Image: YouTube

To some degree, the politics of The “Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards align with those of the real Dan Richards. Given that this is pro wrestling, a big red sign displaying Is this a work? is always flashing, but Richards claims he leans hard left. “It’s not much of a stretch,” he says on the phone. When he tells me that Democrats should “be as ballsy and unapologetic about their beliefs as the Republicans are about theirs,” it could be either the character or man talking, and it still makes sense.

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, according to Tennessee-based wrestler and booker Beau James, who met Richards in 2003 and has served as something like a mentor. As James and Richards tell it, 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.

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Another time, one fan threatened that if “that fucking liberal” showed up at a different show, he’d bring his gun.

The heat is real:

Richards came up with the germ for the Progressive Liberal in 2015, with Donald Trump a few months into his presidential campaign. James, who vouches for Richards’s authenticity, says, “he is what you see on the TV.” He serves as a barometer for Richards, figuring out how to get under the crowd’s skin without cutting too close. Appalachia has real problems, like many parts of the country: A lack of jobs, drug addiction, poverty. Ridiculing those topics will anger people in ways that go beyond riling up a crowd before a bout. “We could use national politics,” James says. “We don’t touch local politics.”

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The details really make the gimmick, and they’re not as obvious as the “Not My President” shirt. It’s the way the Progressive Liberal says “Appalachia,” pronouncing the third syllable with a hard A as in “ate,” instead of the flat A preferred by locals. The audience immediately understands that he’s not from here. Richards was originally billed out of Richmond, Virginia, his actual hometown. But he and James realized that when performing in Kentucky, which has a Richmond of its own, the crowd would become confused. So his origin became Washington, D.C.

The industry has always been replete with guys working effete liberal gimmicks, but this is the perfect place and time, and Dan Richards has built a sustainable meal ticket, at least within the limited scope of the indie circuit. Test your mental constitution and imagine for a minute if Hillary had won; this character would still be popular and paying customers would still project their frustrations onto him, for a different reason. For the time being, it’s an absolutely foolproof heel. And he’ll always be the heel. As Richards points out in our conversation, he could face the scummiest, most vile opponent, who cheats to win in the most obvious ways and with outside interference, and the people will still refuse to support the Progressive Liberal.

This gimmick has an expiration date, because they all do, but for the time being, the Progressive Liberal is something as fresh as it is seemingly obvious, with a lot of potential to go wider—or be copied elsewhere. From what I’ve seen so far, people who identified as left-leaning find Richards amusing, and so do self-identifying conservatives and Trump supporters. Their reasons for enjoying the character are vastly dissimilar, but they are all able to get something out of it. The holy grail of wrestling is to straddle the line between face and heel, to be someone the crowds love to hate. In the fair grounds and school gyms of Appalachia, Dan Richards may have found a shortcut.