Neurologists have put forward a fascinating theory in the last few years: mentally ill people and mentally healthy people both hallucinate their realities.
It turns out our conscious perceptions consist partly of what comes in our eyes and partly of what our brains add from our emotions, our memory, and our unconscious expectations.
Healthy people are lucky enough to generate hallucinations of reality that approximate the world pretty well, while mental illness disrupts the creation of conscious perceptions by inserting spiders, paranoid feelings, or voices that aren’t really there.
Have you ever sat in an automatic car wash with the roller brushes going by and felt like you were moving forward, even when you knew you were really sitting still? Healthy people experience hallucinations more often than they realize, and no one’s perceptions are a facsimile of reality. All sorts of disciplines—professional wrestling, hypnosis, stage magic, politics—take advantage of our tenuous grip on reality to entertain and persuade us.
WRESTLING’S HIDDEN DEPTHS
Professional wrestling fans aren’t fools who mistake spandex-clad men bouncing off the ropes for competitive Grecian grapplers. Pace high-brow scoffers, fans attend professional wrestling for a *liminal experience*, a subtle blurring of the line between fictional and objective realities. Talented wrestlers keep audiences guessing about whether the performers have fallen into believing their own feuds and stories.
The suspension of disbelief and the performative techniques used to induce it are called kayfabe, and it is a form of mass hypnosis. The good guys and bad guys (called “faces” and “heels” in wrestling) trash talk and fight, working toward an emotional apex where spectators question the wrestlers’ grip on objective reality, then their own, then start to lose track:
“I know this is supposed to be fake, but I’m not sure the wrestlers know anymore! Those guys seem to have become genuinely upset and abandoned the script! What am I watching here? This is wild!”
Wrestlers take advantage of reality’s ambiguity when it comes to stories. While most healthy people will agree that a folding chair exists and is real, they will form widely differing narratives as to why Jake the Snake hit Handsome Ransom with the chair. Did Jake cheat and break the rules? Or did Ransom get what he deserved for turning his back to his opponent? Anyone who has listened to divergent accounts of an auto accident will be familiar with this phenomenon.
For the magic of kayfabe to work, the wrestlers must give the audience no clues to disambiguate what they are watching, to separate their reality from the fictional reality of the performance. If they do, the spell evaporates. To this end, wrestlers never break character in public, whether in the ring, in a TV interview, or at the grocery store. (This is called “keeping kayfabe”).
Hulk Hogan is always Hulk Hogan outside the home, never Terry Bollea. There are no winks to the audience, no curtains and bows to signal the beginning and end of the play. Kayfabe demands 24/7 commitment, a talent for semi-scripted improv, and the athleticism of a gymnast.
Wrestlers immerse themselves in an alternative reality to which they adhere resolutely. As they do, they drag the audience with them into a twilight zone of thrilling uncertainty.
It’s important to understand that the bad guy, the heel, is the emotional dynamo of kayfabe. The heel cheats, bullies the ref, boasts, lies, and taunts the booing crowd. He is delightfully evil, mischievous, and outrageous. He enjoys who he is and never apologizes. Just as wrestlers taken as a group offer no clues the kayfabe is an act, the heel never demonstrates any awareness or remorse about his own nastiness.
“Why are you booing? I’m a great guy!”
A heel’s performance splits the crowd and gets them arguing with each other about conflicting realities. Human nature dictates that some of the crowd love to hate the heel and his dirty tricks, others love to support him as a means to taunt their disapproving neighbors.
Thus a well-executed kayfabe drama transforms from a physical struggle between the heel and the face into an emotional struggle between the factions of the audience over their conflicting perceptions of the heel. The heel magnifies the liminal experience of kayfabe, because human beings are never more likely to lose their grip on objective reality than when they are *outraged*. Hate doesn’t just blind us. Hates makes us vulnerable to minor hallucinations and delusions, too.
Back in the 1940s, a wrestler named Gorgeous George pioneered a new kind of heel, the “dapper heel.” His character relied on narcissism for effect. Instead of wearing black and playing the abusive thug, Gorgeous George dressed in elegant clothes and coiffed his blond hair. He had himself photographed often with beautiful models and associated himself with garish luxury, vanity, and condescension.
You may be saying to yourself: “Narcissistic … elegant clothes … garish luxury … coiffed blond hair … vain, boastful, mischievous … hangs out with models … never apologizes for who he is … Good grief this is starting to sound familiar!”
Hold on: we are almost there.
KAYFABE SPREADS TO OTHER GENRES
Kayfabe techniques have been used in entertainment genres outside professional wrestling. The avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman used kayfabe during his acts in the 1970s. He blurred fictional and objective reality by avoiding explicit punchlines and perpetrating public stunts with kayfabe conspirators.
The audience lost track of what was serious and what was a joke. Some people loved the liminal experience of Kaufman’s comedy, others could not stand him and deplored his methods. Either way, Kaufman became infamous.
Kaufman discovered something astonishing in his experiments with kayfabe comedy: he could create “unwitting faces.” That is, Kaufman launched nasty and unprovoked verbal attacks on unsuspecting audience members or on celebrities in the press, then created kayfabe drama using their unscripted reactions.
