The following is an excerpt from Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future, by Brandi Collins-Dexter, reprinted here with permission of the publisher, Celadon Books, 2022.
The American Dream represents many things to many people. For some, it means the possibility that anyone can break the barriers in front of them with goals, purpose, and fortitude. For others, it means the right to be a billionaire and buy everything one could want in life. And for others still, it means the right to live in an America where everyone can have a basic, healthy standard of living and quality of life.
But when I think about the American Dream, a different image comes to mind. I think of a sturdy and rugged individual who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 289 pounds. Someone who moved with agility and had verbal game like Muhammad Ali—a beautiful combination of athletic prowess and savage MC skills.
I am talking, of course, about Hall of Fame wrestler Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes.
For casual wrestling fans, the late Dusty Rhodes may be remembered because of his mentorship and leadership of some of the biggest stars in wrestling today, including his two sons Cody and Dustin Rhodes. Some casual fans may remember Dusty Rhodes as the World Wrestling Federation (the precursor to WWE) creation “The Common Man,” a moniker conjured up by WWE owner Vincent McMahon who meant to conflate “common” with “simple.” They may remember him as a mid-card wrestler known for doing comical and oddly bizarre skits as a plumber or coal miner while dressed in a somewhat unflattering black leotard with yellow polka dots.
But the real ones know before that Dusty Rhodes was—and will always be—the headliner and iconic people’s champ known as “The American Dream.”
Part of wrestling’s appeal is that it is an unapologetically populist endeavor. It sets up a dynamic between the elites and the heroic wrestler, the people’s champion. The hero is a leader who isn’t afraid to call out the rigged systems working against them. They represent the values that we as viewers embrace as our own. And the promos they cut—the short sound bites that end up plastered on T-shirts or replayed on YouTube—often pull from reality: news stories, politics, societal trends. The best promos are ones that resonate on multiple levels. They apply not just to the wrestler and their current storyline but also to a broader collective consciousness and shared public sentiment.
The American Dream (or The Dream) is one of my favorite wrestlers of what’s been called “The Golden Era,” of wrestling (1980s to the early 1990s). And in 1985, he gave the speech—an urgent, unapologetically political speech during a wrestling closed-circuit television event, a poetic harangue that, in my estimation, could be one of the greatest recorded leftist populist speeches of all time, referred to by wrestling fans as the “Hard Times” promo.
Let me set the stage for you. The American Dream had a short, permed, bleach-blond mullet. It resembled a dried-out Jheri curl, like he had haphazardly picked it out without putting some oil sheen on it first. Like he had been on the road for a while and left his Care Free Curl and shower cap at home. If you’re wondering why I can speak so intimately about this, yes, I had a Jheri curl around this same time and I make no apologies.
And you just knew that although he was white, he would be comfortable at a table full of Black people animatedly playing spades—a Bill Burr vibe, if you will. If you brought him home, you knew he might say some wild stuff. He would probably have some race jokes about things you could only know if you had authentic relationships with Black people beyond the workplace or school. You didn’t have to worry about that slightly uncomfortable feeling that comes over you when a white person starts getting too familiar and you begin to worry they may say something particularly out of pocket.
In the “Hard Times” promo, The Dream—who is the face—steps up to the mic to cut a promo for his ongoing feud with Ric Flair, a flamboyant and cocky heel known for wearing bedazzled $10,000 robes and swapping out his extensive Rolex watch collection on a whim.
As part of his gimmick, The Dream is wearing gold aviators with brown lenses. He has on jeans, a light gray pinstripe suit jacket with matching vest, a light pink dress shirt with the top button undone, and a navy paisley tie that is slightly askew around his neck. I don’t want to say he looks vaguely coked out, so I will just leave it there. He was billed as “the son of a plumber,” and this wasn’t just kayfabe. In real life, his father was a non-unionized plumber who made $3.50 an hour and worked overtime to make sure his family was provided for. In his autobiography, The Dream contrasts that against the plumbers “of great wealth” who made $12–$14 an hour. He was raised in Austin, Texas, in a community predominantly of Black and Mexican Americans.
The promo starts like a standard monologue. He thanks the fans and his promotion company for standing by him and sending get-well-soon cards. The angle here is that he had beef with Ric Flair after the heel wrestler intentionally broke his ankle, putting him out of commission. He then makes it clear how he feels about Ric Flair, saying, “There is no honor amongst thieves in the first place,” which, when taken with Ric’s callous wealth, is almost too on the nose in its critique of late-stage capitalism.
