Monday had been a humdrum afternoon at the gym for Daniel Harnsberger, a 36-year-old real estate agent from Richmond, Va., who moonlights as an independent professional wrestler. He noticed his Facebook fan page was picking up a few new followers from outside the Appalachian region where he typically wrestles, but that happened from time to time. Then he received a message from a wrestling podcast: After seeing a post on Deadspin, they wanted to know if Harnsberger would be interviewed on their show. “I was like, I’ll do your podcast, but what’s this Deadspin post?” Harnsberger says. “Then I looked it up and I was like, Holy...”
The post, titled “The ‘Progressive Liberal’ Is Maybe The Perfect Wrestling Heel,” brought national attention to what had been Harnsberger’s super-regional wrestling character: “The Progressive Liberal” Daniel Richards. Working primarily out of the Kentucky-based independent promotion Appalachian Mountain Wrestling, Harnsberger has channeled his political views into antagonism of the local fanbase, establishing himself as a novel and topical villain in red-state rings. But his niche notoriety had never experienced anything like this week’s onslaught of attention, which included later posts by Breitbart News and Death and Taxes, among others (like this). Before sitting down for a network news interview—and while fielding another request from a Louisville newspaper—the internet’s new favorite heel spoke to SI over the phone about his sudden online stardom, his real-life politics, and why it’s a bad idea to tell a wrestling crowd you’re there to take their guns.
What are the origins of the character?
I thought of it three and a half years ago. I never really had a platform to try it because I’d wrestle what they refer to as spot shows—there was no one running weekly that I was working for, or even running monthly. Then I was deep in the heart of West Virginia in this small, unincorporated town called Sabine. It was a small crowd and I had freedom to do whatever I wanted that night, so I just decided to get on the mic—and this is maybe a couple months after Trump started running. Who knew the guy was gonna be president? So I did this interview on the house mic and I said, “If he’s elected president, I hope Trump doesn’t build a wall around Mexico. Instead I hope he builds it around this town so none of you people can infiltrate the population.” The ire that statement got, I knew I was onto something. Even then, those fans were chanting, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
So then I had the platform later on when I was doing the monthly show every Sunday, just outside of Beckley, W.Va., and I was able to grow the character there. Then I was doing it more and more. I say “character,” but I do lean far left. So it’s not like I’m pretending to be something I’m not. I’m just turning it up. I hear Trump chants everywhere I go now, as soon as I walk out.
That segues into my next question, which was about your real political views. What are the differences politically between Daniel Harnsberger and “The Progressive Liberal” Daniel Richards?
I would venture to say none. If I’m out in public if I am gonna randomly start—pardon my French—talking s--- to people? No. But I have a platform to express any frustrations and say what’s on my mind on the Appalachian Mountain Wrestling television program that airs locally there in Kentucky. We’re trying to get coverage in a couple more states, which we’re on the verge of doing, and this will probably help. But yeah, it helps me blow off some steam.
So you were actually a Hillary Clinton supporter?
I voted for Hillary. I definitely wanted her to pull it out. Three million more people voted for her than Trump, but we have this electoral college, which I’ve never understood, even when I was a kid. It just makes it to where only a few states matter. I’m lucky I live in Virginia for that reason. When I go to vote, it’s like OK, this matters. Whereas if I live in West Virginia or lived in California on the other end, no matter how I vote, the Democrats can win California and the Republicans can win West Virginia. The popular vote would be a better deal. Everyone’s vote would be equal.
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Is there a lot of political talk in wrestling locker rooms?
Here’s the thing on that. So I’m wrestling with this group of men that are mostly born and raised in east Kentucky. We don’t have a bunch of, like, scraggly guys who are pretending and who want to play fight. These are pro wrestlers and they’re big, country strong dudes who can kick ass. So [AMW boss Beau James] makes sure that these guys hear—he’ll openly tell me what he wants me to say so they hear me take the direction from him and then they’re like, Oh, well, he’s being told to say that. So he’s protecting me.
The guy that I’m wrestling this Friday [at Wolfe County High School in Campton, Ky.] in the “crybaby match,” his name’s Kyle Maggard and I call him Kyle “Fox News” Maggot. Our feud is very reality-based. Kyle does lean far right and Kyle and I have had political discussions and let’s just say we don’t see eye-to-eye at all. He takes any Fox News talking point and regurgitates it. It’s 100% real, so that makes the interviews you see between us pretty... there’s a lot behind it.
So would you say your views stand out among your fellow wrestlers?