As long as Kaufman started in the heel position, his opponents reflexively engaged and defended themselves in a predictable manner, believing they had nothing to lose from thrashing a self-evident reprobate. By starting a fight on his terms and knowing what sort of story he wanted to play out, Kaufman owned the narrative without his face being read in to the act.
Kaufman exploited these feuds for media exposure and entertainment. The spectacle riveted fans, who got lost in figuring out what they were witnessing. A conspiracy to fool them? An unhinged lunatic provoking a free-for-all? Pure genius?
In the late 1990s, kayfabe techniques popped up in a new genre: reality TV. Shows like Survivor, American Idol, Hell’s Kitchen, and The Apprentice paralleled professional wrestling in their structure, but the drama was wholly emotional rather than partly physical. Loosely scripted soap opera replaced loosely scripted grappling.
The blurring of realities reversed the direction of wrestling: while wrestlers put on a fictional character and maintained it off-stage, reality TV stars maintained their off-screen identities even as they played a character on TV.
Reality shows produced a number of beloved heels including Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, and … Donald Trump. “You’re fired!”
KAYFABE COMES TO POLITICS
After perfecting his craft on The Apprentice for more than a decade, Donald Trump did something unprecedented: he brought heel tactics to politics. He in effect announced to the world: “I am Don the Conman, a mischievous, nasty guy, and I’m running for president. Now hate me!”
Millions of Americans obliged, and millions more jumped up to oppose those who hated him. The audience split, realities fell into conflict, and the match was on.
It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Trump’s strategic innovation. Politicians and leaders since ancient times have sought to attract popular support by telling a story about what a great person they are: “I am the hero, the good guy, an honest fellow. Elect me! Make me king!” Leaders might attempt to come across as tough, but not *bad*.
To this end, leaders hid their faults and flogged a narrative of noble character, while working to expose their opponents as dishonest, debauched, evil people. This playbook was thought to be a natural law of politics. No one was prepared for a politician who relied on incoming attacks and scandal to build popularity with his base.
Trump marched into the ring as the heel-politician and deployed the Kaufman Technique, selecting as his unwitting faces the mainstream media, a bevy of politicians, and a handful of liberal celebrities and activists. Trump leapt outside the pale of respectability and relentlessly antagonized his faces until they frothed at the mouth and threw everything they had at him.
In a trice, he became the most divisive and hated politician on the planet, eclipsing actual dictators perpetrating genocide, torture, and economic devastation.
It was working.
You might think Trump’s unwitting faces would have grokked his strategy when he hung wrestling monikers on them: The Fake News, Crooked Hillary, Mad Maxine, Lyin’ Ted, Crazy Bernie. But no—they were Harvard and Yale people, Washington people, the intellectual aristocracy who would never stoop to watch flyover-country wrestling or reality TV.
They thought Trump was *dumb*, that he didn’t understand the game. They declaimed their own virtue and waited for him to implode from “grab ‘em” tapes and porn star imbroglios. Again and again, they expected: “This time, he’s done. He can’t possibly come back from _____!” But Trump did, again and again. And when Trump’s supporters didn’t abandon him, his opponents shamed and harangued *them*.
Trump’s antagonists were the best unwitting faces a heel could hope for: two-dimensional, predictable, whiny, and condescending to the crowd.
The rest is history. Donald Trump sucked up all the oxygen in the room with his fascinating mischief. No one could talk about anything except how bad he was—or, alternatively, how good it felt to watch him inflame the other half of the crowd, who styled themselves morally superior. Like Kaufman, Trump manipulated the media into giving him billions of dollars worth of free advertising as they attempted to refute and expose his provocative statements and calculated misbehavior.
Thus a country of 350 million people fell into a kayfabe trance. The crowd saw the same events, but factions attached opposite meanings to those events, almost as though the were watching two different screens.
Half the country saw Lucifer himself win the White House, while the other half saw a genius performer gouge the eyes of Crooked Hillary and toss her out of the ring, to the melodious howls of those who thought they had reality figured out. In the end, Trump’s antagonists failed to understand the heel’s motto:
“If you attack me, I shall become more popular than you can possibly imagine.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
It’s no coincidence professional wrestling is most popular among the struggling poor and lower-middle class. Kayfabe works best on a stressed audience begging for a respite from reality and its cares.
The American public apparently met those conditions in 2016. Donald Trump offered escape for everyone. For some, by providing a focal point for outrage (make no mistake, outrage is *very* liberating). For others, by granting them permission to dream America could be “great again,” prosperous and free of smothering progressive norms that had been accumulating for decades. Just about everyone yearned for Donald Trump—or someone like him—even if they didn’t consciously acknowledge it to themselves.
In a way, Trump was neither right nor wrong. Like Issac Asimov’s Mule in the Foundation Trilogy, Donald Trump was *inevitable*.
Kayfabe quite often winds up in chaos. Wrestlers really get mad at each other, or fistfights erupt in the stands, and the kayfabe script goes out the window. When kayfabe and reality collapse to a singularity, it’s called a “shoot”, a free-for-all.
As Matt Taibbi points out in his exploration of the conflict between the intelligence community and the president, we aren’t in a shoot yet, but we may be much closer than many realize. Reality is a protean and tricky thing, and Americans are rediscovering how tricky it can be.