“Controversy Creates Cash” by Matt Taibbi

Or, how the Trump era has turned the news business into Wrestlemania
Dec 10 2018

When I was a lad we had a sports editor at the Daily Republican Eagle named John O’Connor. I worked there, doing sports photos and feature stories. O’Connor, when not reporting local sports, promoted pro wrestling, and paid me to take photos of, for example, Mad Dog Vachan throwing Vern Gagne out of the wrestling ring at little spots like the local National Guard Armory or VFW. Anyplace you could set up a ring and a few hundred folding chairs.

Mad_Dog_'Maurice'_Vachon_Promo_image   gagne crop

Those little bills in tiny towns… we’d draw a couple hundred people at $3 or $5 in 1958 dollars. I got paid $5 per used photo, plus free food and gas and a split of the concessions. Afterward, all of us, O’Connor, Vern, Morrie and Marty Robbins [referee] and whoever else was around, would go out somewhere for steaks. In the 1940s through the 1970s the countryside had dozens and scores of supper clubs around. I used to clear $20-$30 for an evening’s ‘work’… sold beer and pop ‘n chips ‘n stuff between matches – might go through 10 cases or so…. every damn week, all winter… got to know all the heels and all the faces… and all the scripts… sometimes – at least every couple of matches, the crowds would divide n go after each other, beat’n each other up with broomsticks, mops, shovels, folding chairs – whatever they could get their hands on for a weapon… Hey, They Fk’n BELIEVED… Good times

NOW, read Taibbi’s screed. You won’t regret it. Then subscribe. You won’t regret that either.


In Virginia in early 2015, a then-35 year-old pro wrestler who goes by the name Daniel Richards followed Donald Trump in amazement. In a creepy way, he understood he was watching a kindred spirit.

“He was doing what I do,” he said.

Richards would later capture fame with a hilariously campy wrestling persona called “The Progressive Liberal.” He enters small arenas, largely across Appalachia, wearing a shirt emblazoned with Hillary-Clinton-faces, screaming things to fans like, “You vote against your economic interests!”

The hardcore country crowds go nuts. Richards was and is a heel act. Pro wrestling depends on a core format of a villain versus a hero, in industry terms a heel versus a “babyface,” or “face.”

Out of this format springs an infinite number of storylines – partner betrays partner, hero “turns” heel, adversaries unite to fight for the flag or a woman. But it all starts with a bad guy, entering the ring with a swagger, shouting vile stuff at the crowd to get things nice and warm in the arena.

“A heel’s job is to bring heat,” says Richards.

When Richards saw Trump on TV, he recognized right away what he was watching.

“He was a vintage WWE entertainer,” he said.

One thing was different, though. “A pure heel wants to be booed by everybody,” says Richards. “Trump is unique in that he said things that would trigger the left, but there are people on the right who will love him for what he says.”

He pauses. “So he’s a heel, but he gets the babyface pop from his base.”

A heel’s taunts are designed inspire a prudish reaction. The babyface sometimes responds to provocations with naïve dignity, not expecting the surprise kick to the face the whole audience knows is coming.

Trump, always the instigator, taunted Jeb Bush and his Mexico-born spouse, Columba, early in the race. He suggested the Florida governor “likes Mexican illegals because of his wife.”

Jeb refused to engage directly. He said only that he was “proud of his wife” and Trump was “totally inappropriate and not reflective of the Republican Party views.”

Politico compared Jeb’s tepid response to Trump to Mike Dukakis’s infamous failure to lash out at CNN’s Bernard Shaw for a 1988 debate question that began, “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered…”

Comparisons to Dukakis are deadly enough in American politics. But it got worse. Around that time Jeb appeared on a show with his mother, Barbara Bush. Trump, playing textbook heel, ripped Jeb for needing his “mommy.”

Bush again reacted like an aggrieved aristocrat. “I won the lottery when I was born 63 years ago and looked up and I saw my mom,” he said, in a debate. “My mom is the strongest woman I know.”

“She should be running,” Trump quipped.

This was crude, but from a pure wrestling standpoint, Richards recognized the move. “I totally dislike Trump,” he says, “but you had to laugh at that. [Bush] was not equipped to deal with that situation.”

