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The Progressive Liberal’s Agenda

How a 37-year-old Virginia native became a cult star who is redefining the wrestling heel

Mario Zucca

On an unbearably steamy late August afternoon in suburban Washington, D.C., Daniel “The Progressive Liberal” Richards proudly pulled his 2009 Honda Civic into the parking lot of the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department. Naturally, he drives a low-emission vehicle. After emerging from the compact car wearing a mock political campaign T-shirt reading “DANIEL RICHARDS 2020,” the 6-foot-5 viral sensation slowly walked into the brick building’s buzzing social hall and began shaking hands.

With his match still hours away, Richards unpacked a bag full of merchandise and arranged it neatly on a table set up far below a ceiling-hung bingo flashboard. Then he gave three interviews, including one to a journalist from German magazine Stern. “I always have time for the liberal media,” deadpanned Richards, whose face is covered in something stuck between stubble and a beard. By now, the 37-year-old Richmond native is used to being an international curiosity.

Since June, when the internet discovered the independent professional wrestler who had been spouting left-wing views in rings across Appalachia, Richards has transformed into a cult hero. “I’ve actually gone places where I know they’re not gonna like what I have to say and I’ve said it anyways,” he told me as supporters bought photos, stickers, and apparel. “I think we need more of that.”

For the Progressive Liberal, it was a big night. Until then, he’d always performed as a heel. Right-leaning crowds hate Richards as much as he enjoys provoking them. At a Dukes of Hazzard–themed festival in Luray, Virginia, in July, he wiped his ass with a Confederate flag. But this would be different. Annandale is in deeply Democratic Fairfax County. That evening, for the first time, he expected to work as a babyface — the hero.

As bell time drew closer, his scheduled opponent, Brandon Greene, introduced himself to Richards and confirmed that, for once at least, the Progressive Liberal would be the good guy. “That’s the vibe on social media,” said Richards, who spent the summer responding to hundreds of comments and inquiries on Twitter and Facebook.

It was unclear how many of the several hundred spectators at the NOVA Pro Wrestling show bought a $20 ticket just to see the Progressive Liberal in action, but his admirers were easy to spot. Phil Coppersmith was sporting a tee emblazoned with the logo of Chapo Trap House, a leftist podcast that’s even more gleefully irreverent than Richards. Coppersmith had heard about the guy who once threatened to take a rural West Virginia audience’s guns and wanted to see it for himself. Pro wrestling, Coppersmith said, “is always going after the zeitgeist.”

At about 10 p.m., “Hail to the Chief” blared through the speakers and Richards strutted out from behind a black curtain in a self-designed, all-blue ensemble featuring a “PROGRESSIVE LIBERAL” jacket, trunks that read “DUMP TRUMP” on the back and “#IMPEACH” on the front, and knee pads inspired by the Ghostbusters logo, with a slash through Trump’s visage. He received a standing ovation on his way to the squared circle, where “Money Greene” was waiting. The villain, a cartoonishly rich Trump supporter with an exquisitely groomed Rollie Fingers mustache, was the perfect foil to Richards. Before clashing, they took turns on the microphone.

“Mr. Greene, I don’t think you know where you are right now,” said Richards, who’d unzipped his coat to reveal a “NOT MY PRESIDENT” T-shirt. “You see, you’re not in Dobson, North Carolina. You’re not in Sabine, West Virginia. You’re not in Leatherwood, Kentucky. You’re in Annandale freakin’ Virginia! You’re in liberal country, baby!” He then led the crowd in a “Not my president!” chant, which segued into Richards crowing, “We need to take the profit motive out of health care! That’s why we need to get that snowflake Donald Trump out of office! That’s why we need to get you out of my ring! Because you are standing in the way of the tenets of democratic socialism!” The screed sparked shouts of “U-S-A!” He ended by making a campaign promise: “I’m gonna hit you with my ‘Liberal Agenda’” — his finishing move, a cross-arm neckbreaker — “and then You! Will! Be! Liberated!”

