Flying Farage Off The Turnbuckle: Once again, British politics is best understood as professional wrestling...
Only once in a while is there someone willing to break kayfabe and talk about what's really going on in Westminster.
It is deeply funny that Dominic Cummings — once a Wormtongue-like figure in Michael Gove’s Department of Education, before becoming the Mekon of Vote Leave and finally being elevated to become the eminence grey tracksuit trousers of Boris Johnson’s government — now presents himself as an ungainly cross between the Joker and Bane, firing out shots from the comfort of his posting bunker. But as I’ve written before, it doesn’t mean he’s not often right. You just have to hack through the thickets of ego and animus to get to the point.
I’ve also written several times in the past about my sincere belief that politics and political reporting follow the same structures and patterns as professional wrestling. There is the surface level story we are presented — kayfabe — a shared fiction that all the main players in the drama present as ‘real’ and there is a revolving cast of heels (baddies) and faces (goodies).
Much of the drama in British politics and media comes from the same place as it does in wrestling: Baddies becoming goodies (face turns) and goodies gone bad (heel turns), even as their ultimate goals remain the same. Behind the scenes, faces and heels share the same dressing rooms and in British politics yuk it up in the same green rooms and at the same dinner parties.
This relative collective unity of purpose is why it’s so easy for someone to, for example, shift from The Daily Mail to The New Statesman or swap a column in The Guardian for a spot at The Daily Telegraph. The moves remain the same wherever a columnist is plying their trade as do the rules of the fight and the underlying assumptions of the storylines. The surface level act differs slightly to give the readers the illusion of choice.
I’m rehashing my politics as wrestling analogies because I regret to inform you that it seems Dominic Cummings agrees with me. He replied to a tweet from someone confused by an earlier reference to The Undertaker and WWE yesterday by saying:
Lee Atwater, mastermind of 1984 said, “If you want to understand swing voters watch WWE”1. He was right. And The Undertaker knows more re: communication than all SW1 pundits combined. I’m literally not joking.
Atwater, “the Babe Ruth of negative politics”, a Republican political strategist who once played guitar for Percy Sledge and gave Karl Rove’s career a boost, was — to use a technical term from political science — a total piece of shit. But Cummings is right to say that Atwater told his candidates to watch wrestling interviews to pick up tips on selling a narrative.
Dominic Cummings @Dominic2306@Makeuya Lee Atwater, mastermind of 1984, said 'if you want to understand swing voters watch WWE'. He was right. And the Undertaker knows more re communication than all SW1 pundits combined, Im literally not joking!
Given Vote Leave’s willingness to harness and promote racist tropes during the 2016 referendum campaign, it’s not surprising that Cummings admires Atwater. In 1981, while a member of the Reagan administration, Atwater gave an anonymous interview to the political scientist Alexander P. Lamis. In the conversation — later definitively linked to him — he explained how Reagan got racist voters on side:
Lamis: …the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “N——r, n——r, n——r”. By 1968, you can’t say “n——r” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like “forced busing”, “states’ rights” and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, that we were doing way with the racial problem one way or another. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N——r, n——r”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner.
Or, to put it another way, Atwater — who as an aide to Floyd Spence in the 1980 Congressional Race in South Carolina destroyed his opponent by making his teenage mental health issues and referred to electroshock therapy as “being hooked up to jumper cables” — would have well recognised the dog whistles about Turkey joining the EU and the £350 million lie on the side of the bus.
Diagnosed with brain cancer in 1990, Atwater concerted to Roman Catholicism and went on a last-minute repentance jag, sending letters to his former victims such as Turnipseed and George HW Bush’s 1988 election rival Michael Dukakis, against whom he weaponised the issue of prisoner rehabilitation with racist campaigning focus on William ‘Willie’ Horton, who committed rape, armed robbery and assault while on furlough.
In a mea culpa for Life magazine in February 1991, just a month before his death, Atwater wrote:
… it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ‘90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.
The 90s was the era of Epstein Airways frequent flyer gold circle member Bill Clinton in the US and endless war fancier Tony Blair in the UK. Their moral flexibility, with principles more malleable than a Stretch Armstrong doll, has only be amplified in the figures that followed them, including George W. Bush — a pal of Atwater’s — and the UK’s current Prime Minister, the ethical blackhole Boris Johnson. The last part of Atwater’s story is not the bit people remember or repurpose for their own ends.
Political ‘operators’ like Cummings prefer to focus on Atwater’s gleeful sowing of hate and distrust rather than his distraught attempts to get repentance when the time for reaping came around. It’s the WWE-mimicking deceptions that stick in the mind and you can see them all over British politics and the media.
