To a wrestling audience, the fake and the real coexist peacefully. If you ask a fan whether a match or backstage brawl was scripted, the question will seem irrelevant. You may as well ask a roller-coaster enthusiast whether he knows heâs not really on a runaway mine car. The artifice is not only understood but appreciated: The performer cares enough about the viewerâs emotions to want to influence them. Kayfabe isnât about factual verifiability; itâs about emotional fidelity.
Although their athleticism is impressive, skilled wrestlers captivate because they do what sociologists call âemotional laborâ â the professional management of other peopleâs feelings. Diners expect emotional labor from their servers, Hulkamaniacs demand it from their favorite performer, and a whole lot of voters desire it from their leaders.
The aesthetic of World Wrestling Entertainment seems to be spreading from the ring to the world stage. Ask an average Trump supporter whether he or she thinks the president actually plans to build a giant wall and have Mexico pay for it, and you might get an answer that boils down to, âI donât think so, but I believe so.â Thatâs kayfabe. Chants of âBuild the Wallâ arenât about erecting a structure; theyâre about how cathartic it feels, in the moment, to yell with venom against a common enemy.
Voting to repeal Obamacare again and again only to face President Obamaâs veto was kayfabe. So is shouting âYou lie!â during a health care speech. It is President Bush in a flight suit, it is Vladimir Putin shirtless on a horse, it is virtually everything Kim Jong-un does. Does the intended audience know that what theyâre watching is literally made for TV? Sure, in the same way they know that the wrestler Kane isnât literally a demon. The factual fabrication is necessary to elicit an emotional clarity.
Despite superficial similarities, it is useful to distinguish kayfabe from the concept of satire. Satire depends on the constant awareness that whatâs being presented is false. It requires frequent acknowledgment of that: winks to the camera, giggling breaks of character. The meaning comes directly from the disbelief. It depends on two conflicting mental processes happening at once, rather than the suspension of one in service of the other. It employs cognitive dissonance, rather than bypassing it. In that way, satire and kayfabe are actually opposites. Kayfabe isnât merely a suspension of disbelief, it is philosophy about truth itself. It rests on the assumption that feelings are inherently more trustworthy than facts.
Donald Trump rode kayfabe from Queens to Trump Tower to âThe Apprenticeâ to the White House. Alex Jones may find it is as effective in the courtroom as it is on AM radio. Cultural elites can fact-check these men and point out…