When Daniel Harnsberger leaves his home on the East Coast and drives into Appalachia, he usually packs a T-shirt covered in Hillary Clinton faces and spandex wrestling briefs that say "Progressive Liberal."
That's his wrestling persona — and his costume. And most weekends, Harnsberger dons it to work in semipro regional circuits as a stereotypical coastal elite who trolls in Donald Trump country. (He sometimes also wears a shirt that says "Not My President.")
He's wrestled for years — until recently, without the left-leaning political tilt — in conservative corners of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. It's a grind. These are small gigs, often in high school gyms or on county fairgrounds. On these regional circuits, wrestlers often schedule a match at a time.
"I was wrestling for $5 and a hot dog and a soda," Harnsberger tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "There were times I didn't get paid at all."
But two years ago — just after Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign — Harnsberger made politics part of his act.
He was wrestling in a small town in West Virginia. As Harnsberger recalls, the promoter told him to "be the biggest heel you can be." That was easy for Harnsberger, who's always been a fan of wrestling heels — cartoonish bad guys whose job is to rile up the crowd.
So he took the microphone and brought some of Trump's campaign rhetoric into the ring: "I said, 'I hope Trump doesn't build a wall around Mexico. Instead I hope he builds it around this town so you people can't infiltrate the population.' And that got a heated reaction."
And his shtick kept getting that reaction. He honed it into a character named Dan Richards, The Progressive Liberal, that he kept playing throughout the election. When Trump won in November, crowds hated Dan Richards even more.
In character, Harnsberger tells crowds he'll take their guns. He says he wants to "reprogram" Trump supporters to make them favor renewable energy over coal.
"I know how you stupid Trump voters think," the Liberal Progressive says in one video for Appalachian Mountain Wrestling. "Allow me to illustrate: dur-dur-dur, I love coal. Dur-dur-dur, I love mountains."
And in the ring, he finishes off opponents with a move called the "Liberal Agenda" he described recently to Sports Illustrated:
"It's just a cross-arm neckbreaker, so if I'm standing in front of you, I'm grabbing each of your wrists, crossing your arms, then twisting you for a standard neckbreaker. I call that the Liberal Agenda so then the announcer says, 'Oh, he hit him with his Liberal Agenda!' "
Wrestling fans seem to eat it up. In one video, a gym full of spectators boos Harnsberger as he makes his entrance before a match; a group of kids scream at him from just a few feet away. In another video, Harnsberger gets into a shouting match with a fan. The man calls him "D.C. girl" and starts a chant of "Bye, bye, Hillary!"
Harnsberger goes out of his way to make wrestling fans hate his character. Turns out the left-wing views of the Progressive Liberal aren't an act.
"I'm the progressive liberal in real life," he says, "so I think this would generate a reaction from fans, especially the places I was going."
And that's probably what makes Harnsberger such a good villain. A great heel, he says, is one who "believes what they're saying and feels justified in their actions."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You know, when I was a kid, I watched pro wrestling on TV. The matches often featured a good guy, like Hulk Hogan, against a bad guy, a bad guy like the Iron Sheik, a cartoonish Middle Eastern evil dude. Pro wrestling played off the news, you see, and still does. Consider a wrestling circuit in eastern Kentucky - big Donald Trump territory.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And here he is, The Progressive Liberal, Daniel Richards, possibly the most controversial figure in the Appalachian Mountain Wrestling world. As we get things kicked off...
INSKEEP: The Progressive Liberal is Daniel Harnsberger. He, too, grew up watching pro wrestling and admired the bad guys known as heels. He became a wrestler when he grew up.
DANIEL HARNSBERGER: I was wrestling for $5 and a hotdog and a soda. There were times I didn't get paid at all.
INSKEEP: Around 2015, he discovered a character to play. He was wrestling before a tiny crowd in West Virginia. Trump had just started running for president.
HARNSBERGER: I said, I hope Trump doesn't build a wall around Mexico and said I hope he builds around this town so you people can't infiltrate the population. And that got a, you know, heated reaction.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) I imagine so.
HARNSBERGER: That reaction, pound for pound for that small group, was palpable.
INSKEEP: That's the job of a heel - to outrage the crowd. So he started wearing Hillary Clinton T-shirts and wrestling trunks with the words, progressive liberal, and acting like a coastal elitist.
HARNSBERGER: A great heel is someone who believes what they're saying and feels justified in their actions and in what they say.
INSKEEP: He's not really acting.
HARNSBERGER: I'm a progressive liberal in real life. So I'd think this would generate a reaction from fans - you know, especially the places I was going.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HARNSBERGER: I know how you stupid Trump voters think. Allow me to illustrate. Der-der-der (ph) I love coal. Der-der-der, I love mountains.
INSKEEP: Between matches, Harnsberger returns home to the Democratic city of Richmond, Va. We asked if his travels in Appalachia gave him a better understanding of the other side.
HARNSBERGER: I don't stand up for them.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) Not even a little bit?
INSKEEP: Although, his role as The Progressive Liberal gives us a better understanding of this divided national moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.