Wrestling’s Newest Star, Daniel ‘The Progressive Liberal’ Richards, on Trump
If you haven’t seen it yet, you must. Deadspin did the first great story on Daniel Richards, a longtime pro wrestler from the mid-Atlantic and Appalachia who has made a name selling liberal politics as a heel act.
Richards is pitch-perfect. He enters wrestling halls in small towns in states like Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky to boos and jeers, dressed in a horrific shirt emblazoned all over with Hillary Clinton’s face. The 6-foot-5, 37-year-old then harangues crowds with choice barbs culled from the fairly tepid liberalism that courses through his veins as an ordinary sane person. In Trump country, particularly in coal regions, even kindly telling people you hope they get jobs in clean energy comes across like hardcore aggression.
Richards milks the act for all it’s worth, as the smile-inducing mix of inspired schlock and gentle self-parody has attracted reporters from all over, with Vice, The Ringer, NPR, People, Sports Illustrated and others calling for interviews.
I called Daniel along with Alex Pareene for an interview on our weekly podcast, the Tarfu Report, which you can hear online or on WFMU every Thursday evening at 6 p.m. in New York and New Jersey.
I was especially interested in asking about Daniel’s insider perspective on the rise of Donald Trump, whom I had pegged as a heel act from the first time I was sent out on the campaign trail to watch him in early 2016.
Richards had interesting insights about Trump as a heel act, and had many other funny things to say.
Essentially, you’re a heel wrestler. You play the bad guy. That’s how it works?
That’s a fair assessment.
But basically you’re just being your own normal relatively progressive self in the act. How does it work? What do you get up and say when you go on stage?
I just did a podcast the other day and the guy asked me what my catchphrase was, and I was like, “I don’t work off catchphrases.” I end the interview saying, “You will be liberated!” a lot of times, but a lot of times the material’s right there in front of me in the crowd. Especially in Appalachia, they say a lot of ignorant stuff my way. I don’t know that they know how ignorant it is, but it is nonetheless. So I can play off that. Yeah, it’s amped up a little bit, but I’m speaking my mind, and that doesn’t sit well in Appalachia. But I can say the exact same stuff in Northern Virginia or hopefully in Queens where I’m going to be the weekend after this one.
We should mention that at the start, that you have an event right here in the Tri-state area, I guess it’s in Woodside, right, on the 14th of October?
Correct, for Fight the World Wrestling. That’s a 2:30 bell time there. I’m really looking forward to making my debut in New York.
That’s going to be an unusual experience for you. You’re going to be the good guy, the babyface in this one, right?
I’ve wrestled a couple of times in northern Virginia, so just south of D.C., where I’m going to be traveling to in a little bit, and I am cheered there. So August of this year was the first time where I was cheered as “Progressive Liberal,” and that was a pretty cool experience. It was kind of like a culmination of the popularity that I’d been getting. The promotion I wrestled for there, NOVA Pro Wrestling, they were one of the first groups to reach out to me when all the viral-ness started. So then to come out there and get the standing ovation at the entrance and at the end of my match, that was pretty cool.
For people who aren’t familiar with wrestling and how this works, can you just talk about what a heel is, what makes a good heel, and what the tradition is in the sport?
I think there’s a few things that make a great heel. A heel in wrestling vernacular is a term for the bad guy. But what makes a good bad guy or a good heel is, first of all, it’s someone who believes they’re justified in what they’re saying. But usually it’s a situation where the majority of the crowd thinks otherwise. The heel’s job is to get heat and make people want to buy tickets to see a babyface, a.k.a. a good guy, kick their ass.
When you get up there, you basically stand up in front of these audiences and you say things like, “You vote against your economic interests!” and you wear shirts with Hillary Clinton on them. You’re just trying to wind people up as much as possible.
Yeah, I’m just the ultimate liberal troll I guess. I knew Hillary Clinton was the lightning rod over there, that’s one thing, but when you’re like, “I’d like you all to get jobs in clean energy,” “Boo!” I mean, that’s truly the reaction! You can’t make this stuff up.
Here’s what I really want to talk about with you. We actually talked about this earlier this week. When I first saw Donald Trump on the campaign trail a couple of years ago, the very first thought I had was, “This guy’s a heel wrestler.”
And I even wrote about it. That was the very first article I wrote with Donald Trump. I talked about how he was classically in the tradition of so many different heels who had come and gone in the past. Did you have that same reaction when you saw him?
I’ve said that verbatim. I don’t know if that makes us observant or everyone else is just missing it… That’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s doing what I’m doing, except for he’s the President of the United States and has a much bigger platform that I do. But he’s just a heel giving heat, and people need to remember this guy was essentially trained by Steve Bannon on how to use identity politics, as they’ve termed it, in their favor to get the reaction, to distract from other things they’ve got going on.
So we get worked up about something he says, Charlottesville or his reaction to this situation or that situation, and I’m not saying the outrage from his “really fine people” remarks isn’t justified, but it doesn’t need to go on all week.
