On Sunday, I asked why wrestling, a century-plus long engagement between the performing arts, sports, and the public, saw its role in the fabric of American society as distraction, arms flung wildly in the air to draw the attention of its viewers away from content other forms of entertainment, even ones geared towards children, regularly address. The truth is that wrestling isn’t just a distraction—it’s often a disruption, a narrative framework that has mocked labor rights movements, denigrated every possible marginalized identity, and taken great pains to condition its fanbase to cheer for a family that came to control wrestling and come to no small amount of political power in this country through systematically destroying its competition, salting the earth upon which they stood, and making themselves the heroes of the story, their vices turned virtue. We will be talking about this more in the coming weeks, but first I want to address something happening right now on WWE television, how for the past three years they’ve been running a gimmick whose look and feel are ripped from the fantasies of white supremacists who are using this moment to storm statehouses and disrupt protests fully armed while the cops stand back and let it happen.
The first time I saw Jaxson Ryker, Steve Cutler, and Wesley Blake, the trio known as the Forgotten Sons, I said to myself “damn, it looks like there’s a bunch of white supremacists on NXT.” They’re not, of course—the WWE Universe is welcome to all—but you’ll have to forgive me for registering “Forgotten Sons” as the somewhat more butch cousin of the boys Proud and Boogaloo, the entity forgotten being white men and not specifically the wrestlers in the faction, the entity forgetting being the United States of America and not NXT General Manager William Regal. Their sense of entitlement, we’re told, has to do with the amount of talent they have as a collective, and now that they’ve made the leap to Friday Night SmackDown, they’re bringing their vague sense of menace and squalor-borne paramilitary aesthetic to an audience roughly twice the size of NXT’s.
Thankful for the @POTUS we have! God bless America. Built of freedom. Forgotten No More
— Jaxson Ryker (@JaxsonRykerWWE) June 1, 2020
It’s been easy to forget that the act is a regular element of WWE television—I haven’t watched much of their product lately, and what I do see doesn’t often feature them. But last night, after Donald Trump had a photo op in front of a church that was cleared of protesters via the use of tear gas, Jaxson Ryker, ostensibly the leader of the Forgotten Sons, tweeted what you see above. Ryker is a big homer for Trump when he’s not retweeting his favorite supplement brand’s condolences to the troops, but the gall of his tweeting his wrestling faction’s slogan in support of the president was next level, constructing a bridge between the fantasy playpen of WWE’s overly sanitized universe where it’s possible for gimmicks like his to exist without comment and our own brutally militant reality where men dressed like Ryker “protect” culturally significant sites like Target and Wal-Mart from “those people.”
Ryker’s tweet was bad enough that one of his partners, Steve Cutler, tweeted that he was an individual with his own beliefs, and the other, Wesley Blake, started tweeting and RTing a few messages in support of the black community. This shunning of Ryker is necessary, but it is not enough. How do you show up to work on Friday, put on the tattered camo and flag vests, and cut your PC liberal snowflake promo with this dude standing center frame, his mere existence on camera a reminder that white people can proudly lay claim to terror and face no repercussion? How do you say your stupid catchphrase without remembering how it was used in support of tear gassing other Americans three days prior?
Let’s dig in to their look a little. The Forgotten Sons look like the armed protesters who stormed the Michigan statehouse if those protesters had access to a seamstress. The bullets, stars, and stripes motif of their artfully tattered vests are a fancy updo of the leathers worn by bikers who have Celtic crosses or totenkopfs peeking out over the collars of those garments. The patch on their vest, the American flag with a skull replacing the field of stars in the upper left corner, was either purchased or ripped off from an outfit like Bastion Gear, a Suwanee, Georgia company specializing in “everyday carry gear” like patches venerating the 2A movement, various ancient fascist-adjacent regimes, bible verses, and three percenters, switchblade combs for people who want to groom like a man, and pens that are “perfect in a CEO’s office by day and a backup self-defense weapon by night.”
