One’s a greasy-haired grappler who calls himself “a real American” and fancies the Gadsden flag. The other is a bushy-bearded hype man who praises the Constitution and blames illegal immigrants for, well, just about everything.
Together, Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter are World Wrestling Entertainment’s newest villains — proud heirs to the jerkish, loudmouthed, backstabbing tradition of Nikolai Volkoff, the Iron Sheik and Gulf War-era Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter.
For Tea Party conservatives, the duo also has become a source of unexpected cultural angst, the equivalent of a metal folding chair to the back of the head.
“Did George Soros buy the WWE?” said radio host Glenn Beck during his Wednesday broadcast. “Is this a Cass Sunstein presentation?
“I’m sick and tired of being miscast. I am sick and tired of it. It is lazy at best … you’re mocking me for standing up for the Constitution of the United States of America? You’re mocking me for standing up for law and order?”
Better question: Has professional wrestling — a popular, bipartisan pastime of oiled pecs, punishing piledrivers and I-can’t-belive-what-I-just-saw! plot twists — turned heel on conservatives?
Sure seems like it.
Introduced to a national television audience less than two weeks ago, Mr. Swagger and Mr. Colter embody every unpalatable Tea Party stereotype. Xenophobic at best, downright racist at worst, possessing truly terrible facial hair all the while, the two want nothing more in the world than to deport Mexican immigrants.
As in: all of them.
Mr. Swagger and Mr. Colter use “Don’t tread on me” and “We the people” as catch-phrases. (Hint, hint). They appear in the ring with Gadsden flags. (Elbow in the ribs). According to WWE announcers, they receive regular fan mail from Mr. Beck and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. (Do we have to spell it out?)
Even Mr. Colter’s name seems to be a crude parody — in this case, of conservative author and pundit Ann Coulter.
Unsurprisingly, actual conservatives and Tea Party supporters are less than thrilled.
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin mocked the gimmick. On Twitter, users called the characters a “top 5 low point” and asked “WWE … do you still want my money?” A non-bylined article posted on the conservative news site Breitbart.com opined “it’s hard to imagine a bigger [public relations] blunder. Expect a mea culpa any minute now.”
An article posted on InfoWars.com — a website run by Piers Morgan gun control foil Alex Jones — labeled the storyline “demonization” and suggested that the WWE’s creation of Mr. Swagger and Mr. Colter were part of a larger, ongoing struggle between moderate and conservative Republicans.
“The fact that WWE is owned by Vince and Linda McMahon, who are part of the Republican establishment, also tells us a lot about how grass roots conservatives and libertarians are viewed by those near the top of the power structure,” wrote Paul Joseph Watson.
Ms. McMahon, a former president and CEO of WWE, reportedly spent $47 million of her personal fortune running as a Republican in a failed bid for a Senate seat in Connecticut in 2012.
“This is part of the divide and conquer tactic of cultural subversion to manufacture racial division and to characterize the Tea Party, conservatives, libertarians, opponents of uncontrolled illegal immigration and constitutionalists as racist, extremist radicals who should be pushed to the fringes of the political discourse,” Mr. Watson wrote.
The controversy began during a Feb. 11 episode of “Monday Night Raw” that saw Mr. Swagger rebranded as a sweaty, intolerant nativist while a safari vest-wearing Mr. Colter — introduced as a Vietnam War veteran and a “real patriot” — gave a rambling, unpalatable address from the center of the ring.
“Fellow Americans, I’ve got a question for you,” Mr. Colter said. “What’s wrong with America?”
“I look around and see a country I don’t even recognize. I see people with faces not like mine. I see people that I don’t even know what they’re saying. I look around and think, ‘Where did all these people come from?’ And most importantly I think, ‘How do we get rid of them?’”
As the Nashville, Tenn. crowd booed, Mr. Swagger looked on with nodding approval.
“We the people!” Mr. Colter said.
On Monday, Mr. Colter gave a televised “State of the Union Address” in which he promised that Mr. Swagger would “reclaim America” at the upcoming Wrestlemania annual pay-per-view event — presumably by out-grappling current WWE heavyweight champion Alberto Del Rio, whose in-ring persona is that of a clean-shaven, good-guy Mexican billionaire.
Despite conservative concern, a WWE spokesperson told the Hollywood Reporter that Mr. Swagger and Mr. Colter’s storyline represented “current events” and that the organization did not plan to alter its scripts.
“WWE has a long history of creating fictional characters that serve as either protagonists or antagonists, no different than other television shows or feature films,” WWE senior vice president of marketing and communications Brian Flinn wrote to the Hollywood Reporter in an e-mail. “To create compelling and relevant content for our audience, it is important to incorporate current events into our storylines.”
“WWE is creating drama centered on a topical subject that has varying points of view to develop a rivalry between two characters. This storyline in no way represents WWE’s political point of view. One should not confuse WWE’s storytelling with what WWE stands for, similar to other entertainment companies such as Warner Bros., Universal Studios or Viacom.”
For his part, Mr. Beck found the company’s stance perplexing.
“When WEE starts coming against the Tea Party, that’s like NASCAR coming against the Tea Party,” he said.
Outside the ring, however, conservatives may yet have the last laugh: According to the celebrity news and gossip website TMZ, Mr. Swagger was arrested in Mississippi Tuesday night for driving under the influence and possession of marijuana.
Last year, WWE suspended wrestler Randy Orton — a far bigger star than Mr. Swagger — 60 days after he tested positive for marijuana use.