Trump, DeSantis, and Kayfabe

There are apparently people out there who don’t understand that the New York Times story on the Trump-DeSantis feud is kayfabe. What is kayfabe, you ask? After more than six seasons of the Trump Show in national politics—in which we all were part of the studio audience—there is really little excuse for not knowing such a basic term of showmanship as “kayfabe,” a word taken from professional wrestling. Yet in faithfulness to my vocation as professor of the obvious in American politics, I will start by explaining it the same way my students would, by copying and pasting from Wikipedia: “the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not staged.” 

Alas, politics, and for that matter, pro wrestling, are messier than Wikipedia’s simplistic definition would have it: political rivalries are both genuine and staged. Politics is inherently public, and its conscious and successful practitioners stage all their actions and speeches with notions of their effects on us, their audience. 

Part of the kayfabe, no doubt, is the pretense that there are people Trump trusts with his actual thoughts and intentions who are reliable anonymous sources for New York Times stories. No matter how much effort reporter Maggie Haberman puts into pretending to be a clueless partisan fool on Twitter, it is hard to imagine she believes that her sources are reliable—and we would have to be even greater fools to believe it ourselves. President Trump would be just another New York City real estate billionaire, as obscure to the general public as Richard S. LeFrak or the late Sheldon Solow, were it not for 40 years and more of press manipulation. Whatever we read or watch is part of his, and perhaps DeSantis’, staging of the Trump-DeSantis rivalry.

Are President Trump and Florida Governor DeSantis rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination? Well, the media and the pollsters would like them to be. Trump is flying around the country doing rallies. DeSantis, meanwhile, even if he is planning to run for president this time, has no better option than a “Tallahassee strategy”: DeSantis has to concentrate on governing Florida in the face of a deadly pandemic and the even more menacing malevolence of the Biden Administration, which plays politics with lifesaving COVID-19 therapeutics. 

Beyond those manifest and public facts, everything you see in the media is kayfabe. 

Pro wrestling markets its staged contests as bouts between villainous “heels” and heroic “faces.” Fans participate in the kayfabe by cheering for the “face” against the “heel.” With swing voters, painful as it is for us Trump fans to admit it, Trump is the heel and DeSantis, younger, prettier, a military veteran, and rightly acclaimed as a COVID hero for making scientifically informed decisions while avoiding oppressive and useless countermeasures, is a possible “face.” 

By attacking DeSantis, Trump builds up DeSantis as a rival equal to Trump’s stature, and channels Trump hatred to the benefit of his supposed rival. Is that to build up Florida’s governor for a general election win in 2024? Or to crowd out other Republican contenders whom President Trump, for whatever reason, sees as more dangerous rivals to himself for the 2024 nomination? 

Accept the mystery, ladies and gentlemen—you can’t know. Could be even Trump himself doesn’t know. I won’t even advise you not to be fooled by the kayfabe. We are all stuck as the audience. The future of free government depends on returning the White House to the party of liberty and equality, and that, my good people, depends on our enjoying and responding to the staged rivalry between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

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