If nothing else, Richards is profoundly committed to his persona. “He picked the right gimmick at the right time,” said NOVA Pro co-owner Mike E. King, who booked Richards after his wife, Kaitlin, read about the politically inclined wrestler online. “And he makes the gimmick work.” The reason for the gimmick’s success is simple: It’s not a gimmick.

Often seen in a T-shirt that’s enveloped in a disturbingly vivid Hillary Clinton photo collage, Richards — who was born Daniel Harnsberger — is open about his real-life politics. He and “The Progressive Liberal” share the same views, which are neither extreme nor unusual. The wrestler told me that he’s all for social equality and an end to laissez-faire capitalism. In a vacuum, these beliefs are unremarkable. When he’s loudly imposing them on paying customers, they’re radical.

To wrestling fans in coal country, Richards is a stand-in for all the smug politicians who have never delivered on promises to help their region. Richards knows that he’ll be smeared as condescending. So in the ring he plays up his sense of moral superiority. Without fail, his approach has generated blistering heat.

Daniel Richards Courtesy Daniel Richards

“It’s not really about politics,” said Richards’s mentor Beau James, who runs Eastern Kentucky–based Appalachian Mountain Wrestling. “It’s about an outsider coming into the mountains trying to tell us how to live. Everybody has an answer to all of our troubles, but they’ve never been here to see it.” (James always makes sure that Richards matches up against an opponent with local ties.)

What Richards has that many politicians with whom he’s ideologically aligned don’t is self-awareness. He’s the rare Democrat who’s comfortable being painted as a villain. Appalachia may despise Richards, but at least he’s there to take the abuse. “He’s real,” James said. “I sell real.”

“If I was trying to say and do stuff I didn’t believe in, the audience would be able to tell,” Richards said. “Trust me, I don’t think the attention would’ve sustained if it was just me pretending. It would’ve been 15 minutes of fame.”

And so the Progressive Liberal lives on. Like any inspiring candidate, Richards is clear, tough, genuine, and self-assured. Those are also traits shared by some of the best pro wrestlers in the world. Think Dusty Rhodes poignantly shining a light on American workers’ “hard times,” Mr. Perfect showing the world that he lives up to his name, or Mick Foley winning the WWE championship and channeling Rocky Balboa.

“Our job is to get emotional reactions from people,” Richards said. “That’s all there is to it, man.” With that mission statement in mind, he’s managed to create an unexpectedly nuanced character. The Progressive Liberal, after all, is to his haters a terrifying comedic exaggeration and to his supporters a projection of strength. His arrival is a predictable outgrowth of a similarly constituted reality TV star, who happens to be a WWE Hall of Famer, ascending to the presidency.

Every so often, “some wrestler trips over a flashpoint,” said wrestling obsessive Bryan Quinby, who cohosts the leftist comedy show and podcast Street Fight Radio. “They’re not even trying to do social commentary. They accidentally do it because they’re always trying to piss people off.”

Pro wrestling has a long history of provocative — and often offensive — geopolitical story lines. In his book The Squared Circle, The Ringer’s David Shoemaker traces these plots back to the late 1940s, when crowds laced with World War II veterans heckled faux Japanese and German heels. The Cold War soon inspired a line of Russian bad guys. By the time the Iron Curtain fell, the angles grew more cockeyed. With the Gulf War looming in 1990, the WWF hired human G.I. Joe Sgt. Slaughter to star opposite Hulk Hogan as a treasonous Saddam Hussein sympathizer. The role, for which he wore a keffiyeh and gained an ally in Iraqi General Adnan, reportedly led to death threats aimed at Slaughter’s real-life alter ego, Robert Remus.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the rebranded WWE hired the Italian American Marc Copani to portray an “Arab American” antagonist named Muhammad Hassan. The character initially railed against anti-Muslim attitudes. Then WWE’s creative team cynically turned him into a terrorist. On July 7, 2005, the same day as the deadly London Underground bombings, UPN aired a pre-taped episode of WWE SmackDown that featured Hassan praying to summon ski-masked attackers, who rushed out and beat up the Undertaker. “We all feel bad about the timing of the segment,” a WWE spokesperson told Variety. The outcry caused by the incident resulted in the company phasing out the once-ascendant Hassan.

At the beginning of this decade, WWE’s “All-American American” Jack Swagger and his Vietnam veteran manager Zeb Colter adopted tea-party-esque philosophies and ranted against immigrants. The angle succeeded in pissing off conservative radio host Glenn Beck, who called it “lazy at best.” He also claimed that WWE’s choice to “miscast” tea partiers as villains was “making it harder for me and my family to stand up for what I believe in.”

These days, pro wrestling continues to rile its fans. In Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, pro-Trump American heel Sam Adonis is reviled. “I’ve had people talk about stabbing me,” Adonis told me. But he actually thrives on the abuse. “My main job is to piss people off. I find the most sensitive topic and shove it in your face.” In real life, Adonis leans right. But, he added, “I’m not the biggest Trump fan.”

Richards is different. As an indie star, he hasn’t been forced to cede creative control. He can take his character to extremes that he surely wouldn’t be able to as an employee of an intricately scripted, publicly traded corporation like WWE. Richards may not have the backing of a major promotion, but he has narrative freedom. That has helped the Progressive Liberal become a digital media darling.

Also, unlike many of his contemporaries, Richards’s in-ring identity is real. When I asked former WCW president Eric Bischoff, a noted Progressive Liberal fan, about the lefty wrestler’s appeal, he brought up “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Before evolving into one of the most popular stars in WWE history, Austin had experimented with a series of gimmicks. They all failed. Austin’s bald, beer-swilling badass image didn’t emerge, Bischoff said, “until Steve quit trying to be a fake character and simply turned up the dial on his real personality.”

At first, the Progressive Liberal was even more pompously repellent than he is today. During a show in Leatherwood, Kentucky, Richards passed around a petition calling for a shutdown of the town’s coal mine. “I was making it too political,” Richards said. “Politics is the hook, as Beau would say, but it always goes back to wrestling.”

James urged Richards to tone down his rhetoric or else risk pushing away loyal fans. “There’s two different kinds of heat,” said James, who wrestles, books, and produces shows. “There’s the heat where people pay money to see you get beat up. Then there’s the heat where they say, ‘I’m not going to go see that.’” In other words, sometimes the dial must be turned down.

The Progressive Liberal’s mother wanted to get something out of the way. “First of all,” she told me, “I’m a Republican.” After making that disclosure, Julie Wiest was ready to chat about her son. Wiest, a cabinet maker, and her now ex-husband, Bill Harnsberger, a regional manager for appliance manufacturer Electrolux, raised Daniel and his younger brother in the Richmond, Virginia, suburb of Midlothian.

Daniel “always demanded our attention,” Wiest said. When he was in first grade, his parents enrolled him in a karate class in hopes of channeling his boundless energy. “He absolutely loved it,” Wiest said. During one session, while watching him attempt a jumping jack, she realized that whatever Daniel lacked in natural talent he’d make up for in persistence. “He was so uncoordinated,” she said. “But he never quit. He just never quits.”

Like thousands of now 30- and 40-something Americans, young Daniel Harnsberger got hooked on sports entertainment after renting a VHS tape of WrestleMania III. Held at the Silverdome on March 29, 1987, the extravaganza famously climaxed with Hulk Hogan picking up and body-slamming the 500-pound Andre the Giant. When he was in fifth grade, Daniel convinced his mom and dad to take him to a WWF show at Richmond Coliseum. In the main event, Hogan took on “Macho Man” Randy Savage. That settled it.

Daniel Richards Via The Progressive Liberal Daniel Richards Facebook page

“I wanted to wrestle,” said Richards, who as a lanky teen played basketball before a knee injury cut short his hoops career. After graduating from Midlothian High in 1999 and then Concord University in southern West Virginia in 2003, he began chasing his childhood dream. His friend Scott McKeever, the proprietor of a local wrestling promotion, trained him for a $250 down payment and $20 a session.

On the first day, Richards threw up. The pain of hitting the mat over and over was jolting. Simply selling a hold with an intense facial expression was more physically demanding than he expected it to be. While learning how to wrestle, he held down a job as a reporter for the Bluefield, West Virginia, Daily Telegraph. “I was making less than the Little Caesars sign guy,” he said. “That sucked.”

Richards quit the newspaper a few months later, around the time he booked his first match. James, a Kingsport, Tennessee, native who broke into the pro wrestling business as a referee at 14, gave him both the gig and a stage name. “It rolled off the tongue a bit better than Harnsberger,” Richards said. Initially, he wrestled mostly for southern West Virginia–based indie promotions. To pay his rent, he transcribed audio recordings of court proceedings, answered phones at a call center, and worked as a grant writer.

Somehow, Richards managed to find time to wrestle a few times every week. He even occasionally road-tripped to shows around the country. He could not, however, develop a memorable character. He tried out “The Bodyguard” Dan Richards, “Big” Dan Richards, and “Dynamite” Dan Richards. None caught on. “What’s so dynamite about ‘Dynamite’ Dan Richards?” he said. “I couldn’t have told you then.”

In 2005, Richards moved back to Richmond. Because he didn’t have any contacts in his hometown’s indie wrestling scene, his bookings evaporated. In 2009, he decided to stop wrestling. By then it had become just a casual hobby. “I felt like such a pretender,” he said. Over the next five years, he worked a slew of jobs, saved money, and traveled abroad. While on a trip to Cambodia in 2011, Richards said, he felt himself drifting leftward politically. He couldn’t immerse himself in U.S. news and events, but remembered watching Al Jazeera and BBC reports about that year’s ongoing debt-ceiling fight between President Obama and Congress. “I really thought the Republicans were the assholes there,” said Richards, who filed away his vitriol for later use.

Eventually, Richards started to miss being in the ring. In 2014, he received a call from an old acquaintance looking to fill a slot in a show. “He needed a guy and my name came to his head,” Richards said. He accepted the offer and soon was wrestling regularly again.

Back then, he was working as a courier. The job, which required him to spend hours on the road every day, gave him time to think. When he was driving, his mind tended to wander toward wrestling. After all those years, he still needed a gimmick. It was then that he came up with what would become the Progressive Liberal.

At a show in tiny Sabine, West Virginia, in late 2015, he debuted the still unnamed character. Trump had announced his presidential campaign that June, so Richards came equipped with plenty of material. On the microphone, he told the crowd that instead of building a wall separating the United States and Mexico, Trump should construct one around Sabine. The crowd responded by chanting Trump’s name. Then a fan hopped a guardrail and pushed Richards, who challenged him to a fight. “He just walked away like a bitch,” Richards said. At that moment, Richards knew he was on to something.

In early 2016, Richards first billed himself as the Progressive Liberal, from Washington, D.C. Leading up to the presidential election, he started wearing his signature Hillary collage shirt and trunks embroidered with Democratic donkeys. Last year, at an event in Racine, West Virginia, he told everyone in the room that he wanted to take away their firearms. The threat, James and Richards say, prompted a man to openly rub a pistol holstered on his hip.

When Clinton lost, Richards worried that he might have to conjure up a new gimmick. In reality, her defeat only emboldened hecklers. “Now,” Richards said, “they have something to laugh at me about.”

He didn’t know it, but his life was about to change. On June 26, Deadspin news editor Samer Kalaf — who noticed that Street Fight Radio’s Quinby had mentioned the Progressive Liberal on Twitter — published an article about Richards. The story introduced the unknown wrestler to a national audience. Now tipped off, media outlets all over the world began taking an interest in Richards.

Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and the BBC came calling. MSNBC host Chris Hayes said on his program that, “as far as pure entertainment and comedy goes, no one beats the Progressive Liberal.” Richards was a guest on the Slate podcast Hang Up and Listen. HBO’s Vice News Tonight profiled him. Fox News even sent a car to his house to pick him up and shuttle him to a D.C. studio, where he appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “It doesn’t even seem real,” said Richards, who during every interview (including this one) has confirmed that he’s indeed as left-leaning as the Progressive Liberal.

Richards has spent the past three months learning to juggle media requests, an uptick in wrestling bookings, and a property management business that he hopes will take off now that he has his real estate license. His rise hasn’t led to riches, but it has allowed him catch up on sleep. He recently stopped moonlighting as a bouncer at a strip club.

Back at the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department, it was clear that the Progressive Liberal would win the popular vote. At his size, Richards isn’t built to pull off acrobatic moves, but late in his match, he dove head first out of the ring and crashed into Money Greene. Soon Richards hit his dazed opponent with the Liberal Agenda, pinned him, and preened for the crowd, which gave him another standing ovation. Indie wrestling, Richards reminded me later, doesn’t only exist in red states.

Over post-match Yuenglings at a nearby pool hall, Richards said that it had been one of the best nights he’s ever had in wrestling. “When they chanted ‘Not my president!’ … ” he said, sounding astonished, “I’m on a high from that.”

After spending the night at his aunt and uncle’s house in Northern Virginia, the budget-conscious Richards climbed into his Honda Civic and drove to Pittsburgh, where he was slated to speak at the Pennsyltucky Bluegrass & Ideas Fest. Advertised as a gathering of “progressives who want to go for the jugular,” the event included a Festivus-style airing of grievances. Organizer Meg Campbell, an attorney who from 2009 to 2011 served as special assistant to Jill Biden, figured the Progressive Liberal would be an ideal guest of honor for the Seinfeld-inspired celebration. He’s proof, Campbell said, “that there are tough people on our side.”

Daniel Richards Courtesy Daniel Richards

Richards took the invitation seriously, writing down talking points on a yellow legal pad. (“Like Bernie Sanders,” Campbell said.) For the day, he swapped out his “DUMP TRUMP” trunks for jeans and a T-shirt. With his speech, he hoped to make the point that the Democrats must offer the country more than just anti-Trump hand-wringing.

“People who think that the poor performance of this presidential administration is going to lead to mass victories in 2018 and turn the House and Senate for us are sadly mistaken,” Richards said. After he spoke, several festival-goers told him he should, like former wrestlers Jesse Ventura, Jerry Lawler, and Bob Backlund before him, run for office. “Not this year,” Richards told me with a smile. For now, he’s too busy with other things.

“It was a cool summer,” Richards said, “but I haven’t done anything yet.” Though he knows that at his age it may be unattainable, his goal is to serve as WWE enhancement talent. In that role, he’d probably be brought in to lose to an up-and-coming opponent. Richards won’t say whether WWE has reached out to him. He did offer this: “I have an understanding that people there are aware of me.”

Would a corporate wrestling promotion like WWE — which has strong ties to the Trump administration — ever give the Progressive Liberal a full-time contract? Bischoff’s answer was no. “It would be too much of a hot potato from an advertising standpoint,” he said. Even in an increasingly diverse cast studded with stars like the Bulgarian brute Rusev and Indian Canadian Jinder Mahal, Richards doesn’t see a place for himself. “Politics and religion are close to home and start arguments,” he conceded.

Still, the Progressive Liberal remains optimistic. After all, three months ago nobody outside of small pockets of Appalachia had ever heard of him. “For him, it’s like, finally, they’re noticing me,” his mother said.

Wiest recalled once telling him that she couldn’t believe he was still wrestling in his 30s. “Mom, I love it,” he pleaded. “Don’t ask me to quit. I’m not gonna quit.” After that, she said, “I shut up.”

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