Long before he entered politics, Donald Trump climbed into another sweaty ring: the world of pro wrestling. As the host of WWE’s huge WrestleMania (sic) events, he was immersed, out of sight of most politicians and journalists, in the workings of this peculiar performance art.
In 2015, when Trump was cutting a swathe through the Republican presidential primaries, Chauncey DeVega wrote in Salon that “the playbook employed by Trump over the past several months bears an uncanny resemblance to the storytelling and character-building stratagem of professional wrestling.” Which is why the idea of Conor McGregor as the figurehead the Irish far-right craves must be taken seriously.
Ireland does not have a Marine Le Pen, a Giorgia Meloni, a Geert Wilders. But I think we are looking in the wrong place. The model that might work in Ireland is American, not European. It is Trump, not Viktor Orbán.
DeVega, a WWE fan himself, pointed out that in the pro wrestling ecosystem, a new species had evolved. Typically, WWE had the “face” (the good guy) and the “heel” (the bad guy). But then came the “tweener”, the heel who is also the face.
“Villains who consistently entertain crowds”, DeVega wrote, “can come to command more respect and admiration than their benevolent counterparts, even in spite of behaviour that could be characterised, from a normative standpoint, as contemptible. What happens then, when the villain, because of their charisma, speaking ability, physical talent, or some intangible becomes popular with wrestling fans?”
What happens is Trump. This is why he is impervious to ignominy. So what if he’s a rapist, a fraudster and a coup-monger? The response of his fans to the revelation that their hero is a heel is “well, duh!” That’s the point of the performance: the thrill of falling for the villain.
Could McGregor be our Trump? Absolutely. He occupies a similar space now to the one Trump inhabited before 2015: immensely famous, with a fervent fan base, a persona forged in cod-gladiatorial showbusiness, a genius for personal branding and a toxic narcissism that is the political style of our times.
What the far-right in Ireland currently lacks is entertainment value. Its would-be Duces are dumb and dull. Its hard core is humourless zealotry. It does not have the “g’wan ya good thing” factor, the over-the-top performative outrage that is at once all a joke and deadly serious.
What Trump delivers to his fans is trash talk. Trash talk is a form of ritualised rhetoric that originates in sports: nasty, insulting, belittling, disparaging, often vile – but all in quotation marks. It is meant but not meant. Trump’s genius is to grasp how this form can work in democratic politics, how it can be used to insert fascist tropes into public discourse while simultaneously disavowing them.
The wrestler doesn’t “mean” to call his opponent’s wife a w***e – but he does. Trump doesn’t “mean” that Mexicans are rapists and his opponents are vermin – but he does.
McGregor has long used trash talk to licence similar forays into the unspeakable. He told Floyd Mayweather, “Dance for me, boy”. He called Nate Diaz, who is Mexican-American, a “cholo gangster from the hood.” Before fighting the Brazilian Jose Aldo, he announced that “I would invade his favela on horseback and would kill anyone who wasn’t fit to work”. But none of this is racist – it’s just trash talk.
And McGregor’s been testing the Irish market for political trash talk. “Ireland, we are at war.” “There is a grave danger upon us.” “Make change, or make way.” “A move must be made to ensure the change we need is ushered in. And fast! I am in the process of arranging.”
He uses the tweet-and-delete method to disseminate incendiary thoughts to millions of followers and then clean them from the digital record. A tweet that seemed to suggest “evaporating” properties before they could be used as accommodation centres for refugees and asylum seekers vanished into the ether.
What he’s doing is throwing shapes. He’s shadow boxing, trying out moves. And all of those moves are to the far right. Never mind that his primary political demand – that immigrants who commit crimes should be deported – would, if enforced in the United States, lead to his own deportation. (In 2018, he pleaded guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct in New York, having been filmed throwing a trolley through the window of a bus.) As Trump has shown, hypocrisy, in this kind of politics, is the new authenticity.
McGregor is not (as Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called him in the Dáil) a gobdaw. He is one of the most successful brand-builders of our times. Trump inherited his wealth; McGregor parlayed a talent for a minority sport, mixed martial arts, into worldwide fame and lavish wealth.
He has branded whiskey, stout, dining, underwear, ties, cryotherapy sprays, suits and training apps. And now he wants to brand Ireland itself with his X handles, which are #GOD #EIRE #FAMILY.
This brand fuses religious piety (Pray EVERYDAY!!, his X profile instructs his followers) with gangsta hedonism, macho-strut with family values, the old god of Irish-Catholicism with a gold-plated Mammon, bullying aggression with the promise of protection, chauvinistic nationalism with global celebrity, fame with notoriety. It’s a very American blend – and a potentially heady cocktail in an Ireland with a disenfranchised Catholic right and a social infrastructure lagging far behind its population growth.
It’s a long way from that potential to the reality of political power. McGregor’s rapid retreat from his more inflammatory rhetoric in the aftermath of the Dublin riot showed that too many of his would-be political followers do not have his fancy footwork and mistake the throwing of shapes for the throwing of petrol bombs.
Creating a voting public as fully attuned to the politics of trash talk as Trump’s fans are is not easy. But it is not so hard to imagine the night rallies with #GOD #EIRE #FAMILY on the branded banners.