This is what dogwhistle racism looks like, the slow creep of symbols the uninitiated have to take interest in sleuth out but those in the fold can point to as a show of support for the cause, something only the right kind of people can see. You can ask if that’s the intent. You can ask if any of the people responsible for putting the image on television knew what they were doing. Or you can ask whether a company that’s made hay with populist movements in the past—more than being a “stupid idea by bad creative,” the Gadsden-flag waving, “We the people” shouting Real Americans tea party act got Jack Swagger a featured bout at WrestleMania, and JBL’s feud against Eddie Guerrero involved him hunting undocumented immigrants at the US/Mexico border like a Minuteman—is just doing so again, but in a way that’s a lot quieter because none of the Forgotten Sons are in a position to become a world champion any time soon.
In a way, it’s much more insidious that this latest iteration of white supremacist LARPing is a midcard act, as it’s just there, the same way a guy playing a guitar or wearing a crown or being shorter than the average wrestler on the roster is there, all just ground together and presented to the viewing public like the rest of the thin gruel that WWE dishes out every Friday in 2020, only now when they say that they’re going to get the blood of others on their hands they’re talking about Lucha House Party and the New Day instead of the lily white tag division from whence they came. And because they’re new(ish) to the main roster, they’re getting a push where they get to do things like “make statements” and “give warnings” that are accompanied by images where WWE advises viewer discretion because the views and opinions of their wrestlers are not shared by the apolitical wonderland in which they operate.
The promos are as tepid as one expects from the WWE writers’ room, though it’s pretty incredible that a company with a history as unfortunate as World Wrestling Entertainment’s is still scripting its wrestlers to talk about how they’re perceived as mentally unstable. It’s the imagery that matters here, the sad nostalgia-turned-to-tragedy sepia wash over tattered patches and empty scenes that, according to Ryker, should be full of people welcoming them home as heroes. Were the Forgotten Sons a team of ex-military gone sour from disrespect, the gimmick would still suck, but given that Wesley Blake is there without a rank it’s somehow worse, a militia recruiting sympathetic white guys who also feel left behind, unwanted, or, to use their word, forgotten.
There’s no room for mobility with this gimmick, because to speak further towards how they feel they’ve been wronged will only color in the lines we’ve already been given. And now it’s tied, irrevocably, to this moment in American history, a road paved with the help of the McMahon family through their donations to and work with Donald Trump. Other wrestlers in WWE have spoken out about Ryker’s tweet, but it’s not a tweet we’re talking about here—it’s a company culture issue, one where flashpoints of racial injustice are used to create characters that look and feel too close to the real thing because they’re often portrayed by people who believe something very close to what motivates those characters. The question shouldn’t be “How can Jaxson Ryker show up to work on Friday and look his coworkers in the eye?” but “Why is he being allowed to?” World Wrestling Entertainment released dozens of wrestlers who were in the spaces Ryker was just called up to occupy as a cost-saving measure. They could do the same to Ryker to save face. They should. But how do you punish a man for supporting a president whose success is the business of your family? How do you walk that line of being apolitical entertainment for everybody?
You can’t. It’s impossible. And it doesn’t matter, anyhow, because WWE, like every entertainment company in the world, is going to black out their social media profile picture, post a blanket statement about George Floyd, and do exactly nothing about the systems of racism and bigotry that exist in their own corporate structure, systems it is absolutely capable of addressing. So Jaxson Ryker, with his name that fell out of a white woman’s baby name book, and all the other guys on the roster who are smart enough to keep their racism out of public view, are going to show up to Raw, NXT, and SmackDown, and shake hands or tap elbows or whatever wrestlers are doing backstage these days, promising to care for each others’ bodies when it’s beyond clear that this care only extends so far. And in a way, that kind of dissension, the tension and anxiety that someone like Ryker brings to a workplace, is good for WWE, who don’t have to worry about worker solidarity when it comes to him. So he’ll get to keep playing Boogaloo Boy on national television. His indifference in the face of anger? That’s the whole fucking point.