The quickest, most shorthand way of explaining the 2016 Republican primaries is to discuss them as a WWE storyline. Marco Rubio is a Republican Roman Reigns—a handpicked, golden boy baby face who was pushed too fast and too hard, and is now relying on backstage politics to earn the nomination. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the monster heel, is in a staggering lead, having overtaken and beaten the prior heel, Ted Cruz (though this weekend, it appears that Cruz is rallying back). No matter what ignorant thing Trump says or does, his fans cheer harder.
Outside observers are shocked. “Why aren’t they booing him?” But professional wrestling fans are not shocked; we’ve seen this angle play out hundreds of times every Monday night.
Imagine, for a moment, that there was a tradition-bound professional wrestling promotion in the United States. Wrestling promotions like to refer to themselves by their initials (WWE, WCW, TNA, NWA), because ‘Grand Old Party’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue. We’ll call this wrestling promotion the GOP.
Stay with me.
The GOP needs to appeal to a mainstream audience to stay in business; they can’t just pander to the hardcore fans who beat each other with chairs and staple dollar bills to their foreheads. And since they’re appealing to a wide base, the handpicked champ is always someone who’s safe, reasonably attractive, and inoffensive. Rubio, who currently holds the GOP Championship belt, fulfills all of these qualities. He hasn’t had a lot of matches. He’s awkward on the mic. He’s got a handful moves that he’s memorized and can perform reasonably well. But he fits the mold for what a champion ought to be.
The only problem is he’s been pushed on the fans a little too quickly, with very little experience. He’s another corporate, handpicked champion in a long line of corporate, handpicked champions, which makes him stale. And amongst the hardcore, slightly crazed fans, discontent is growing. They feel like the GOP doesn’t listen to them; even if they cheer another wrestler, the GOP is going to push whoever they want to the moon.
The only other viable alternative fans have to root for is Rubio’s rival, a heel wrestler named Ted Cruz. He’s got experience, technical skills, and some eye popping moves, but that’s all he has. His personality is non-existent, and the dirt sheets say that he’s an insufferable, arrogant prick to everyone in the locker room. Everyone respects the guy’s pedigree, but no one, from the brass down, wants him to succeed.
So, the writing is on the wall. Cruz might pick up the odd match here or there, but Rubio is the heir apparent, and will be scripted to emerge from their feud victorious. It’s very predictable—this ‘face beats heel’ narrative—but it’s a reliable build that works from month-to-month and year-to-year.
But then, an outside opportunist heel—Trump—debuts on the main roster. He’s got angry charisma. He’s got flashy moves. And he loves doing unscripted pipebomb promos; he attacks his opponents on extremely personal levels, and he deliberately blurs the line between what is real and not real by attacking the very organization he wrestles for. People are cheering him and booing the guy that, according to the storyline and script, should be cheered.
And now, the GOP is in a tough spot. Do they stop booking Trump altogether? Well, they don’t want him to quit and compete at another company. Do they bury him and script him to lose match after match? His fans will claim that he’s being treated unfairly backstage. What if they scripted him to be even more evil, so villainous that he’s irredeemable? They’ve tried that, several times, and it didn’t work. Because to Trump’s fans, villainy reads as real rather than evil. And if he goes off on a rant and breaks the show’s PG rating by saying something vulgar, the fans delight in the shock value of it. They’re all rubbernecking to see the trainwreck, and cheering the guy who drove it off the rails. Wrestling fans love drama, especially backstage meta-drama.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Republican primary. And its majority voters are a group of people who hate the GOP establishment but continue to identify as Republicans, and who will continue cheering for Trump out of spite. For a minute, Cruz was the spite vote. He was the evangelical Tea Party candidate that was despised by the establishment. But Trump went so overboard, so off the deep end with his rhetoric, that Cruz is now the establishment by comparison.
The GOP is caught in an absurd catch-22. The guy they want as champ is limited, dull, and typical, so the hardcore ‘fans’ don’t care about him. The fans love the other guy, but he’s uncontrollable, doesn’t play or look the part, and is certainly not ‘best for business.’ Remember in 1991, when the Undertaker locked the Ultimate Warrior in a casket and the fans cheered? Or in 2014, when the SummerSlam crowd cheered for Brock Lesnar when he obliterated John Cena? The same mentality drives Trump’s supporters.
So what happens now? Will Rubio, John Kasich, or Cruz attempt to hijack the nomination at the convention in Cleveland? Will the voters stand for it? Back in 2014, the WWE booked Roman Reigns to win the Royal Rumble. The fans had shown, plainly and clearly, that they wanted Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose, or Dolph Ziggler to win, but the WWE willfully ignored them and followed through on the coronation of their chosen one. The fans booed Roman out of the building, and the entire company was forced to re-examine itself.
If the Republicans ignore their voters’ will, they could expect a similar, angry result. They, like the WWE, created this problem by both pandering and condescending to their audience—by relying on nostalgia and addressing their bottom line rather than answering to their loyal constituents.
This would all be a lot funnier, and a lot less disturbing, if a belt was on the line instead of the country.
Kevin is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinjameswong.