candidates are shadowed by massively funded Super PACs that often rely on just a few donors. Many Republican candidates hold positions supported by this elite donor class but not the electorate at large. Others refuse to answer questions at all.
Compared to this system, the things that Trump is offering — passion, energy, a sense of justice — may not seem so bad.
Does this mean that Trump will be the Republican nominee? No one really knows. But we do know that traditional punditry is incapable of understanding his appeal.
Roland Barthes has been dead for 35 years, but he may be onto something.