The WWE's new bad guys in town are not-so-loosely inspired by the Tea Party, and that has conservative commentators not-so-quietly complaining that the company is bringing back a movement already under siege from Karl Rove — this time in one of the country's most curious of conservative spotlights, and as a couple of outwardly racist xenophobes who want to send Mexicans back across the border. Even if that was kind of the whole point.
On the February 11 episode of Monday Night Raw — frequently the highest rated cable show in the country — the fake-wrestling franchise re-introduced "Real American" Jack Swagger, after a few months off, with a new gimmick. He had longer, messier hair, a mean scowl, and a newfound hype man. Swagger's faux-manager, not so accidentally named Zebadiah Colter, sported a bushy hunter's beard and wore a beige vest as he yelled to the crowd: "What's wrong with America?" Colter then explained that he "doesn't recognize" today's America. He said he saw people with faces "not like mine" and heard people that "can't even talk to me," and he screamed out again to the Nashville audience and the Americans at home: "Where did all these people come from?" And then Colter, who's used other surnames to fit his gimmick in the past, threw out some catchphrases familiar to any Tea Party observer — "We, the people" was prominent — and made a point to stress, over and over, that he and Swagger were "real Americans." Oh, did the crowd ever boo. Swagger and Colter are supposed to be the WWE's big new bad guys, and they drew "heat" from the crowd, as wrestling people say. They hated him.
A week later, on Monday's episode of Raw in Lafayette, Louisiana, Colter and Swagger made the Tea Party connection even more obvious when they offered some more of the race-baiting and the catchphrases — "Don't Tread On Me" was displayed on a podium inside the ring:
It's important to note here that one of the WWE's world champions is a caricature of a wealthy Mexican billionaire named Alberto Del Rio. Does the sudden plot twist make a little more sense now? Over the course of the two weeks of WWE programming, Swagger and Del Rio were set up on a collision course to meet at the biggest event of the year, Wrestlemania.
And it seems like all of this has made a bunch of right-wing bloggers and commentators really, almost hilariously mad this week. Michelle Malkin collected reactions from conservatives on Twitter, as she so often does, all of which were fairly disappointed with the WWE for using a Tea Party gimmick. Malkin herself chimed in, calling the idea "ripped straight from yesterday's headlines." Breitbart.com got in on the WWE criticism, too. "It's hard to imagine a bigger PR blunder," they wrote. "Expect a mea culpa any minute now." The always reliable folks over at Alex Jones's InfoWars.com didn't appreciate the new character, either. Their Paul Joseph Watson writes:
This is part of the divide and conquer tactic of cultural subversion to manufacture racial division and to characterize the Tea Party, conservatives, libertarians, opponents of uncontrolled illegal immigration and constitutionalists as racist, extremist radicals who should be pushed to the fringes of the political discourse.
Now the demonization runs so deep that it’s even being bolstered by WWE wrestling.
The fact that WWE is owned by Vince and Linda McMahon, who are part of the Republican establishment, also tells us a lot about how grass roots conservatives and libertarians are viewed by those near the top of the power structure.
Why are we getting so wound up about a wrestling gimmick? WWE programming reaches 14 million Americans every week – and millions more worldwide. To put it in context – that’s more than 10 times the amount of viewers who watch America’s top rated news show, The O’Reilly Factor.
It's important to not here that, in an effort to really drive home how Tea Partyin' these new villains can be, the WWE announcers claimed Swagger and Colter routinely receive fan mail from Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. The controversy was also picked up on Fox News' The Five, where the hosts spent a good five minutes bashing the WWE and its newfangled characters, but the video evidence seems to have been scrubbed from the Internet.
For its part, the WWE isn't backing down from the criticisms: "WWE has a long history of creating fictional characters that serve as either protagonists or antagonists, no different than other television shows or feature films," WWE spokesman Brian Flinn told The Hollywood Reporter. "To create compelling and relevant content for our audience, it is important to incorporate current events into our storylines. WWE is creating drama centered on a topical subject that has varying points of view to develop a rivalry between two characters." Finn also made clear the two characters do not represent the views of WWE or any of its partners. You know, just to be thorough — like that disclaimer before each episode of South Park.
The real beauty of "Real American" Jack Swagger 2.0, of ourse, is that he falls in line with the longstanding tradition in "pro" wrestling of American jingoism, racial tension, and the hard minds and bodies in between. Hulkamania was pretty well built on it, from Russian villain Nikolai Volkoff to the evil Iranian the Iron Shiek. Heck, this isn't even the first "great American" that pro wrestling has flipped into a villain. Sgt. Slaughter was turned into an Iraqi sympathizer at the height of the Gulf War to feud with Hulk Hogan. He famously received death threats leading up to his big match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania in 1991.
In the world of people who understand all this context, there is real fear of blowback at sites that are real Tea Party hubs, where Swagger and Colter might actually get cheered on by fans. Because characters who openly champion throwing Mexican-Americans across the border only works if people boo them — if it works at all. When the characters came back with their new and newsworthy identities, wrestling critic Brandon Stroud wondered aloud about the dangers of employing a heel character in the traditionally very conservative wrestling world:
The problem I have with WWE’s treatment of women and minorities is that far too often the negativity, slurs and oppression come from the mouths of people we’re supposed to cheer for. Not people we “decided” to cheer for. People like Cena, Sheamus or The Rock. People with Wrestling Buddies and coloring books and stuff. They show up and call Heath Slater gay, poop in Alberto Del Rio’s car because they ate Mexican food or call Vickie Guerrero a fat hooker and the crowd is DELIGHTED. They love it, repeat it, and maybe Zack Ryder makes an ass-backwards song about it. It’s the perpetuation of ignorance and stupidity, because it’s “just wrestling,” and wrestling only appeals to stupid people, or whatever.
At its best, wrestling can be offensive and racist and horrible and everything else and not be the glorification of those things. If WWE positions Zeb and Swagger as racists and pit them against Hispanic World Heavyweight Champion Alberto Del Rio, it’s a clear example of how one side is “wrong.” It’s not an issue for shades of gray. The racists are the bad guys. The homophobes are the bad guys. The cheaters and the liars are the bad guys. The good guys are the ones who say “no, that’s not how you should be” and follow through as a POSITIVE example by (1) not being those things, and (2) winning, however that’s defined, whether they win the match or not. Being the better person.
For now, the idea behind the reboot seems to be working the way the WWE wants it to. Crowds are booing the "Real American" and cheering the good guy Mexican champion Alberto Del Rio. And the conservatives will keep being mad, because they don't like the way the Tea Party is portrayed. Parody, imitation, and satire are both the sincerest form of flattery, and the harshest mirror through which to see yourself.
Update 4:24 p.m.: Swagger, real name Joe Hager, was arrested for a DUI and pot possession last night after leaving a Smackdown taping in Mississipi, according to TMZ. (Smackdown is the WWE's big other weekly show.)