There’s a convention in wrestling where the heel breaks the rules, but the crowd expects the face to fight back. For ages, hitting with a closed fist was “illegal” in WWE, but heels were always punching people.

“The babyface will never throw a punch until the heel does it,” Richards says. “But when a babyface doesn’t fight back, no one is going to get behind him.”

This happened to Jeb, and Trump danced on his grave by going on Morning Joe and declaring, “I thought he was going to push me harder to apologize.” Translation: What a wuss!

There’s real drama in wrestling, but it’s literary drama, not the sporting kind. It’s never clear how audiences will respond to any script. The roles of good guy/bad guy may be pre-determined, but audiences may respond more to one performer or the other, based upon who acts his or her role better.

As such there’s a gray area with heels and faces. “Sometimes boos are cheers,” Richards explains.

Richards cites Steve “Stone Cold” Austin, a classic heel. In 1996, Stone Cold defeated Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a Bible-thumping face. After Austin whipped him, he gave a speech as Roberts was being carried out of the ring. “You sit there and you thump your Bible,” he said. “Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16 – Well, Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass.”

“’Austin 3:16’ became the biggest-selling t-shirt in wrestling,” Richards says. “Austin got so popular, he had to turn face.”

Audiences love a good heel. They go wild when when king-douchebag types like Randy Orton stand flexing their pecs and preening in the middle of the ring, another Trump specialty (the preening, not the pecs). Trump’s incessant bragging about his money is the political equivalent of doing a “crotch chop” (look it up) in the ring.

Richards saw the parallels right away. But almost no one in blue America spotted this, least of all the press corps. This was malpractice on one level – to be that out of touch with so popular a phenomenon was inexcusable – but it proved dangerous also, as reporters didn’t recognize that they were sliding into a known business model.

As far back as 1987, Wrestlemania was attracting 93,173 customers to one Silverdome show in Detroit. The genre has been massively popular for decades. But few political reporters have ever watched wrestling. They didn’t get Trump in the same way they don’t get WWE.

In the late fall of 2015, when Trump started to rise again in the polls, I started to see reporters on the trail carrying around Mein Kampf or The Paranoid Style in American Politics. They were looking for political parallels in the past.

The book they should have been reading was Controversy Creates Cash, by former wrestler/wrestling producer Eric Bischoff, of now-defunct World Championship Wrestling (which was put out of business by Vince McMahon’s WWE). Bischoff was himself a famed heel act. His book is a field guide to how wrestling uses provocation and fake narratives to drum up fan interest and make money.

He wrote:

When you watch wrestling, what you see looks fairly simple. It looks like a staged, choreographed fight between two people who supposedly have an issue, something that they’re fighting over… What you really don’t see is the skill and the art that’s required to engage the third person in that ring. The third person in the ring is the audience.

Without crowd engagement, you’ve got a bunch of goons in underpants flipping each other, a meaningless story. The presence of a big howling crowd confers legitimacy and power to the event. Everything therefore becomes about building crowd energy. Without that, there are neither villains nor heroes.

There’s a fine art to deciding when to have a champ lose, or be humiliated, or turn heel, or whatever. Managing that dynamic is a privilege of the promoters, a carefully-guarded trade secret called kayfabe. It’s considered a major sin in wrestling to “break kayfabe,” i.e. slip out of character, admit to the fakery.

The problem, as Bischoff explains, is the business always wants for real heels. You can’t have crowds without heroes, and you can’t have heroes without great bad guys. But nobody wants to be the villain forever:

Sometimes I see it in guys who are really experienced—they don’t want to be the bad guy. They don’t want to be booed. But for a story to be successful, there has to be a villain. You have to have the characteristics that people truly hate. You have to be a liar, a cheat, a sneak, a coward—and the fans need to believe it.

Trump is a born heel. These exact words are now used in headlines to describe him: liar, cheat, coward and, most recently, traitor.

When Trump performed Wrestlemania in 2007, in an event tabbed “The battle of the billionaires,” he played the face, in a “bout” against WWE founder Vince McMahon (they both had partner fighters for the match).

In the match, you could see the heel urge coming through. Trump got tired of McMahon’s rap and sucker-tackled him, “winning” the fight with shots to the back of the head and face. He was perfect in the role and Wrestlemania fans – who are a pretty decent sample of what America is like “out there” – loved him.

