Dwayne Johnson for President and the Addiction to the Strong Man
A babyfaced hero is not going to save a whole country brought to heel
Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson running for President of the United States is a meme, a “meme” not in a particular definition but that indeterminate sense of an idea on the Internet that people discuss mostly as a joke, but in such an elaborate way that it creeps into earnestness until you can’t distinguish when they are being serious. So, kayfabe, basically. Unsurprisingly, Dwayne loves playing that game, loves to tease the public with the possibility of a run. Ever since the former guy got elected, he’s been going forth and forth about it, with claims that the two parties have approached him, that he is interested and “humbled” (HA!) about Americans wanting him in office, and that it is something that might happen sooner than later. Just not next year.
It’s an excellent self-promotional tool. No notes. It’s one thing to buy a bottle of tequila, energy drink, or sports attire by the biggest name in Hollywood over the last eight years; it’s a whole other thing to consume the products of a future POTUS. By teasing his fans with a presidential run, he’s making them part of a bigger epic than just being supporters of a big star. After all, if I actually wanted Hollywood glamour in a glass of tequila, I’d try Clooney’s Casamigos (and if I am an actual Latine, I just stick with Don Julio). The problem is that Dwayne encircles himself in a trap of his own making every time he chimes this bell. At some point, you need to deliver on a simple “yes” or “no” question: will he run for office? You don’t raise that possibility if your answer is going to be anything other than “yes”. He has built his entire reputation on taking chances, being bold, going-for-it, and all that entrepreneurial yada-yada. But that “yes” is a very expensive answer for a guy who has built his fortune on being the ultimate people pleaser, a man who cannot afford to have the average audience member turn against him or be indifferent. He had one big flop with Black Adam, and he had to go back to the Fast franchise. What will happen to Dwayne if, say, he doesn’t get enough delegates at any of the two parties’ conventions?
Running for office means that you will face people whose entire job is to make you fail. The higher the office, more people will be rooting against you. If you run for president, you will have millions of people that want you to lose. These are not (just) haters, just citizens exercising their rights. Further complicating things is the current condition of US politics, where about one-third of the voters are lunatic racists, another third has too hard a time understanding their own political system to understand their predicament, and the final third has good intentions but no roadmap out of this political crisis. Dwayne Johnson cannot be so delulu as to believe he could fit into any of the two parties as a moderating, “independent” force. It’s not 1996 anymore. His only chance is among the Democrats; the GOP distrusts anyone who can go out into the sun and not turn pink. There goes half of your fandom from your WWE-era. And that’s even before he tells us something, anything about his policies. Of which we know nothing because that would require Johnson to make a strong statement about anything.
That’s not entirely true, though. In a(nother) great essay by Patrick Willems, he dissects the way Ryan Reynolds and Johnson have turned themselves into brands first, their movie stardom is by now just a promotional platform for their true moneymakers. Willems notices that Johnson has embraced the tough but cuddly persona. The rough family guy who has tea with his daughters and dolls, while in the next scene, he plows through heavies using only his biceps. And that involves two things: No sex scenes, barely any romance with on-screen interests, and barely touching guns. Gun safety is the only Big American Problem he’s willing to delve into, appealing for the common-sense regulations everyone in the US wants, save for the NRA. With that, he gets on the good side of anyone left of the US’ right. And by not being someone you see having sex on screen (not even in HBO’s Ballers), he can sell himself as wholesome for the more traditionalist, older voters who are not GOP-conservative. This is not a definitive sign that he will run for office in earnest, but clearly, a way to prepare the land. It’s always good for business.
The problem remains: Who is Dwayne Johnson the politician going to be, knowing how adept he has been at shifting between personas throughout his career? This is where we need to talk about the why: Why on earth do so many people in the US want Dwayne Johnson as president?
The answer is pretty obvious, Americans are among the most poorly informed, poorly educated people in the developed world, suffering from chronic isolation of ideas and a dearth of political options. But I need to be honest about the outside world I belong to: The US public is not alone in promoting popular figures from outside the world of politics into the executive office. I bet there is one in every single country where elections are more or less free and fair; it’s usually a local star and/or multi-millionaire. Someone whose success (real or touted) blinds their supporters into thinking they can bring that approach to success into the functioning of a State. They can come from anywhere in the political spectrum, but it’s almost always from the right or center-right (Pakistan’s Imran Khan is one of few exceptions, relatively), and they are usually new to the political game but not a real threat to the status quo, see Javier Milei in Argentina right now. And it almost always ends in a colossal disaster. I don’t need to explain anymore to Americans. No, I’m not just talking about the former guy; I’m talking about Reagan.
We the voters have an addiction to these outsiders because we have been hooked on the myth of the Strong Man (it’s always a man) who can come from the outside and fix what’s broken in the ways that we all know are obvious. This is especially true in countries with a strong Executive power, where the figure of the President more or less reflects the figure and functions of a strong King. The Strong Man fallacy is a cyclical mistake we fall prey to whenever society and state are weakened, always by the same suspect: Inequality. To the failure of citizens to articulate themselves into a stronger society, one that can effect the state to work properly, the Strong Man comes into the picture as a messianic figure, to whom all the problems can be outsourced. In this historical cycle, the Strong Man is almost always designated by the elites, managers of the inequality, as a cover at worst, or because he’s ultimately inoffensive even though he’s an outsider. That’s when the Strong Man comes from the right; when the Strong Man comes from the left, it’s a whole other process, usually involving a “rotation” of elites, in euphemistic terms. Nevertheless, the Strong Man is there to leave things mostly as they are while touting a narrative of resetting the political system.
Dwayne Johnson could easily fit into this role, but the right-wing Strong Man always capitalizes on fear, xenophobia, and reactionism. The promise is a return to a previous order and tradition, something that wouldn’t fly with him as a candidate because his story and his person fly against the nature of the US’ reactionary ideals: He’s too much of a person of color, he’s too successful as a person of color, and he’s too strong (literally) to be the kind of Strong Man usually promoted by the right wing. He touts himself as an independent, which in the starving political vocabulary of the US can mean anything from Socialist to nazi, which of course he isn’t.
He’s just a Centrist, a career middle-of-the-road-let’s-all-have-a-good-time entertainer. And though being a US Centrist still means being right-wing, it still signals some commitment to the rule of law and democratic principles of the US (principles very much stuck at the starting line, but whatever). A right-wing Strong Man flouts and steps over the former and the latter.
But Dwayne Johnson, the potential politician, is still selling himself as the ultimate outsider, the reconciliator for a divided nation, an actually successful actor and actually successful businessman (unlike two other predecessors) who can think outside the box and decisively to right the ship of state. Again, a literal and figurative Strong Man. But would he be, then, a Centrist Strong Man? A democratic Strong Man? Because the former and the latter stand in opposition, in principle, to the basic function of a Strong Man.
What does it say about the United States and the crisis of its political system that it can produce an oxymoron like a Centrist Strong Man? Because you know which other country produces political contradictions like that? Argentina.
This is something the US needs to take seriously. The former guy becoming president was a long-running joke, a joke from the mid-80s all the way until the afternoon of November 8, 2016.