There, for sure. Beau’s a tobacco-chewing, Lynyrd Skynyrd-loving, Christian redneck, and I’m not knocking that. He’ll tell you that’s what he is. But he’s one of the smartest men that I’ve ever known and he’s been all around the country. He understands people, knows how to read people. We get along great. He took me under his wing. But we don’t see eye-to-eye. Actually his view, he would tell you everything about politics is a work, including the presidential election. And he’s not just basing that on a negative sentiment. His belief is if it’s on TV and there’s money involved, it’s a work. And that even includes professional sports. I don’t know about any of that.
Is there anyone you looked to as a model for the Progressive Liberal character?
I was a huge fan of Lord Steven Regal in WCW and then William Regal in WWE. I love him. I can’t say I mirror him in the ring because that would be an insult to him; he’s just amazing. But the arrogance factor, all that—he was a blue-blooded, tea-sipping Brit. There’s definitely shades of that in me, where my character comes off thinking he’s better than everybody else. Especially our fanbase based in east Kentucky.
Does the character go over differently when you wrestling in different areas?
Well, not the places where I’m going presently. [ed. note: He also wrestles regularly in Virginia and West Virginia.] But I’m sure if you put me out in California I’d be cheered, or New York City. Well, I dunno. New Yorkers will boo for the sake of booing, kind of like a Philly crowd. That’s their wrestling crowd. You have to earn their respect. So they might not cheer me just for the heck of it. In east Kentucky, you don’t even hear one or two people cheer for me. I think even the people that do like the Progressive Liberal, they don’t want their peers and their friends and families to know, so they keep it quiet. No one is cheering for me in Kentucky.
You began wrestling on-and-off in 2003, then stopped in 2009 before starting again in 2014. Before the Progressive Liberal, what kind of gimmicks have you had?
I was never really a character. I mean, I don’t think I’m a character now. I use (the word) for lack of a better term. I was always Daniel Richards or maybe some moniker in front of it like Dynamite Dan Richards or Big Dan Richards—I’m 6’ 5” but I don’t consider myself big. None of them meant anything. I was just a guy going out and wrestling and I was either good or bad. It’d get reactions out of fans, but nothing comes close to what I’m doing now. I’m proud of it because it’s my creation, but there’s been Beau and other people along the way who have helped.
What’s your finishing move?
I call it the Liberal Agenda. 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!”
Did the character catch on pretty quickly in Kentucky?
Apparently people on a regular basis come up to Kyle and Nathan, our announcer, and other guys that live there in Kentucky and ask about “the liberal” or have not-so-nice things to say about me. It got to the point where there was one town where I was set to wrestle—and I did wrestle there—where one guy said, “If that guy shows up, I’m bringing a gun.” The quote was, “If that f---ing Liberal comes here, I’m gonna bring a gun.” My dad was terrified, but I’m just not. I guess I should be, but I’m just not.
I’m wrestling at [a Dukes of Hazzard-themed festival] in Virginia the last week of July. This is gonna be thousands of Confederate-flag-toting rednecks that are gonna be out there. And the Liberal’s gonna be there. I have an idea what I’m gonna say to these people and I know they’re not gonna react favorably; it’s just about how unfavorably. But I’m just not afraid of it. I probably should be but I’m just not.
Perhaps the gun story answers this, but what’s the most memorable reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?
As far as at an event, Beau and I were both in the ring and I told the crowd I was there to confiscate their guns. And they had a volunteer fire department there and one of the firefighters was packing. He had his pistol on his right hip and he’s rubbing his pistol and looking at me. We took it no further. I went on to something else. I didn’t take anyone’s guns away. That’s probably why I’m still here today.
Has the response changed at all since the election?
I thought Hillary would win, as a lot of people did, and then I would be able to gloat and that would be great. Then when Trump won I was like, man, is this finished? Is this not gonna matter anymore? Nope. It’s made the reaction stronger, because the fans have something to laugh at me about and jeer me for, like right off the bat. I still wear my Hillary shirt because my sentiment is, well, the election is rigged. It was rigged, after all. Trump would always say it and yeah, he knew it.
One thing with the fanbase is that Trump supporters don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to details, especially if it’s negative coverage towards their boy. So I have to stick with very general talking points. I’ll say, “You’ve traded your red, white, and blue American flag for a Russian flag,” and that’s as far as I can go into detail. I can’t be like, “You hear about Flynn pleading the fifth?” No one would get it. We’ve tried it before. Like in Kentucky they’re wanting to go to charter schools and despite that being the Betsy DeVos-Republican policy and a hot-button issue in general, I tried it in a live interview in front of a live crowd and it got no reaction. Specifics don’t matter. You stick to general stuff.
Wrestling has always drawn from real-life character types, but there’s not a lot from contemporary, domestic, partisan politics. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know what they would say on it and I’ve never worked for them, but let’s think about this. WWE is a publicly traded company. They rely on sponsors. They don’t want to offend anybody. Their quoted philosophy is they want to put smiles on people’s faces. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta upset people too and make them want to come back and see the good guy get the revenge and stuff like that. I think they just can’t touch social issues because of the potential fallout that could happen and how that could impact them financially.