This weekend, Jess Phillips, the Labour MP that huge chunks of the press want to persuade us is a face but who anyone paying attention realises is a heel, with all the self-obsession required, was all over the Sunday supplements. There were plenty of questions about her new book and her political ‘vision’ but none about where the £60,000 her leadership campaign brought in went.
That’s because in the kayfabe of British politics and political journalism, Phillips is endlessly pushed in the storyline and we’re expected to just accept that she’s a goodie. That’s why we get moments like this from Janice Turner’s interview with Phillips in Saturday’s Times:
We speak days before the vicious Batley and Spen by-election, amid Momentum activists demanding Starmer resign as leader if Labour loses. (It retains the seat by a squeaky 323 votes.) Phillips believes the hard left stoked George Galloway’s campaign with its crude appeals to Muslim voters, and was gleeful about the prospect of Labour losing. “But they would make the same charge about me, wouldn’t they, under the Corbyn years.” She compares activist-journalist Owen Jones and Novara Media writers to noisy, overexcited children who have had too much sugar – “Who cares what they think, frankly.”
She gets to trash talk Jones and Novara like a wrestler cutting a promo because Turner agrees with her and because in the storyline of Labour’s renewal all those young activists who tramped through the rain and snow for the party are now surplus to requirements, just a bunch of journeyman wrestlers to be suplexed out of the Labour.
We are endlessly told that Phillips is “real” and “tells it like it is” but she’s playing a character as much as ‘Bumptious’ Boris Johnson or ‘Nuclear’ Nigel Farage. It’s just that the character she’s established appeals more to the kind of people pumping out interviews and profile pieces for the glossy Sunday supplements.
Farage made his latest move between franchises this weekend, having shifted from UKIP to LBC to the Brexit Party and now to GB News. Like any good/bad wrestling character, he’s been out cutting promos. The latest is an article for The Daily Telegraph. Clad in black spandex and with his eyes popping out of his head Hulk Hogan-style, Farage boasts beneath the headline GB News can do to broadcasting what Ukip did to politics that:
I predicted that Ukip would cause an earthquake, and it did. I feel there is a similar opportunity now in British broadcasting.
It would be more accurate to describe UKIP as a really big fart rather than an earthquake. It was very loud, made a stink, and forced the major parties to shift position but its long-term effect has been to make most people feel queasy and hope never to have to share a lift with Nigel Farage.
Farage’s commitment to his character — the pub-dwelling, nicotine-stained man of the people — and ability to distract from who he really is (a Dulwich College-educated, media-obsessed former commodities trader) is in full effect. He knows he needs an enemy to stir up the crowd and he’s got the perfect one for his first show tonight — ‘Freedom Day’. Despite the phrase having been ginned up by newspapers like the one he’s writing in, Farage rages:
That term itself revolts me, suggesting that the government somehow "owns" people’s freedom and that people should be grateful to politicians for it being returned to them – not that I expect it to be for long. Worse still are new proposals for tens of millions of flu jabs to be administered this winter, including to children aged two upwards. I find such ideas deeply disturbing and I am looking forward to challenging others – and being challenged – in discussing them.
Farage will come tumbling off the top rope tonight and there’ll be the usual token toothless lefties there for him to grapple with. Expect someone like the reliably useless Benjamin Butterworth to drag on his lycra and lumber around the ring, and for Farage to end each match claiming victory, the referee knocked out cold by a steel chair that just happened to be stashed beneath the ring.
Cummings did more to help put ‘Boris’ — the ring name of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — into Number 10 than possibly anybody else. In his Substack post justifying why and how he did that, he wrote:
The truth is he is neither (a) nor (b). He is a much deeper and more complex character than the media generally portrays. When I saw pundits seek mysteries in Cameron, I said the hidden depths weren’t there, he’s ‘a sphinx without a riddle’. Cameron was simple but portrayed as a sphinx but with Boris it’s the opposite, Boris is complex portrayed as simple. Behind each mask lies another mask — but there’s no masterplan behind all the masks, just the age old ‘will to power’. He is happy to hide behind the mask of a clown, mostly unbothered by ridicule, while calculations remain largely hidden (including from parts of his own mind).
And that’s where Cummings has an advantage on most of the pundits who breathlessly report his every tweet — he’s willing to break the kayfabe of British political life and he admits that the matches are rigged. If they weren’t would we live in a world where the Johnsons, the Farages and the Phillips dominated our public discourse?
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Atwater died in 1991 so would have referred to the WWF rather than the WWE as the company didn’t start using that name until 1999.