Throw an attention magnet like Trump into a political journalism business that feeds financially off conflict, and what you get is the ultimate WWE event. It’s a cross of Ali G and Wrestlemania, a heel act using real credulous reporters as props. The drama was fake – sort of – but the profits and the political consequences were real.

In late December of 2015, Trump seized control of the race thanks to a hurricane of invented drama. In a speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump teed off on the bathroom break Hillary Clinton had taken during a debate with Bernie Sanders.

He said of Clinton’s debate disappearance: “I know where she went. It’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. Too disgusting, don’t say it, it’s disgusting.”

He then went off on a tangent, saying Hillary got “schlonged” in her 2008 run against Barack Obama.

Schlonged! Did he say that?

The whole press corps scrambled to red alert.

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times had stories about “schlonged” up before midnight. The Times, ever proper, would say only “Trump Goes Vulgar In Swipe At Clinton.” The Post went the route a lot of papers would travel, using Trump’s utterance as an excuse to say “penis” or “large penis” as many times as possible:

‘“She was favored to win, and she got schlonged,” Trump said, turning a vulgar noun for a large penis into a verb.

By morning, many of the other campaigns issued official comments. The Clinton campaign predictably denounced “the humiliation this degrading language causes all women.”

A few hours later, Trump tweeted this flame of news into a full-on wildfire.

“Once again, #MSM is dishonest,” he wrote. “‘Schlonged’ is not vulgar. When I said Hillary got ‘schlonged,’ that meant beaten badly.”

This was the Mike Myers “A sphincter says what?” routine. Trump’s tweet was plainly designed to get straight reporters to repeat his bad words for him, even escalate on his behalf.

Within hours, the Daily Caller was taking Trump’s side in the controversy, using a perhaps-unintentional double-entendre: “Trump Doubles Down on ‘Schlong,’ Veteran Journalists Back Him Up.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post by that first night was running chin-scratching analyses like, “Donald Trump’s ‘Schlonged’: A linguistic investigation.” With its unique brand of unimaginative pretentiousness, the paper somehow managed to cite quotes from both Ben Franklin and Harvard University professor Steven Pinker. The Pinker quote read:

“Headline writers often ransack the language for onomatopoeic synonyms for ‘defeat’ such as drub, whomp, thump, wallop, whack, trounce, clobber, smash, trample, and Obama’s own favorite, shellac (which in fact sounds a bit like schlong).”

All of this column space devoted to “schlong” was not going to other subjects.

Just prior to Trump’s “schlong” comments, Barack Obama had signed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, a landmark law giving the government access to more of your private data. The Fukushima disaster was still causing hundreds of tons of radioactive water to spill into the ocean. A new study had even been released suggesting search engines had poorly-understood abilities to influence elections – these same papers would care a lot about this later, but not now. And so on.

Everybody was having a little too much fun with “schlong.” To make sure things stayed that way, Trump tweeted again late that second night, at 10:47 p.m:

“When I said Hillary Clinton got schlonged by Obama, it meant get beaten badly. The media knows this. Often used word in politics!”

Now he was transparent. Trump went from “she got schlonged” to “Hillary got schlonged” to, after thinking about it a few more hours, “Hillary Clinton got schlonged by Obama.”

That last iteration had such obvious and horrific metaphorical connotations that they scarcely needed to be said out loud. Yet Trump’s opponents and would-be foils in the media did so anyway, repeatedly.

By the next morning, on December 23rd, Hillary ally and chief media attack dog David Brock was barking Trump’s own words back into the ether. Brock said “Hillary schlonged by Obama” was “racist” and made Obama out to be a “black rapist.”

CNN tracked down still-viable Republican candidate Chris Christie for comment. Christie, in absolute seriousness, said he had “plenty of thoughts” about “schlonged,” but “didn’t want to talk about it.”

In a Forbes article, “Donald Trump and ‘Schlonged’: The Long and the Short of it,” author Susan Adams interviewed Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of The Idiot’s Guide to Learning Yiddish. He said, “Please don’t use that word in my company.”

Adams asked the question anyway.

The Rabbi went along, saying schlong not only meant a penis, but was “especially used to describe a large member, as in, ‘I was in the locker room, and boy, I saw his schlong.’”

