I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I’m not alone in that, obviously—Johnson is one of the most popular wrestlers in history, a movie star who defines a generation of blockbuster action movies like Schwarzenegger and Stallone before him, and a decent enough social media presence if you’re into his particular brand of Cool Dad. He’s also been the subject of rumor and speculation regarding a potential run for the office of President of the United States of America.
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This is Donald Trump’s fault. Since he was voted into office in 2016, a popular fantasy on liberal twitter sees the Democrats float out their own woefully prepared celebrity, someone whose carefully manicured public image is apparently enough, I guess, to convince the populace that they’d be good at managing a global pandemic. The names most frequently floated in this meme are Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Rock is absolutely there for it.
On his new NBC sitcom Young Rock—think Everybody Hates Chris meets GLOW—Johnson plays himself in 2032, newly crowned as a presidential candidate for, uh, one of America’s political parties. He’s effectively a framing device, a means of digging into The Rock’s past, which is chock full of lessons imparted by his parents and wrestlers like Andre the Giant. Supposing that you can accept the high gloss applied to Johnson’s life to fit it into easily moralized anecdotes and its propensity to over-explain and overuse insider lingo, it’s charming enough—I can’t imagine Young Rock dealing with the frequently sad ends that met many of the men the show anoints as his erstwhile family, but it’s nice, in a way, to see The Iron Sheik in a different light than his last 15 years of radio appearances and his questionably him social media presence, you know?
It’s the Dwayne Johnson of 2032 that concerns me about this show. The pilot episode is essentially an inoculation against pieces like this, arguing that Johnson’s unorthodox upbringing is actually kind of perfect for a true representative of the people. He knows success as a child, he knows struggle as a young teenager once his father’s prime is behind him, and he has to adjust to a different kind of family, a different measure of success, as a recruit for the University of Miami Hurricanes football team. He reveals all of this in a morning news show interview with an anchor who is immediately disarmed by Johnson’s charm and the bite-size chunks of his life, all of which go to show how grounded he is, how real he is, how like us he is—what presidential candidate admits to shoplifting as a teenager?
Young Rock doesn’t owe us anything real in this regard. It’s a fantasy, albeit one about how good this guy would be at talking Americans into the voting booth. But in indulging in that fantasy, Young Rock argues for the presidency as a potential function of celebrity, which is a road we’ve been down before. In casting Johnson as a candidate, it’s more insidious than The Apprentice, the Donald Trump-led competition reality show that seemingly hypnotized people into believing that the future 45th President of the United States was good at running something resembling a business.
In the administrations of Trump and Ronald Reagan, we already have proof that the celebrity-to-president pipeline is cursed, perhaps more so than the typical politician-to-president one. In this milieu, America is flattened out more than what’s normal in politics, concrete issues get rounded down to a need to restore America to a greatness it never had, candidates hyped up as saviors. While it’s no “Make America Great Again,” Johnson’s campaign slogan is “Just Hang On, I’m Coming,” both a promise to the crowd assembled for stops on his John McCain-like “No Muss No Fuss” bus tour and to a country that clearly hasn’t found its savior in the interceding 11 years.
By episode three, we get down to the issues. With his campaign manager about to tell him what the top issues facing Americans are—issues he presumably should have known about before throwing his hat into the race—he correctly predicts that job security is number one, positing that the rise of automation has created uncertainty for his potential constitutes. That leads us to a flashback about Johnson’s father, “Soul Man” Rocky Johnson, signing with Vince McMahon’s burgeoning empire, the World Wrestling Federation. It’s not a clean, one-to-one comparison, but it’s easy to imagine a story like this serving as a substitute for an opinion. In episode six, a story about Andre the Giant feeding serves as his explanation for choosing an active general as his Vice President, a move that shocks the assembled journalists due to her endorsing Johnson’s opponent and her public criticism of his remake of Matilda as not being violent enough.
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It’s weird, y’all. It makes me feel bad. Not because the fictional Dwayne Johnson is making bad decisions on the campaign trail, but because this facile portrait of what it would be like to have him in this role comes from a place of perceived desire. The Dwayne Johnson of Young Rock is a guy who has had a lot of time to think about how his life might mean something to someone else, but doesn’t have the range to say something substantive about the conditions that the people looking to him for help are living under.
In a perfect world, Young Rock would serve as an admission that Dwayne Johnson isn’t presidential material. In our deeply broken one, it’s an excuse to collect polling data. In a poll of 30,138 people, conducted by Piplsay, 46% said that they would support a Dwayne Johnson presidential campaign. “Support” is a broad term, obviously—there’s “support” as in “I would vote for that man” and “support” as in “I am not against the idea”—but it’s a talking point now. The Rock has been invited to the table, and I don’t think he’s going away.
