Two professional wrestlers developed “The Progressive Liberal” to be the villain at matches. Then the atmosphere became much darker
In the late 1980s when Beau James started professional wrestling, crowds came for a show between good and evil, to see a story about heroes and villains, to enjoy the fights and then go home. .
James loved being the hero but that was nothing compared to playing the villain.
“They introduced me and people booed me for almost two minutes straight. … It’s a high. … And I’ve been there in the same situation where they love me – I don’t don’t think it compares to the peak of hate.
Wrestlers build a character with a backstory so the audience feels the stakes are high when they get punched in the face. Although they often take themes from current affairs and pop culture, they are generally not overtly political. But the 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sparked an idea between James and wrestler Dan Harnsberger.
Together they developed “The Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards, often the villain at games in the Republican-voting mining towns of Appalachia and some southern states. The Liberal would get a following and even cheers as crowds watched the violence staged on a night of pro wrestling.
Over the past five years, however, that atmosphere has become much darker, James and Harnsberger said this month.
After this month’s midterm elections resulted in the defeat of many Trump-backed candidates, even some Holocaust deniers conceded their races. It suggested that at least some were ready to move past Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in 2020 and the crowd of supporters he incited who violently stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
But in Appalachian mountain towns, that rhetoric has had a lasting effect, Harnsberger said, even among fans who know wrestling is entertainment.
“The crowd took a more violent approach towards me,” said Harnsberger, who plays the liberal progressive in the ring. “I had stones thrown at me. A lady pulled out a lighter, tried to set my trunks on fire as they were on top of me. And someone else pulled out a switchblade.
A professional wrestler lives or dies on the involvement of the crowd, which is even more important than the skills of those inside the ring.
So when he saw forests of Trump flags across West Virginia during the 2016 presidential election, James wondered how he could tap into that passion – known as the “heat” in the language of struggle.
“My God,” he remembers saying to a pal. “If we had a guy who was the anti-Trump, and we could send him to the ring in these cities, how much heat would we have?”
They tried to carry a Hillary Clinton flag into the ring and had a very strong reaction. The following weekend, James met Harnsberger for the first time in a long time. They had wrestled together years earlier. Besides, Harnsberger had tested how his politics would play out.
The two came together to create and promote the Progressive-Liberal Party. James helped Harnsberger refine his opinions into lines that would piss off the crowd, and how to pace them — like when to say, “We’re coming for your guns.”
And things went well. They entertained. A fan once flashed a 9mm handgun to his hip and told Harnsberger to come get it, James said. Sometimes Harnsberger had half the crowd on his side, like at a game in the Arkansas Ozarks.
When a sports website noticed Harnsberger’s gimmick in 2017, a wave of reporters, including me, came to see how his Hillary trunks were playing in the counties that showed Trump the most support.
“The heat you want is the heat where people are upset about what you stand for…and they want to see you get your ass kicked,” Harnsberger said.
This is when the crowds get involved and will see you win or lose and come back next time.
In 2022, the Hillary trunks were replaced with a pair saying “Riding with Biden”.
The progressive liberal is still the villain, but Harnsberger and James said audiences have changed.
“The last five years it’s just gotten out of control,” James said. People became more frustrated, more divided, he said. And the progressive-liberal offers an outlet for that pent-up energy.
“So now here’s this guy in our town, saying what we see on TV that we don’t agree with. We can’t have these people [on TV], we can’t have the politicians. Let’s get him,” James said, describing the attitude.
“Dan can go and release what he believes, what he feels, his frustrations to an audience that he’s upset [and] that they can give it back to him directly because he’s the closest thing to what they’re mad at, that they can actually interact with,” he said.
And while most politicians don’t come to these small towns, progressive-liberals do. “You can insult him. You can boo him, slap him, or try. You can throw anything at him. He’s right there,” James said.
Harnsberger is a liberal and James a conservative. They don’t get along much on politics and don’t talk about it outside of the ring except to work on their act.
“We are complete opposites,” James said. “I am a mountain man who owns guns, chews tobacco and believes in the Bible; Dan is not. But Dan and I can get along. And if we have arguments, we have a luxury that most people don’t have – we know that somewhere in the next few days we’ll be in the ring together so we can just punch each other in the back of the head. ”
But it’s staged. And that’s not what happened with the public.
James lays down a few rules to try to keep the crowd from getting ugly – there are no criticisms or jokes about the Bible or the opioid crisis in these towns.
But on a recent night in Stickleyville, Va., where Trump’s vote share rose from an already overwhelming 78% in 2016 to 84% in 2020, it turned ugly and fast.
As Harnsberger attempted to engage with people who had paid to watch, he was drowned out by boos.
A lot of this was expected. A man in the audience, Alex Adkins, told CNN the progressive-liberal’s views wouldn’t sit well: “Everyone wants to punch him in the face!”
And a man with a Trump flag who wouldn’t give his name said he wanted to see Harnsberger beaten. “We love wrestling, first of all,” he said of why he was there. “But come and show the liberal like, hey, we know what we stand for. Yeah, and definitely not the left side.
When some in the audience told their neighbors to let Harnsberger speak, it boiled over. Punches were thrown. Someone was hit with a chair.
“He went past the heat point to it’s dangerous,” James said, explaining why they cut the fight short.
More fights broke out and the fights spilled into the parking lot.
As James and Harnsberger sat backstage waiting for it to be calm enough for them to leave safely, they both agreed they could have handled the situation better.
But neither said they created the problem.
“I think if I had never existed, they would feel the same way,” Harnsberger said. “But I have a unique ability to bring out that reaction when I’ve been in front of them since I’ve been here.”