Bryan had only just returned as an active wrestler last March—in 2016, he was forced into temporary retirement due to severe injuries and concussions that had caused him to suffer seizures. Bryan had repeatedly voiced his desire to get back in the ring despite advice from doctors. WWE placed Bryan in an on-camera managerial position. When he was finally medically cleared it was cause for momentous celebration for him and his fans. Bryan ascended to top title contention but quickly revealed a new, nefarious side when he captured a heavyweight title victory from rival AJ Styles, hitting him below the belt.
From there, Bryan’s persona drifted into the bizarre: his IRL lefty political leanings (about which he had never been particularly shy) became a focal point of his in-ring promos as he decried meat eaters, baby boomers, and the “fickle” WWE audience who began, after years of worshipping him, to boo. One of Bryan’s speeches was so scathingly anti-capitalist it was even praised by leftist academic Naomi Klein. On a January 29 episode of Smackdown, Bryan went as far as tossing away the leather title belt and replacing it with a comically hideous wood and hemp replica, which was later celebrated by PETA. (In out-of-kayfabe media, it has since been confirmed that the shift in tone for the character comes from Bryan himself.)
The WWE has never shied away from dramatically depicting current-day cultural anxieties and has for decades played with fears about international skirmishes and racial stereotypes. But the company now finds itself in a bizarre political position: Although it continues to donate millions of dollars to the Trump Foundation and forge pacts with the Saudi Arabian government, the WWE otherwise has put forward an optics of progressive values. The latest Daniel Bryan story puts this dilemma into plain sight.
Although the WWE continues to be run by Vince McMahon, a somewhat Trumpian leader (whose wife, Linda McMahon, even serves in Trump’s cabinet), it is Vince’s daughter Stephanie McMahon (the current Chief Brand Officer of the WWE) and her husband Paul Levesque aka Triple H, who often serve as voices for what appear to be liberal causes. Stephanie, specifically, has been the face of the move towards gender parity in the WWE and has been adamant about advancing the status of women’s wrestling, a change which has been rather successful in terms of garnering the brand’s female talent newfound respect and admiration. In 2016 she had similarly taken on a series of meetings with GLAAD in the hopes of introducing more LGBTQ storylines to the WWE’s programming, although the results of these discussions have yet to materialize on a broadcast.