Not sure our Founding Fathers ever envisioned a six-four, bald, tattooed, half-Black, half-Samoan, tequila drinking, pick up truck driving, fanny pack wearing guy joining their club – but if it ever happens it’d be my honor to serve the people ?????? https://t.co/6Xd9ADzqX7
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) April 9, 2021
Really, Young Rock is the product of years of people asking Johnson if he’s ever given any thought to running for office. In 2016, he told British GQ that the idea was “alluring,” creating an early version of his sitcom character by charming his interviewer with stories as sordid as the time he tried to pull a guy’s tongue out, cut with what he learned from them. Then a columnist in The Washington Post suggested that the Republicans should try to recruit him if their desperate-seeming gamble on Trump failed. In 2017, when polling data suggested that Johnson could beat Trump by a substantial margin, he fielded questions from GQ (“I think that it’s a real possibility”) and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (“A lot of people want to see a different leadership today—no, I’m sorry, not different, but a better leadership today”). In 2018, at the premiere of Skyscraper, he said that running was “something that I seriously considered” before admitting that he needed time to learn before doing so.
His poise in these instances—and the way bits like “more poise, less noise” trickled down to Young Rock as “No Muss, No Fuss”—is that of a man who has been in the public eye since 1995, which is probably why so many pieces that touch on the issue tend to have a “it sounds crazy, but…” somewhere towards the end. Let’s look at this quote from the 2017 GQ profile titled “Dwayne Johnson For President!”
A year ago, it started coming up more and more. There was a real sense of earnestness, which made me go home and think, “Let me really rethink my answer and make sure I am giving an answer that is truthful and also respectful.” I didn’t want to be flippant—”We’ll have three days off for a weekend! No taxes!”
– Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (May 2017)
To pull a trick Young Rock utilizes a fair amount, May 2017 represents the moment that tweets, polls, jokes, and the political climate of America at the time talked him into the building. In wrestling, talking people into the building means convincing them to buy a ticket through your words, cutting a promo so good that an audience will show up for the realization of the violence it promises. Now that he’s here, it’s us he’s trying to talk into the building. He’s hard working. He’s a global thinker. He dresses well, has a nice smile, is genuinely interesting, and stars in a film franchise (that would be The Fast and the Furious) that’s a lot closer to the mark than the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it comes to being a collective American myth because it features cars, spies, people of color, endless muscle, barbecues, and terrible beer.
All of these facets of Dwayne Johnson the person are like the little lasers the Death Star fires to create the gigantic, planet-killing laser that would be Dwayne Johnson the President of the United States of America, who ultimately has very little to do with Johnson the person. The office of President is a terrible one. Nobody should want it and nobody should be convinced into trying to win it. His political affiliations aside—despite an appearance at the 2000 Republican National Convention, that Washington Post op-ed, and his former status as a registered Republican, Johnson is an independent centrist who endorsed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last year—his experience as a public figure and businessperson aside, what Johnson is tasking himself with is the “unity” of a country that’s in crisis in a trillion different ways.
Drone strikes, ICE, abortion rights, police murders of Black men and women, state-level laws seeking to legislate transgender children out of existence, the climate crisis, oil pipelines, pandemic preparedness, nuclear weapons, Guantanamo Bay, living wages, equal access to healthcare, housing, and food—these are the things we think Dwayne Johnson can handle? We want to make him responsible for drone killings and deportations? We want to fight against him on cabinet and Supreme Court nominees?
Please understand how loose that “we” is. I don’t want this. There’s a good chance that you don’t either. But it’s 2021 and NBC is airing a primetime commercial for this concept, 21-minutes a week where we can get used to the idea of the Jabroni-beating, pie-eating, trailblazing, hair-raising, most electrifying man in sports entertainment become a nightly news fixture, appear on billboards, yard signs, and web advertisements, and speak eloquently from a podium about how Andre the Giant once taught him a valuable lesson on the merits of military brinksmanship by cutting a nasty fart during a contract negotiation.
The 2032 conjured by Young Rock is a dystopia, but the idea of running that dystopia delights Dwayne Johnson the character so much you’d never know. He believes in the merits of busting ass and learning from mistakes. He believes he can put a good face on what ails the country he’d be honored to serve. And that’s the problem—he does have a good face. I’d just rather see it on the big screen as opposed to at a press conference where he’s meekly, hopelessly asking for calm in response to the week’s third national tragedy. I’d rather not resent him. I’d rather not tear him down because a bunch of old Instagram photos of his insane movie shoot diets play well in the midwest or whatever.
I’d rather he remain The Rock. I refuse to believe I’m alone in this.