The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wrestling’s new villain named himself ‘Progressive Liberal.’ Hillary’s on his shirt.

It was a strange sight, even for the “sport” of professional wrestling.

A wrestler holding a microphone faced an Appalachian crowd before a match and began unleashing a torrent of insults, the nature of which seemed out of place at a pro wrestling tournament.

“I understand now why you all identify with country music. It’s slow and it’s simple and it’s boring, just like each and every one of you.”

As the crowd grew increasing hostile, the wrestler’s remarks became more politically tinged.

“You know what, I think Bernie Sanders would make a great secretary of state.”

“I want to exchange your bullets for bullet points. Bullet points of knowledge.”

He even called Donald Trump a “con man.” The crowd exploded in jeers. “Shut up,” someone yelled.

Strange, indeed. But then, the muscular man’s shirt read, “Not My President.”

Meet the wrestler who goes by the name “Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards, the most hated character in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountain Wrestling (AMW) program, a small professional wrestling circuit.

Professional wrestling has long included villain characters called heels, someone for the audience to cheer against. Traditionally, though, these are burly, angry men who do “evil” things such as pledging allegiance to the devil or sneak-attacking other wrestlers with chairs and ladders. He’s burly enough, at 6 feet 5 inches tall. But he praises not the devil but Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

This might be the first case when a character became a villain by espousing liberal dogma. And it seems to be working — he’s caught the attention of Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, even the right-wing Breitbart.

The latter called him “a wrestling heel for the Trump era,” and wrote, “His moves include smugness, condescension, and whining.”

His shtick is simple. He plays a smug liberal elitist who lectures the audience on political matters. His enemies are “Fox News maggots.” His fictional character hails from D.C. His wrestling shorts bear a donkey. He insults his fans’ Appalachian accents, correcting them — “Do you live in a holler? No, you live in a hollow.”

He even calls his finishing signature wrestling move the “Liberal Agenda.”

In one promo video, he wore a shirt patterned with dozens of photos of Hillary Clinton’s face, patched together in a strange collage, and he addressed AMW’s fans: “You people need to be reprogrammed. You continually vote against your own interests. You put people in Congress and the White House that aren’t going to help you. They’re not going to bring your jobs back.”

These may not sound like the most scathing of insults, but at a time when politics are a breeding ground for intense, burning emotion, it seems to work brilliantly.

As Deadspin reported:

Regardless of how much Richards plays up the left-wing politics to crowds in Kentucky and nearby states, it works. Look no further than the videos to see that those crowds despise him. There’s a kid in the crowd telling him to shut up, and relentless jeers, or Trump masks worn by attendees. And even the occasional death threat. …, at a 2016 show in West Virginia, where Richards spoke about taking everyone’s guns, a patron displayed a pistol in a holster on his right hip and started rubbing it.
Another time, one fan threatened that if “that f — king liberal” showed up at a different show, he’d bring his gun.

The “Progressive Liberal” is really Daniel Harnsberger, a 36-year-old real estate agent from Richmond who had been on the indie wrestling circuit for years before conceiving of the character. Once he did, he simply waited for the prime moment to unveil it — which he found in 2015 in Sabine, W. Va.

“It was a small crowd and I had freedom to do whatever I wanted that night, so I just decided to get on the mic — and this is maybe a couple months after Trump started running. Who knew the guy was gonna be president?” Harnsberger told Sports Illustrated. “So I did this interview on the house mic and I said, ‘If he’s elected president, I hope Trump doesn’t build a wall around Mexico. Instead I hope he builds it around this town so none of you people can infiltrate the population.’”

“The ire that statement got, I knew I was onto something,” he added. “Even then, those fans were chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’”

Part of the trick is that his character’s politics are “not much of a stretch” from his own, as he told Deadspin.

“It’s not like I’m pretending to be something I’m not,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m just turning it up. I hear Trump chants everywhere I go now, as soon as I walk out.”

The men he wrestles alongside tend to be staunch Republicans who so hate Democrats that Beau James, an administrator with AMW, pretends to feed Harnsberger his lines.

“He’s protecting me,” he said.

Despite the anger he’s provoked — or, more likely, because of it — Harnsberger plans to continue wrestling as the “Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards. After all, it kills two birds with one stone, both fueling his wrestling career and allowing him to spread his beliefs.

“I wish Democrats would be as unapologetic as Republicans are,” he said. “Just be unapologetic with your policies and who you are. That’s how the Progressive Liberal is. I’m unapologetic.”

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