No one will mistake Appalachian Mountain Wrestling rings for the glitz and glamour of the WWE. But in recent weeks, that’s changed due to the antics of one wrestler. When 36-year-old real estate agent-by-day, wrestler-by-night Daniel Harnsberger debuted his Progressive Liberal gimmick in November, 2015 in tiny Sabine, W.Va., he had a feeling he’d rankle fans.
Immediately greeted by jeers from the sparse crowd, Harnsberger grabbed the mic and unleashed his new heel persona. The Progressive Liberal ripped then-candidate Donald Trump. “If he’s elected president, I hope Trump doesn’t build a wall around Mexico,” he said to the agitated crowd. “Instead, I hope he builds it around this town.” In response, a fan threatened to fight him and the crowd retorted with a pro-Trump chant.
That night confirmed to Harnsberger that the Progressive Liberal was the perfect foil for a starkly politically divided climate. With the 2016 election serving as a larger play, he began wearing a t-shirt with a collage of Hillary Clintons to the ring along with his custom tights and knee pads that featured the Democratic Donkey.
In Appalachia, the Richmond-based Harnsberger has redefined what it means to be a heel in a divided America. Billing himself from Washington, D.C., the Progressive Liberal needles fans by shouting “Fox News maggot,” making fun of country music and continues to call for clean energy. His finishing move, a cross-arm neck-breaker, is called the Liberal Agenda.
Since that first match, the rancor towards the Progressive Liberal has only increased. Due the wildly polarized 2016 election, Harnsberger’s character became one of the most hated in the promotion. He’s been the recipient of homosexual slurs, and a “Bye Bye Hillary” chant after the election. His shtick has stoked emotions to the point where a fan wore a pistol on his right hip to a match. There’s been other, looser threats but nothing that’s worried him about his livelihood.
Over the course of wrestling history, most hated heels were foreigners who supported anti-American governments or ideals. The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff–who hailed and were billed from Iran and Russia respectively–were reviled in the Cold War-era ‘80s. In 1997, Bret Hart went heel when he adopted a pro-Canada/anti-American stance.
No one would have expected—given the era’s distaste for the moneyed class—someone like Trump would continue to be a face, while the Progressive Liberal would be the bad guy.
Donald J. Trump has always been a peripheral part of the WWE universe. A longtime friend of WWE majority owner, chairman and CEO Vince McMahon (Wrestlemania IV and V took place at Trump Plaza), Trump was the face in a proxy match against McMahon at Wrestlemania 23 in 2007, which was billed to much fanfare as a battle of the billionaires. No one would have expected–given the era’s distaste for the moneyed class–someone like Trump would continue to be a face, while the Progressive Liberal would be the bad guy. Fans then seemed more likely to jeer an outspoken rich guy like Trump (just as they would as the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase) rather than a left winger.
The Progressive Liberal isn’t afraid to go into these hostile areas as a Democratic shill. His unapologetic positions and cutting critiques make it easy for the crowd to hate him. Though he introduced the character in 2015, he was no more than a regional curiosity until he was discovered in June when a Deadspin piece on him went viral. People across the country were captivated.
For his first match post-Deadspin, the Progressive Liberal was bumped from mid-card to the main event. VICE News, BBC America, CNN, Deadspin and a local CBS affiliate descended upon rural Kentucky to get a glimpse of the most hated wrestler in Appalachia.
But since then, the Progressive Liberal has capitalized on his new-found fame. MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes cast him as a folk hero. He made an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight on FOX News and the subject of a package on CBS Evening News.
“Look, if Hillary won, I don’t think I’d get the same attention,” Harnsberger says. “But I do know that since Trump is president that does make it more newsworthy. More Republicans are in Southern States so maybe that’s why a heel can get that type of a reaction. If you take that to more urban areas it’d probably be cheered.”
Not that this is a gimmick.
Having wrestled on-and-off since 2003, Harnsberger, who goes by Daniel Richards in the ring, saw this as his opportunity to be a heel and to reflect his dismay at the state of affairs in the areas where he wrestles.
“The two main elements of this character are totally me,” he says. “One, I’m a legit liberal and it’s actually shocked me how that’s come into question. The other aspect is the trolling of people. When I hear someone talking and if I think what they’re saying is stupid or funny, I take the other side for my own amusement. There’s a huge side to that for what I do. It’s amazing to me how easy it is to work some of the people up. It’s amazing to me that I can scream the name of ‘Hillary’, pronounce words properly and listen to boos. It’s all very real.”
“Pretty Boy” Stan Lee is the Progressive Liberal’s tag team partner and travel buddy. Together, they’re known as Pretty Liberal, which rankles the conservative audience. Lee confirms that this character isn’t too far removed from Harnsberger’s personal politics.
“Everything he says he believes,” Lee says. “When he was first telling me about what he was doing, I remember not being sure about how it would go over, especially after the election. I was shocked at the response he was getting. People disliked him right off the bat and it’s still going, so more power to him.”
When the Progressive Liberal cuts promos, the tone is often condescending and belittling. After the 2016 election and Charlottesville, there’s more bite to his remarks.
“To be honest with you, I’m surprised Dan has any fans,” Lee says. “He’s not well liked and there’s tons of hate mail coming in all the time against him. They get really worked up about him. I never would have thought that a political character would get this kind of heat. It only works in places where we’re at…with Trump voters. Dan is really good at getting under their skin.”
Kyle Maggard, a right-leaning wrestler, has feuded with the Progressive Liberal in the ring. As the face, he says the vitriol hurled at his opponent is a general frustration with a larger issue.
“The reaction to him is what I expected it to be,” Maggard says. “It isn’t because of him being a liberal. In Eastern Kentucky, you feel like everyone treats you as a second-class citizen. That’s the reason why people don’t like him.”
“The first thing Dan said when he was in Eastern Kentucky was that he was glad there was no coal and we need to put a clean energy facility in,” Haggard says. “My reaction was that I wanted to smack him, just like the crowd [laughs]. If you talk to him, you know this is not a gimmick. I honestly think it’s the right place and right time. If you put him anywhere else, it wouldn’t be what it has been. He wouldn’t be as vilified as he is in Eastern Kentucky.”
On Trump, Harnsberger says if he didn’t have “the magic R” behind his name, folks would lambast him for being a “rich and a dastardly Hollywood person.”
“Wrestling has always been able to reflect the times in America,” Haggard says. “At the time when Vince McMahon was the most hated man in wrestling, it was a changing culture. It was a lot more rebellious, and that’s what made Vince the perfect bad guy and why ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin was the perfect good guy. Now here we are, and everything that you see in America is completely right or left. We’re in this rural area that’s right on a national level with this left wing villain.”
Since he’s based in Richmond, the events that took place 71 miles down I-64 in Charlottesville have had a major impact on Harnsberger. With family in the area, he was concerned about their well-being but has no plans to tone down his persona. If anything, it’s forced him to amplify it. At a recent show, the Progressive Liberal took a Confederate flag out of a garbage bag and used it to wipe his ass.
“Losers shouldn’t have their own flag,” he said.
The increased awareness surrounding the Progressive Liberal has trickled down to other wrestlers within the promotion, even if they may not share the same political beliefs. The Progressive Liberal may be of this particular moment, but it also speaks to Harnsberger’s core values.
“I may not have blown up like Justin Bieber, but I’ve gotten messages from people around the world who are frustrated,” he says. “I’m getting over with them because I’m speaking to how they feel.”
Right after news spread of his existence, fans from cities who learned of the Progressive Liberal drove to rural areas to see him wrestle. A couple from Memphis traveled to Eastern Tennessee to show their support for the Progressive Liberal and Pretty Liberal. As Lee recalls, they told the duo they had planned on changing into Bill and Hillary Clinton costumes. Once they saw the hostile nature of the regulars, they quickly realized they should leave the taunts to those in the ring. Another couple from Atlanta drove to Hazard, KY to check out the wrestling anomaly.
“They went out to eat with us with after the show, but we were afraid to say anything because he was booed so much,” he says of that night. “We were worried they’d turn on us if we started cheering for y’all.”
The Progressive Liberal may be a pariah where he wrestles but he’s reaped the benefits in higher profile matches–including against former WWE wrestler Shane “The Hurricane” Helms. With matches slated for blue cities like Pittsburgh in the coming weeks, the Progressive Liberal knows that the vitriol will only heighten when he returns to places where he’s reviled. He remains steadfast in his hatred of the alt-right and all groups associated with it.
“I can do the most heroic and noble stuff there is in the Bible Belt,” he says. “Last week alone I’ve had more heat than I’ve ever had in the months before alone, and that’s saying something. I could barely get a word out with the booing and the Donald Trump chants. I’m sure it will get worse. I know if someone is going to kill me, they’re just going to do it and no amount of security or police will stop that. They’re the terrorists and in the end, they win if I stop doing what I’m doing.
“At the end of the day, since the word liberal is tied to my name, I will be vilified and hated. There’s a lot of preconceptions that conservatives and Southerners have about liberals that unfortunately aren’t going away any time soon. At the end of the day, it’s my creation and this is me. I’m proud of that, and flabbergasted and amazed.”