I mean, they had a character called Muhammad Hassan and he was on Smackdown on UPN at the time [in 2005], and they pulled the plug on it, and said, “No more.” He was done. He had a ton of heat. But he couldn’t be on TV anymore. They can’t do that stuff. They did stuff with the Russians, Rusev and Lana. But now they’ve gotten away from that. I don’t know if that’s so much for fear of losing sponsors, or it seems like Russia’s not so bad if you’re a Republican anymore, although they used to be. I don’t understand that, but it’s how it is now. It’s the world we’re living in.
Does it bother you at all to be basically espousing your real views and be seen as the bad guy, while the good guys are the ones with whom you disagree?
It doesn’t bother me because everybody’s gonna have their opinion. I wanted to go forward with this to bother them, because I knew it would. I’ve said in many interviews, “You people vote against your own interests.” That’s as whole-hearted as anything I say. These red states in the South are also the poorest states. Specifically in Kentucky I called out Mitch McConnell. He hasn’t answered. (laughs)
How does that go over?
Well you can’t go too much into specifics there. You’re going too much into specifics even when you mention something like that. He’s their senior state senator, but they’re not saying, “McConnell! McConnell! McConnell!” It’s just, “Trump! Trump! Trump” So I just stick to that. He gives me plenty of material.
Is there a downside for you personally to mixing politics and wrestling?
Certainly not right now. (laughs) I’m in real estate. There are plenty of real estate investors that voted for Trump or lean right, so it was like I can still operate my fan page, but I used to share posts from my fan page on my personal page. Then I’d ever so briefly got away from that. I’m a newly licensed agent, in the property management business, all that stuff. I didn’t want to hurt my pockets. I have to be careful of it. But then Deadspin happened. I’m sharing this because this is a big deal for me. I’m just grateful for any coverage. It’s cool.
What’s next? What are your aspirations?
I cannot state this enough. I don’t know how far this wave is gonna take me—it’s a big deal to me, but I don’t think I’m like name your favorite celebrity. I would love to be on Real Timewith Bill Maher. I love Bill Maher. People who boo me certainly hate him as much as they hate me, but I love Bill Maher and would love to be on his program, as like that last guest segment. It would just be amazing.
I’m about to turn 37. WWE is not looking for 37-year-old guys. But the whole idea of a goal is for it to be challenging but achievable. I think this leans much more heavily on challenging, but at this point in my career I just want to be on their TV one time. I’d love to be in a match where I’m going against one of their guys, obviously probably putting them over. But to be on Raw one time or SmackDown would be amazing. No one can take that away from me.
How can people watch you or follow your work?
The best place is YouTube, keyword search Appalachian Mountain Wrestling. You’ll find our channel there. Our subscribers have started to go up as well. We have a new episode every Tuesday night. It’s a 30-minute program that sticks to wrestling, issues between people that result in a match. We keep it very simple. [Ed. note: He is also on Facebook and Twitter.]
What are your thoughts on the new Senate healthcare bill?
The CBO came out and of course the Trump White House, they disavow anything that doesn’t portray them in a favorable light or their policies. They disavowed it, which makes me think all the more that the CBO’s pretty damn accurate. It doesn’t surprise me. Looking at the numbers on it, besides the 22 million, I like how it reduces the budget—and that’s long-term—but that’s not the point of passing a healthcare bill. I want the budget deficit reduced as much as anyone. But you know, it’s tax cuts for the upper echelon. I’m not against people being rich. I’m not against capitalism. But at some point it’s just like, come on. Cutting taxes got us into trouble with the Bush Administration. We had a surplus before. When you reduce revenue and don’t change anything else to offset it, it leads to bad things.
Any parting thoughts?
I do wanna say this: I wish Democrats would be as unapologetic as Republicans are. I wish they would just not worry about looking partisan and just do what they think is best. I don’t think they need to lie and cheat and gerrymander like Republicans do. But just be unapologetic with your policies and who you are. That’s how the Progressive Liberal is. I’m unapologetic. Hearing the report about Obama not releasing the information about Russia hacking the election last year because they were afraid how partisan that would look in response to the stuff Donald Trump was saying—who cares? The people who are gonna hate you are just going to anyways. What about those undecided people? I don’t know if that would’ve turned the election or not, but that unapologetic stuff, that goes to anything. I know our democracy is founded on them working together and hashing stuff out together, but maybe we’d be a single-payer system if we weren’t so compromising and apologetic.
Are you the future of the Democratic Party?
(laughs) Step aside, Nancy Pelosi. The Progressive Liberal is here.
The above interview was edited for clarity and length.