And this is where the shoot picks up. The Dream looks directly into the camera, and it zooms in as the passion picks up in his voice: “He put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are, Daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work; they got four or five kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food.”
Suddenly, despite the pure absurdity of the scene, despite the intense breathing and how distractingly tiny the sunglasses are on his face, you’re drawn in, because you realize The Dream isn’t merely cutting a promo but delivering a populist sermon that not only reflected the times, but also was damn near prophetic. The country was freefalling into hard times, driven by corporate greed, deregulation, and growing disillusionment from years of civil unrest and economic decline. The speech served as a dire warning of the hard times that could befall a community that didn’t stick together.
When the Dream gave his speech in 1985, the United States had recently gone through two recessions. Automation was beginning to displace low-wage workers across the country, and in the Midwest, auto workers were being hit especially hard. So it resonated when The Dream said, “Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work, and they tell ’em go home … hard times are when a man has worked at a job for 30 years—30 years—and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt, and say, ‘Hey, a computer took your place, Daddy.’ That’s hard times!”
Sound bites like these are the reason why up until The Dream died, people of all ages would come up to him, thanking him for honoring their plight. A cynical person could dismiss the speech as a work, especially without the context of his modest upbringing. In the promo, The Dream is not wearing a struggle outfit. As the top face on the roster at the time, he was probably making significantly more than the viewer watching him at home was. But regardless, you still got the feeling he understood you and you understood him.
Defining the “we” in a multicultural society is always a challenge. But in The Dream’s promos, he always defined the “we” as a collective that cuts across racial boundaries. Whether you identified with John Wayne or Run-DMC or Flaco Jiménez, you knew Dusty Rhodes was holding a spot for you in his version of the American Dream and standing against a universally understood “them.”
This is the reason why the “Hard Times” promo still stands alone as the greatest wrestling promo in history decades later. For three minutes in 1985, The American Dream cut to the heart of America: both who we are but also who we could be. What lives on forever is that for that moment, he made people forget their individual concerns and believe this country is capable of doing better by its people.
Listening to the promo, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to political rhetoric. The Dream was a man who knew how to give a political speech, and his “Hard Times” promo still serves as a template from which anyone seeking election should consider drawing. The Dream made you feel like him winning wasn’t about him alone; it was about all of us. He made you feel like you were with him and, despite the shittiness of the world, maybe, just maybe, something different was possible if we were willing to take a leap of faith.
I don’t know what The Dream’s political affiliation was, but in a way, that’s what makes the promo so great. Because there was a clear, broader critique of those holding power at that moment, it didn’t matter which party was in charge. It was a sentiment that would continue to apply through many administrative swing shifts. While populism today is often associated with conservative politics, The Dream’s speech uses a potent rhetorical tactic that has been deployed effectively for movement building by those on both sides of the aisle. Every time someone in power tries to say everything is fine, there will always be a group of people who feel like it’s not. Who will see it’s not. This is an inherent byproduct of capitalism, which intrinsically relies on an economic caste system that will always produce a disempowered group at the bottom and an entitled group that believes its own hype at the top.
A populist leader’s success, therefore, is determined by their ability to activate the disgruntled masses for political gain. Because of this, a powerful leader, if not a demagogue, will always be the most effective—someone who can bring together the discontented group with a rallying cry. Dusty Rhodes, who often referred to himself as the John Wayne of wrestling, made for a good leader for the times. But the problem with populist leaders is when you’re dealing with the best ones, it’s hard to tell if a promo is a shoot or a work. It’s hard to tell the difference between a powerful leader for the people, a demagogue, and a convincing perpetrator.
On television and in stadiums around the world, we are trained to respond to what’s directly in front of us, not what’s behind the stage. We’re trained by the live audiences and the wrestlers themselves to understand who we’re supposed to root for—the hero who fights his way to the top and beats the odds, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and manifesting his own version of the American Dream, much to the chagrin of the powers that be. And so even though we all know the game is ultimately rigged backstage, we remain active participants in the machine. The narratives are that powerful.
It took me a long time to question my love of WWE. Moments like the “Hard Times” promo transcended the gimmick. And those moments in wrestling are what hook you, what keep you paying your monthly subscription. In those moments, it feels larger than wrestling and larger than the theatrics. But at its core, the WWE is still a corporation, leveraging audience emotions and compelling narratives for a profit. And, like Pavlov’s dogs, when nostalgia rings like a dinner bell, we’re conditioned to come running.