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In 2017, even ‘body slam’ is subject to political interpretation

The Hardy Boyz and Cesaro battle in the ring during WWE show on May 10 at Zenith Arena in Lille, France. (Philippe Huguen/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Out of the blue, the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs broke some news on Twitter on Wednesday night.

The allegation quickly became national news: a Republican candidate for the House allegedly assaulting a reporter on the eve of Election Day. As details were sorted out, Jacobs’s assertion was validated, first by reporters from Fox News Channel who were in the room when it happened and, second, by the local sheriff, who cited Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault.

But as the story unfolded, there was an odd undercurrent. A number of people on social media raised questions about whether Jacobs was really “body slammed,” as he claimed. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham used the term in scare quotes while apparently disparaging Jacobs for not fighting back. The blog ZeroHedge offered two video clips to differentiate between the type of assault Jacobs experienced: A WWE-style slam or simply a flop from European soccer?

One person who knows the difference is Cowboy Johnny Mantell, a professional wrestler for years who is now the president of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Reached by phone Thursday morning, Mantell agreed that what happened to Jacobs didn’t sound like a body slam in the professional wrestling sense.

“A body slam in professional wrestling is when you pick someone up over your head, one hand around their neck or shoulder area and one hand in their crotch, and you literally turn and drive them into a mat, back first,” he said. “That’s a body slam in professional wrestling.” In amateur wrestling, he said, rules prohibit a similar move. In that context, the term is used as a warning from coaches when a wrestler picks someone up over his or her shoulder and throws them down.

According to the Fox News witnesses, Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.” To Mantell, that sounds more like what “in layman’s terms” might be called a “choke slam,” because there was no elevation high in the air.

In that sense, then, those skeptical of Jacobs’s claim are correct: In the strict professional wrestling sense, he was not body slammed. But this is probably not why Ingraham put “body slam” in scare quotes. She did that, it’s safe to assume, because she wanted to suggest that Jacobs was exaggerating what happened, and to use his words as a way to express skepticism about him and his story.

We saw this last year, when Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of assaulting Michelle Fields, then a reporter for Breitbart News. In the heat of the Republican primary contest, Fields’s description of having “almost fell to the ground” after Lewandowski grabbed her arm became fodder for a massive amount of online analysis. The rationale for those seeking to defend Lewandowski (and by extension Trump) was that Fields was exaggerating what had happened and, if she was doing so, that the entire story was worthy of skepticism. The conservative site Gateway Pundit ran multiple stories questioning (and misrepresenting) Fields’s account. It was only with the emergence of video of the event — from security cameras at a Trump venue, interestingly — that criticism of Fields faded.

In the current political moment, this strategy of finding one thread to pull to suggest that the sweater is about to fall apart is common. Sean Hannity’s insistence on dredging up an empty conspiracy theory about a 2016 homicide is him tugging at a thread in hopes that the whole investigation of Russia that’s dogging Trump will fall apart. There’s some irony, of course, in fervent Trump supporters insisting that the truth of a claim rests on the strict meaning of words and phrases used to describe it. But Jacobs’s Twitter-casual description of the incident in its immediate aftermath seems to have spurred, to some degree, a similar response.

Mantell said that he was not surprised that Jacobs used the term “body slam,” in part because he had grown accustomed to people exaggerating things. When society is getting criticized by a former professional wrestler for being too over the top, some self-reflection is in order.

At one point, Mantell summed up a lot of political culture in one brief sentence.

“In today’s world,” he said, “people say so much stuff, man, that nothing surprises me anymore what comes out of human beings’ mouths.”

Fair enough.