Perspective — April 26, 2013, 11:57 am

On Congressional Kayfabe

The similarities between the political response to tragedy and professional wrestling

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Last week, as the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on an 844-page immigration reform proposal, the most hated man in Mexican-style wrestling, RJ Brewer, returned to his putative hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. “RJ Brewer” is the nom-de-guerre of wrestler John Stagikas, who presents himself as the son of Arizona governor Jan Brewer, best known for signing the nation’s harshest immigration law. (I wrote about Brewer in the May issue of Harper’s.)

For the past several years, Brewer has honed his anti-immigration message as the leader of The Right, a loose affiliation of white men and traitorous Latinos who serve as the villains of Lucha Libre USA, an American offshoot of the Mexican wrestling league Asistencia Asesoría y Administración. Brewer wears “SB 1070”—the number of the infamous Arizona senate bill—emblazoned on the rear of his tights, and he films promotional videos against a backdrop of migrants climbing the border fence. On his Facebook page, he describes himself as “Pro Wrestler, Border Agent, Voice of what’s right.” 

 

By this point, the market for Brewer’s brand of rhetoric has become somewhat crowded. A few weeks ago, the mainstream American-style promotion, World Wrestling Entertainment, dispatched a character named Jack Swagger to take on world heavyweight champion Alberto Del Rio at Wrestlemania 29 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Del Rio won, on the strength of a move called the Cross Armbreaker.) Sensing something he recognized in Swagger’s racial invective, the radio host Glenn Beck accused WWE of “demonizing the Tea Party.”

“You know, I can take it from a lot of people,” Beck told his audience. “I really can. I can’t take it from the stupid wrestling people.”

In fact, though, as Beck surely knows well, the pro-wrestling people are merely working the same angle as the Washington political class, only more artfully and with lower stakes. In their sport, heroes and villains alike abide by the credo of kayfabe, the carnie-derived mandate to stay in character no matter the transparency of the illusion.

A version of kayfabe might best explain the recent posturing by senators Patrick Leahy, Chuck Schumer, Rand Paul, and Chuck Grassley. Like the gun debate before it, the immigration debate has fallen into a predictable pattern in which a horrid crime galvanizes public opinion, setting a backlash trap for elected officials navigating the discussion: one side proposes a political response, the other accuses it of exploiting tragedy. Conservatives and liberals may alternate parts, as we saw in the Boston Marathon bombing (when the conservatives were the exploiters) and the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings (the liberals), but they always stick to the script. In Congress, who is doing the exploiting and who is doing the accusing now amount to little more than home-field advantage. As RJ Brewer himself put it in a statement widely reported by the wrestling press this month: “All I need are my views and a platform to spread them, and so far, that has worked just fine.”

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More from Michael Brick:

From the May 2013 issue

Jingo Unchained

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Editor's Note

Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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