Two pro wrestlers developed ‘The
Progressive Liberal’ to be the bad guy at
matches. Then the atmosphere turned far
By Elle Reeve, CNN
Updated 10:37 AM EST, Tue November 22, 2022
Stickleyville, Virginia (CNN) — Back in the
late 1980s, when Beau James started pro
wrestling, the crowds came for a show
between good and evil, to see a story about
heroes and villains, to enjoy the bouts and
then go home.
James enjoyed being the hero but it was
nothing compared to playing the bad guy.
“They introduced me and the people booed me
for almost two straight minutes. … It’s a
high. … And I’ve been there in the same
situation where they love me – I don’t think
it compares to the high of the hatred.”
Wrestlers build a persona with a backstory
so the audience feels the stakes are high
when they get punched in the face. While
they often take themes from news and pop
culture, they’re not usually overtly
political. But the 2016 presidential race
between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
sparked an idea between James and wrestler
Together they developed “The Progressive
Liberal” Dan Richards, often the bad guy at
the matches in the Republican-voting mining
towns of Appalachia and some southern
states. The Liberal would get a hearing and
even some cheers as crowds watch the staged
violence at a night of pro wrestling.
Over the past five years, however, that
atmosphere has turned far darker, James and
Harnsberger said this month.
After this month’s midterm elections brought
defeat for many Trump-backed candidates,
even some election deniers conceded their
races. It suggested at least some were ready
to move past Trump’s refusal to accept his
2020 loss and the mob of supporters he
incited who violently stormed the US Capitol
on January 6, 2021.
But in the mountain towns of Appalachia,
that rhetoric has had a lasting effect,
Harnsberger said, even among fans who know
wrestling is entertainment.
“The crowd has taken on a more violent
approach towards me,” said Harnsberger, who
plays the Progressive Liberal in the ring.
“I had rocks thrown at me. A lady pulled out
a lighter, tried to light my trunks on fire
while they are on me. And had someone else
pull out a switchblade.”
Trump flags and Hillary trunks
A pro wrester lives or dies by the
involvement of the crowd, which is more
important even than the skills of those
inside the ring.
So when he saw forests of Trump flags across
West Virginia during the 2016 presidential
election, James wondered how he could tap in
to that passion – known as “heat” in
“My God,” he remembers saying to a buddy.
“If we had a guy that was the anti-Trump,
and we could send him to the ring in these
towns, how much heat would we get?”
They tried wearing a Hillary Clinton flag in
the ring, and got a very strong reaction.
The next weekend, James ran into Harnsberger
for the first time in a while. They’d
wrestled together years earlier. Separately,
Harnsberger had been testing how his
politics would play.
The two came together to create and promote
the Progressive Liberal. James helped
Harnsberger sharpen his opinions into lines
that would rile up the crowd, and how to
pace them – like when to say, “We’re coming
for your guns.”
And things went well. They entertained. One
time a fan flashed a 9mm handgun on his hip
and told Harnsberger to come take it, James
said. Occasionally Harnsberger would have
half the crowd on his side, like at a match
in the Arkansas Ozarks.
When a sports website noticed Harnsberger’s
gimmick in 2017, a wave of reporters,
including me, came to see how his Hillary
trunks were playing in the counties that
showed the most support for Trump.
“The heat you want is the heat where people
are upset at what you stand for … and they
want to see you get your ass kicked,”
That’s when crowds get invested and will
watch you win or lose and come back the next
‘Let’s get him’
In 2022, the Hillary trunks have been
replaced by a pair saying, “Riding with
The Progressive Liberal is still the bad
guy, but Harnsberger and James said the
audiences have changed.
“The last five years, it’s just got out of
hand,” James said. People have become more
frustrated, more divided, he said. And the
Progressive Liberal offers an outlet for
that built-up energy.
“Dan gets to go and unleash what he
believes, what he feels, his frustrations to
an audience that he’s upset [and] that they
get to give it right back to him because
he’s the closest thing to what they’re mad
at, that they can actually interact with,”
And while most politicians aren’t coming to
these little towns, the Progressive Liberal
does. “You can cuss him. You can boo him,
you can slap him, or try. You can throw
something at him. He’s right there,” James
Harnsberger is a liberal and James a
conservative. They don’t agree much on
politics and don’t talk about it outside the
ring, except to work on their act.
“We’re complete opposites,” James said. “I’m
a gun-owning, tobacco-chewing, Bible-
believing mountain person; Dan is not. But
Dan and I can get along. And if we have
arguments, we have a luxury that most people
don’t have – we know somewhere in the next
few days, we’ll be in the ring together so
we can just punch the other one in the back
of the head.”
But that’s stagecraft. And that’s not what’s
been happening with the audience.
Turning ugly, and fast
James lays down some rules to try to keep
the crowd from turning ugly – there’s no
criticism or banter about the Bible or the
opioid crisis in these towns.
But on a recent night in Stickleyville,
Virginia, where Trump’s share of the vote
rose from an already overwhelming 78% in
2016 to 84% in 2020, it did turn ugly, and
As Harnsberger tried to engage with the
people who’d paid to watch, he was drowned
out by boos.
A lot of that was expected. A man in the
audience, Alex Adkins, told CNN the
Progressive Liberal’s opinions would not go
down well: “Everybody wants to punch him in
And a man with a Trump flag who didn’t want
to give his name said he wanted to see
Harnsberger beaten up. “We love wrestling,
first of all,” he said as to why he was
there. “But to come and show the liberal
like, hey, we know what we stand for. Yeah,
and definitely not the left side.”
When some in the audience told their
neighbors to let Harnsberger speak, it
boiled over. Punches were thrown. Someone
was hit with a chair.
“It got beyond the point of heat to it’s
dangerous,” James said, explaining why they
cut the bout short.
More fights broke out and the brawling
spilled into the parking lot.
As James and Harnsberger sat backstage,
waiting for it to be quiet enough to allow
them to leave safely, they both agreed they
could have handled the situation better.
But neither said they created the problem.
“I think if I had never existed they would
feel the same thing,” Harnsberger said. “But
I have a unique ability to bring that
reaction out of them when I’m in front of
them since I am here.”
“So, now here’s this guy in our town, saying
this stuff that we see on television that we
don’t agree with. We can’t get those people
[on TV], we can’t get the politicians. Let’s
get him,” James said, describing the