Back in the late 1980s, when Beau James started professional wrestling, crowds came to a show between good and evil, to see a story of heroes and villains, to enjoy the matches and then go home.
James enjoyed being the hero, but it was nothing compared to playing the bad guy.
“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 think it compares to the high of the hate .”
Wrestlers build a persona with a backstory so the audience feels the stakes are high when they get punched in the face. Although they often take themes from the news and pop culture, they are usually 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 bad guy at the battles in the Republican mining towns of Appalachia and some southern states. The left would get a hearing and even some cheers as the crowds watched the staged violence of a night of pro wrestling.
Over the past five years, however, the atmosphere has darkened considerably, James and Harnsberger said this month.
After this month’s midterm elections brought defeats to many Trump-backed candidates, even some election deniers conceded their runs. It suggested that at least some were ready to move past Trump’s refusal to accept his loss in 2020 and the mob of supporters he incited who violently stormed the US capitol on January 6, 2021.
But in the mountain towns of Appalachia, that rhetoric has had a lasting effect, Harnsberger said, even among fans who know wrestling is entertainment.
“The crowd has taken a more violent approach to me,” said Harnsberger, who plays Progressive Liberal in the ring. “I had rocks thrown at me. One lady pulled out a lighter, tried to light my suitcases on fire while they’re on me. And had another pull out a shifter.”
A professional wrestler lives or dies by the involvement of the audience, which is more important even 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 “heat” in wrestling parlance.
“Oh my God,” he remembers saying to a friend. “If we had a guy who was anti-Trump and we could send him to the ring in these cities, how much heat would we get?”
They tried carrying a Hillary Clinton flag in the ring and got a very strong reaction. The next weekend, James ran into Harnsberger for the first time in a while. They had fought together years earlier. Separately, Harnsberger had been testing how his policy would play out.
The two joined forces to create and promote Progressive Liberal. James helped Harnsberger sharpen his opinions on lines that would excite the audience and how to pace them—like when you say, “We’re coming for your guns.”
And it went well. They entertained. Once, a fan flashed a 9mm pistol on his hip and told Harnsberger to come get it, James said. In between, 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 pants played in the counties showing the most support for Trump.
“The heat you want is the heat where people are upset about what you stand for … and they want to see you get kicked,” Harnsberger said.
This is when the audience gets invested and wants to see you win or lose and come back next time.
In 2022, the Hillary pants were replaced by a pair that said, “Riding with Biden.”
Progressive Liberals are still the bad guy, but Harnsberger and James said the audience has changed.
“The last five years it’s just gotten out of hand,” James said. People have become more frustrated, more divided, he said. And progressive liberalism provides an outlet for the built-up energy.
“So here’s a guy in our town saying this thing that we see on TV that we don’t agree with. We can’t have those people [on TV], we can’t get the politicians. Let’s get him,” James said, describing the attitude.
“Dan’s going to go and unleash what he thinks, what he feels, his frustrations to an audience, that he’s upset. [and] that they’re going to give it back to him 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, the Progressive Liberals do. “You can blame him. You can boo him, you can slap him or try. You can throw something at him. He’s right there,” James said.
Harnsberger is liberal and James is conservative. They don’t agree much on politics and don’t talk about it outside the ring, except to work on their act.
“We’re complete opposites,” James said. “I am a gun-owning, tobacco-chewing, Bible-believing mountain man; It’s not Dan. But Dan and I can stay together. And if we have arguments, we have a luxury that most people don’t have – we know somewhere in the next few days we’re going to be in the ring together so we can just punch the other in the back of the head. ”
But it is performing arts. And that is not what has happened to the audience.
James lays down some rules to try to keep the crowd from getting ugly—no criticism or banter about the Bible or the opioid crisis in these cities.
But on a recent night in Stickleyville, Virginia, where Trump’s share of the vote rose from an already overwhelming 78% in 2016 to 84% in 2020, things got ugly and fast.
When Harnsberger tried to engage with the people who had paid to watch, he was drowned out by boos.
Much of it was expected. One man in the audience, Alex Adkins, told CNN that the Progressive Liberal’s opinions would not go down well: “Everybody wants to punch him in the face!”
And a man holding a Trump flag, who did not want to give his name, said he wanted to see Harnsberger impeached. “We love wrestling first and foremost,” he said of why he was there. “But to come and show the liberals like, hey, we know what we stand for. Yeah, and definitely not the left side.”
When some in the audience asked their neighbors to let Harnsberger speak, it boiled over. Punches were thrown. Someone was hit with a chair.
“It got past the hot point that it’s dangerous,” James said, explaining why they stopped the game.
Several fights broke out and the brawl spilled into the parking lot.
As James and Harnsberger sat backstage waiting for it to be quiet enough for them to leave safely, they both agreed they could have handled the situation better.
But none of them 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 that reaction out of them when I’m in front of them since I’m here.”