Donald Trump announced Tuesday evening that he would skip the next Presidential debate, which will take place January 28 on Fox News.
It is a move, much like his campaign, that defies traditional political analysis.
Fox News is the station of choice for the Republican electorate and the network, which Trump has feuded with in the past, has been relentlessly promoting his candidacy.
Trump’s campaign says he skipping the debate because Megyn Kelly, who Trump has labled a “bimbo” and “bitter,” is biased against him. But Kelly, while not fawning over Trump like most Fox talent, has been perfectly fair to Trump. Yes, Kelly confronted Trump with some sexist statements he’s made. But Trump was able to respond in a way that was perfectly acceptable — even appealing — to many Republican primary voters.
Moreover, the debates have been generating enormous ratings and Thursday’s event is seen by traditional analysts as an indispensable opportunity to reach undecided voters in advance of election day in Iowa and New Hampshire.
I think early Twitter consensus that Trump is a genius for skipping debate is wrong, especially since game is undecided IA and NH voters.
— Walter Shapiro (@MrWalterShapiro) January 27, 2016
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 unusual decision to skip a major debate.
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 political strategy? 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.
In the Republican primary, there is no bigger enemy than the media. All the Republican candidates bash the media. It’s a popular strategy during the debates to dodge probing questions. But, ultimately, these candidates are playing by the media’s rules. By skipping the debate, Trump will finally give the media what they deserve.
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.
It’s hard to get excited about another debate. Taking the unprecedented step of skipping a crucial debate over alleged media bias is another story.
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 Megyn Kelly 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. Fox News put out a statement mocking Trump’s reluctance to appear at the debate. The statement pointed out the obvious: Trump’s rationale for skipping the debate is ridiculous.
As President, the Fox’s statement snarkily noted, you have to be able to handle all sorts of people:
We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings
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.
Will Trump’s gambit pay off? Will he become 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.
This piece is adapted from an earlier article.