Isn’t part of what being a great heel is about – forcing the other character to kind of be uncomfortable and get off their game a little bit, and sort of win the verbal battle? During the primary season, it seemed to me like he was just using WWE techniques to knock people like Rubio and Jeb Bush completely off their game.
Oh, yeah. A secret guilty pleasure was watching him troll Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush was the ultimate tool, and he killed him and it was funny. But the reality of him as president is not funny, and very scary, and it’s been … well, we’re in October now. It’s just been a nightmare.
You’ve made an observation before that Trump actually goes farther than your typical heel wrestler would or could, is that correct? You talked about that there are limits to things that even you could do, and he goes beyond those limits. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Let’s say I landed my dream job, and I was in the WWE… They’re a publicly traded company, number one. Number two, they have sponsors that can pull their advertising, and that dictates their television revenue, so they found out back in 2003 there are lines they can’t cross, so they had a Middle Eastern character. Just to make a long story short, the network thought they went too far, so that character’s pulled… They’re really limited in how far they can go.
Also, just on the independent level, there’s definitely lines I can’t cross. I want people to hate me enough to see me again get my butt kicked by my adversary, but I don’t want them to say, “You know what, screw this guy, and the hell with this. I’m not coming to see this.” It’s a fine line to walk sometimes.
It’s funny that he hasn’t turned off the persona one bit. Maybe that’s what’s worked for him in the past, and he just doesn’t have any instinct for being less than exactly who he is. But on the other hand, that’s what works in wrestling. You’ve talked about this too, that being real is really important in the sport. If you were something less than sincere or tried to put it on too thick, would people notice?
I’ve said this a lot… I couldn’t go to L.A. and try to be like a Sean Hannity character. Or I couldn’t do what Sam Adonis is doing in Mexico and wave an American flag with Trump on it. I mean, I could probably do that, but I know Sam takes it a little further. What I’m saying is, I couldn’t pretend to be a Republican. It’s not in me. I could memorize all the talking points and everything, but ultimately it would not come off as authentic. And people catch on to that.
Isn’t it odd that that’s kind of odd – that was the theme of last year’s election cycle too, voters sensing who was more real than the other?
I think that’s correct. I definitely think, I mean people looked at Hillary as a liar in the race. There’s no worse pathological liar that’s ever been in politics than Donald Trump. I said this at an event I spoke at. This was an event around Pittsburgh where I was just a guest speaker. I said he’s the most honest pathological liar there is. He lies when it comes to facts and numbers and all that, but he is being him. And ultimately, the real Donald Trump comes out. You can tell when he’s being told, “You need to read this statement someone wrote for you,” going back to the Charlottesville situation. But then you knew when it was him, when he’s unscripted and off the cuff, that’s Donald.
On the campaign trail, when I would talk to people after his events, one of the first things people always said was: “I like him because he’s not a politician.” But then they would say, “I like him because he’s genuine” or “I like him because he’s real. I believe him.” And it wasn’t necessarily about factual things. They just felt like he was representing his true persona and it wasn’t a scripted political thing.
Again, not to get into identity politics, but he’s certainly not the least racist person, as he claims. And I think when he’s saying, and anyone who stands against him, when he’s saying, “I’d like to slug that guy,” there’s no faker tough guy also than Donald Trump. I think his followers identify with both of those elements, and when they say he’s speaking for me, that’s a lot of code for, “He thinks like I think.”
Has anyone asked you about potentially actually going into politics?
Oh yeah, all the time. I don’t mean that to sound like an arrogant boast, but I do get it. At an event I was at, I was told I should run. But I want to keep going to towns and wrestling in as many places as I can, and I enjoy my life right now. I think that’s one thing, [Trump’s] not enjoying his life. I think he’d be much happier golfing.
Does that scare you, though? It almost seems like pro wrestling and politics are merging a little bit. They’re becoming a little bit the same thing.
Yeah, they talk about The Rock running for president, and that talk hasn’t gone away. Trump, he broke down that barrier. Any guy you see on TV, if he gets enough popularity and steam, and says enough things that people get on board with, you have a chance now. He really did break down a barrier.
Tell us a little bit about what you like about the life. What do you love about it?
It’s hard to break it down into parts and say, “This is what I love about it.” I think love is more just a really strong feeling that comes over you. And when you try to break down wrestling like, “Hey, I’m going to get into spandex, I’m going to roll around with a fella on the mat, in front of a bunch of people! Boy, I can’t wait.” If you just take that aspect of it, it makes no sense! But I love it. I think the only thing I can say categorically, to break it down, is that I’m chasing that high of having a match that keeps the crowd involved throughout.
How’s your merchandising doing?
I’m still selling shirts. I’ve got shirts available at WhataManeuver.net. You just search “Progressive Liberal” you’ll find them. And there’s also a link too on my Twitter page. But I also have a website dantheprogressiveliberal.com, and I’ve got shirts that are available exclusively there that I also sell at my live events. So I’m selling a decent number of shirts.
I hope you make a gazillion dollars doing this. Thank you so much for coming on today, and good luck with your career.
This interview has been edited for clarity.