This was a Gilbert Gottfried set by now. Trump got David Brock to call Barack Obama a “black rapist” and had a female reporter from Forbes magazine interviewing a rabbi about admiring schlongs in locker rooms. All that was missing was a traveling salesman and a barn.

Trump created a giant free promotion machine in the news media, which seemed never to grasp what he was doing. Either that, or it did, and didn’t care.

“They were suckers for it,” noted Richards. “They’re giving him the oxygen he needs. It feeds right into what he’s doing.”

What was he doing? Trump’s run seemed to begin as a publicity stunt. The press was free to ignore the candidate during this stage of the race. At the very least, it didn’t have to build giant skyscrapers of nonsense around everything that slipped out of his mouth.

But there was synergy between a game show host building up his Q rating and a commercial news media whose business model thrives on conflict and was often starved for the real thing. Reporters who’d spent years concocting dubious features about the “Gore Bore” problem or the “Wimp Factor” now had a real presidential front runner talking about “schlonging” a female rival. Kerching!

By the day after Christmas – just five days after all this insanity started – NPR was entering “schlonged” in the list of possible “words of the year.” Trump meanwhile was managing to turn all of this into a referendum on Bill Clinton. A huge triumph was the December 28, 2015 piece in the Washington Post: “Trump is Right: Bill Clinton’s Sordid Sexual History is Fair Game.”

There was unabashed glee in the coverage. CNN’s features were produced to the hilt, with old-country Fiddler on the Roof-style music cued up when they interviewed Yiddish experts. Atrocious puns flew in every article.

Pundits raided Nexis in search of prior uses of “schlonged” for the sheer pleasure of repeating them in print, as the Daily Beast did in recounting a 2007 Jimmy Kimmel sketch about “donkey-schlonged counterparts.”

Trump turned The Washington Post and the New York Times into what the wrestling world calls “dirt sheets.”

Once, these were paper pamphlets circulated to help fans keep up with taunts and smears and other wrestling gossip. Sometimes they contained whispers about the personal lives of performers. Even wrestlers mainly disliked dirt sheets for their low editorial standards. But they were effective as hype mechanisms. We had transplanted that dubious format onto the country’s top campaign coverage outlets.

Trump’s whole platform was a heel routine, down to his foreign policy. “We don’t have victories anymore,” he’d say. “We used to have victories, but we don’t have them now.”

He didn’t just rip America, he taunted it, unspooling long homilies to our weakness and decline that were designed to whip crowds into an impotent furor.

This is exactly like bad-guy foreign wrestler Cesaro telling Ric Flair: “America, no matter how great you once were, you have nothing left – except maybe a bar tab you can’t pay!” Trump’s diatribes against the “elites” in DC, meanwhile, aped the screeds against the wrestling “corporation” that elevated hero-of-the-common-man wrestlers like the Rock and Steve Austin. This was where Trump stole his “populist” act (if he got anything from Mein Kampf, it’s less obvious).

Coverage of this crossover insanity drove spectacular growth across the cable, TV, and digital news sectors in 2015-2016. Just on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox alone, Trump led a boom that saw a 167.4% rise in ad sales in 2016 versus 2012.

The campaign press played the shocked commentator in perfect deadpan, in part because they were genuinely clueless about what they were doing. They never understood that the proper way to “cover” pro wrestling, if you’re being serious, is to not cover it. It is, after all, bullshit.

“With anyone else,” says Richards, “this might have been a week’s worth of news stories.”

The longer Trump hung around in the race, the more the Wrestlemania audience began to take his side. They could see through the fake outrage in papers like the Post.

After all, if you think the guy shouldn’t be making America think about Hillary Clinton getting “schlonged” by Barack Obama, don’t repeat if fifty thousand times. Would you put it in a headline if it were your daughter? No, but you would if you wanted to sell newspapers or, in the case of David Brock, score political points on Trump’s negatives (we later found out the Clinton campaign was praying for Trump as an opponent for this reason).

Bischoff in his book noted that heels after a while start to demand hero’s welcomes – a mistake, he says. “You have to want people to hate you,” he wrote. “They should be throwing shit at you.”

But Trump started to demand cheers along with the boos. He was shooting for big doses of both. His entrance at the Republican National Convention – sauntering through a white-lit corridor into the Q in Cleveland – reminded me of the “Scott Hall walkout,” a famed moment in heel-preening.

