Recording a radio report for ABC News this week, I could barely believe the words coming out of my mouth.
More than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
About 40,000 new infections are still being detected every single day, a number that experts fear will soon dramatically spike, with 30 states showing rising case numbers coming into winter.
All of that is stunning enough.
But it was the next line that left me staring at the page I’d just typed.
“Just last night, President Donald Trump severely downplayed the seriousness of the virus to thousands of supporters at an election rally.”
This is a very difficult statement to get your head around.
But it helps if you’re a fan of professional wrestling.
Hulk Hogan is not the only American who exudes self-confidence
As a kid in the 80s, my hero was Hulk Hogan.
Regularly draped in an American flag, he was the personification of national strength and honour.
His long golden locks flapping around his fake-tanned shoulders, he’d storm into the ring to the tune of I am a Real American, before ripping apart his trademark yellow Hulkamania singlet and throwing it into the screaming crowd.
Then he’d bravely take apart the bad guys.
It’s part of what made me love America in the first place.
Coming from Australia, where most people are more comfortable with self-deprecation than pride, I never could have imagined that there were real Americans like Hulk Hogan.
But they’re everywhere.
Some describe it as national pride or patriotism. Others say it’s American exceptionalism.
For decades, that self-confidence has been a major part of what’s made America great.
Millions seem to prefer the freedom and levity that comes with the myth that America has handled the crisis well.
And they’re dying for it.
A Trump rally and a wrestling match share a lot in common
The first Trump rally I attended in early February in Iowa, I couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity.
I’d gone into the packed stadium with my guard up, having been told countless times it’s not a comfortable place for journalists.
But when I planted myself in the middle of the crowd to record a piece to camera I was almost overcome by folksy, cheerful sentiment.
Eventually, microphone in hand, I had to politely ask my new friends to stop talking to me because I had to record something for the news.
When the President came on stage and started mocking the “fake news” media, those same people turned to us and booed us at the top of their lungs.
And this is when it struck me.
It wasn’t just the all-American soundtrack, the dazzling lights, the stars and stripes and the fake tan that was familiar.
It wasn’t even the crude insults, the cheers and the boos.
It was the pantomime of the whole thing.
The fans get all riled up, cheer the good guy, boo the baddies and go back to their lives with a smile on their faces.
Wrestling’s evolution proved to be a blueprint for US politics
In the late 90s, championship wrestling had a major resurgence.
I was old enough to know better, but I got drawn back in.
This time around, the star was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin — a crude, working-class brute with a goatee beard who dispensed of his adversaries with a “Stone Cold Stunner” before skolling a beer and crushing the can on his head.
It was the 90s and America was learning to love the anti-hero.
Under CEO Vince McMahon, who happens to be a long-time associate of one Donald J Trump, professional wrestling had undergone an inspired marketing makeover.
McMahon branded the show as “sports entertainment”, dropping any pretence that the matches were “real”.
Decades of derision about wrestling being fake simply dissolved.
For millions of wrestling fans, like me, it was liberating.
In a sense, the lie was easier to swallow than the other “real” sports, with their endless match-fixing and doping scandals.
With wrestling, you could just watch the fakery as it was — a kind of irreverent mash-up of cage-fighting and soap opera.
It was just a modern-day circus.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s all about seeing the everyday man win
McMahon’s greatest master-stroke came when he cast himself at the centre of the show as a greedy, arrogant, suit-wearing CEO of the company who took advantage of the wrestlers in his employ.
Inside the ring, the lines between truth and fiction were starting to converge.
In the fictional storyline, the character McMahon was pitted against none other than Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Before thousands of booing fans, the character McMahon told Austin he didn’t approve of his rebellious nature.
Austin replied with a Stone Cold Stunner, knocking the CEO “unconscious”.
It was perhaps the most entertaining “stick it to the man” moment in the history of television because it tapped into a deep-seated resentment that had been building since the “greed is good” days of the late 80s.
Finally, the everyday man had won.
The anti-corporate storyline went on for years and ironically helped make the real-world corporation countless millions of dollars.
Real-world CEO Vince McMahon declared Steve Austin was the biggest star in the company’s history, even surpassing Hulk Hogan in popularity.
Donald Trump is no stranger to the pantomime
In 2007, Donald Trump made his own explosive appearance in the wrestling ring.
Headlined as Battle of the Billionaires, the night ended with Trump slamming McMahon with a cheap-shot, then (pretended to) beat him senseless before shaving the villainous CEO’s head.
As Trump celebrated the victory, Steve Austin, who was acting as referee, caught him by surprise with a Stone Cold Stunner.
The crowd erupted.
Sure, Trump beat up the biggest, greediest corporate villain of all, but at the end of the day the working-class man was still the star of the show.
What wrestling taught Trump about politics
Today, Trump has become the suit-wearing Steve Austin of American politics.
Despite his preference for Diet Coke over beer and helicopters over pick-up trucks, this Big Mac loving billionaire has successfully cast himself as an anti-hero for the working class, sticking it up the Washington elites at every opportunity.
And the working class loves him for it.
Just as McMahon did for professional wrestling, Trump also seems to have embraced the art of the pantomime.
In July, The Washington Post tracked the President as making more than 20,000 false or misleading claims.
But to many of his supporters, Trump’s utterings are easier to swallow than the run-of-the-mill dishonesty sprouted by polished, stern-faced establishment politicians in order to get elected.
As politics writer Matt Taibbi put it, in 2016:
Just like McMahon’s brand of professional wrestling, Trump’s falsehoods were out in the open.
Taibbi even claims the establishment politics version of lying is “probably more destructive … as it strikes directly at public faith in the system.”
Still, there are some truths that cut through the noise
Described by Trump’s former campaign advisor Steve Bannon as “flooding the zone with shit”, the stream of misleading claims is distorting the reality we live in.
It’s as if everyone in America has been forced into the wrestling arena, unwitting players in a nationwide pantomime.
When the President suggests he’ll serve another four years and another four after that, in direct contravention of the constitution, his supporters laugh it off as a joke aimed at riling up liberals.
When he refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the case of defeat, as he did this week, his backers in Congress rush in to assure us everything will be fine, claiming the media is over-reacting.
I really hope we are.
Still there are some truths that cut through the noise, no matter what the President says.
More than 200,000 Americans are dead and millions more have been affected by COVID-19.
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