His over-the-top arrival by taxiing jet at an Albuquerque rally later that year recalled about a dozen WWE events, like Lex Luger arriving by helicopter to bodyslam Samoan giant Yokozuna.

Then he won the election, which felt like a production error. Trump was supposed to lose. It even seemed he wanted to lose. That’s how the script should have gone. He was such a lurid villain that under normal circumstances, crowds probably would have rallied any dope in a white cape sent to fight him to a 20-point win.

Unfortunately, Trump ran into the one candidate capable of pinning herself. It was a rare WWE act where a real match broke out.

Pro wrestling is more sophisticated than it looks. A lot of care is put into tending subtle questions of character and narrative arc. Take out the steroids and it’s an inspired art form, a sports-entertainment hybrid that echoes troubadours and traveling morality plays. And the moves are kind of awesome, once you get into it.

But as a model for either national politics or journalism, God help us.

It turns out to be a business formula that works too well. While Trump seems to be trying to squeeze out of his heel role, among other things by inventing a new foil called “Fake News” (“He’s trying to turn face using the media,” quips Richards), the papers have doubled down on white hat/black hat politics.

Trump has a tendency to WWE-ize everyone in his orbit. On the campaign trail, this worked for him. People like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Hillary proved inept whenever they tried to fight using those tactics.

The press, though, profits from sheer noise, drama, and divisive “heat” the same way Trump once did. When reporters after 2016 began bowing to reader pressure to “call Trump out,” they gladly entered the ring with him.

Top reporters now regularly do the outraged-hero, finger-pointing routine whenever they’re within a mile of Trump. Jim Acosta’s confrontations with the president, for instance, seem culled straight from WWE outtakes.

Trump’s whole presidency has turned into a heel/hero promotion, with Bob Mueller in the face role. It’s an important story, but the probe is also selling papers in ways unrelated to its actual political or legal meaning. Mueller is cast as a hero conquering evil, a symbol of hope – Mueller on votive candles, Mueller as the subject of “All I want for Christmas is you” sets on Saturday Night Live, etc. Obviously, we never saw anything like this with Lawrence Walsh.

Political coverage in the Trump era has become increasingly focused on questions of character and storyline. A cynic would say this is how Trump himself wants it. He gets the press focused on “Da Nang Dick” tweets about Senator Richard Blumenthal instead of diving into the impact of things like his tax cuts or deregulatory schemes.

I don’t think it’s that simple. The Trump era has moved the whole political media into the WWE space, where most stories are just entries in our ongoing love/hate relationship with Trump. We ignore everything else, not just Trump’s subtler evils.

The problem with any coverage strategy based on a villains-versus-heroes storyline – and this has become a feature of both right-wing and “liberal” media – is that it boxes in editors. What if a character your paper has built up as a villain says something true, or does something righteous? What if one of your good guys turns heel? How do you admit the truth of that without puncturing audience expectations?

In a controlled entertainment like the WWE, where heels and heroes never deviate from script, this is no issue. But reality breaks kayfabe all the time.

In October of 2017, the Pew Research Center did a study on news stories involving Trump. They discovered a few interesting things.

The percentage of stories including a Trump tweet was higher among “liberal” and “mixed” outlets (CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC counted as “mixed”) than the percentage in right-leaning outlets. You are more likely to read a Trump tweet in Politico, Vox, Slate, or on CNN than you are in Breitbart or the Daily Caller.

The folks at fivethirtyeight.com suggested reasons for this. Their Claire Malone wrote:

Is this where we tell our readers about journalism business models and how it’s more expensive to do reporting that involves investigation? Because honestly, I think that has to be taken into account.

It’s true. There is a financial pull toward research-free stories. Writing 1200 words of jokes about a Trump tweet costs less than sending a reporter undercover into a Mexican maquiladora. But that’s not why we do the one and not the other.

We do it because quick-and-dumb would still outsell investigations, even if you could take cost out of the equation. Real evil typically appears as institutional greed and inattention, and is depressing. People should never enjoy reading about the truly awful, and they don’t – which is why we spend less time on the water in Flint than body-language analyses of Ivanka Trump. You can’t “love to hate” the Flint water crisis. But you can love a good heel act.

Character sells. Reality, not so much.

Get used to a world of heels and heroes, with not a whole lot in between.

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