At Wrestlemania 20, Hall of Famer, Jesse Ventura spoke to the crowd and suggested “in 2008, maybe we oughta put a wrestler in the White House”. Who knew that it was only the year he got wrong, not the overall concept, and that the wrestler in the White House would not be Ventura himself, but 2013 Hall of Famer and former Wrestlemania main-eventer, Donald J Trump?
As a left-leaning American citizen, the rise of Donald Trump has horrified me over the last few years. But as a wrestling fan, it has not surprised me. Despite sitting glumly in front of my TV on election night and watching the horror unfold, and despite doing my bit for sanity and casting my own vote for Hillary, I had been telling people at work for months that I thought Trump would win. My reasoning had little to do with understanding the untapped anger of blue collar Americans, or identifying the depth of racism, xenophobia and misogyny that Trump’s victory has lain bare, but had everything to do with nearly thirty years of watching WWE. And most importantly, knowledge of the fact that The Donald had been watching for even longer than I had.
I got into wrestling in 1992, with Wrestlemania 8, but as soon as I was hooked I became a student of the sports’ history and eagerly sought out previous Wrestlemanias. Sure enough, at Wrestlemania 7, there was Trump in the crowd, smiling and waving on a card notable for its total divorce from reality. Vince McMahon had banked on a long Gulf War and had believed his jingoistic main event of “Real American” Hulk Hogan versus the “Iraqi sympathizer”, Sargent Slaughter, would break arena records with its patriotic zeal. Unfortunately for Vince, the war ended before the feud grew legs. The appetite was no longer there to watch a microcosm of war inside the squared-circle. That said, as a child watching, I saw, as did Donald Trump, that for those of us who had already bought into the show, such facts no longer mattered. So long as WWE ploughed on with their narrative, we would go along for the ride. We knew to cheer for Hogan and boo for Slaughter and knew that inside our little wrestling bubble, for that night at least, the war continued no matter what objective reality might be saying in contrast.
Before my time, Wrestlemanias 4 and 5 were both held at what WWE called “Trump Plaza” – a convention centre adjacent to Donald Trump’s Atlantic City hotel and casino. Again, in wrestling (as in politics, it would turn out), perception is reality. There is no actual “Trump Plaza”, but Trump was the major sponsor of each event so why not invent a fabrication that the venue belonged to, and was named after, WWE’s wealthy benefactor? At Wrestlemania 4, we watched the comeuppance of the millionaire monster, Ted Dibiase, who had tried to buy his way into the WWE World Heavyweight championship only to have his belt stripped from him and a tournament take place to determine a legitimate winner (perhaps Hillary still holds out hope that Trump’s sullied victory will also be so overruled?). At Wrestlemania 5, we watched as the Mega Powers exploded, and best friends, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, self-destructed into bitter rivalry spurred by jealousy about world titles and the lovely Miss Elizabeth. Both were promotional masterclasses in crowd manipulation and psychological control. Both were watched closely by Trump.
Later, we would have Wrestlemania 23, where rich white billionaires, Donald Trump and Vince McMahon each picked minority proxies to fight for them in a hair-vs-hair match. Of course the ethnicity of Bobby Lashley and Umaga was not part of the official storyline, but it certainly felt heavy with symbolism as the old white men stood at ringside shouting at their paid, ethnic fighters. When I subsequently watched the movie, Django Unchained, the slave fights depicted there were eerily reminiscent of the idea, missing only the inclusion of a razor-wielding Stone Cold Steve Austin at the end.
Trump’s involvement with WWE over the years exposed him to many key elements of his eventual electoral campaign. From watching WWE:
- Trump knows that reality is irrelevant so long as the audience buys into the conflict being presented. Wrestling fans are not interested in facts, we are interested in being entertained.
- Trump knows that good guys versus bad guys always sells best. Nuance and shades of grey are for novels. We want to be told who to cheer for and who to boo for and, so long as you present some half-decent reasons for it, we’ll largely do as we’re told.
- Trump knows how to cut a good promo to communicate this. He understands trigger words and trigger phrases to get the crowd to cheer or jeer.
- Trump knows the value of a catchphrase a crowd can join in on, like “if you smeeeeeeeeeeeeeeellll what the Rock is cooking”, “the champ is here”, or “lock her up”.
- Trump also knows the long tradition of undermining your opponent with a nasty nickname. Be it Seth Rollins calling Chris Jericho “Sparklecrotch”, DX calling Owen Hart a “nugget”, or Donald Trump calling Hillary Clinton “Crooked”, it’s all part of getting a crowd to turn against someone and feel involved whilst doing so.
- Trump has watched crowds reduced to seething mobs time and time again over the years through playing on their basest fears. He knows how well it works. Wrestling “villains” like Nikolai Volkoff, The Iron Shiek, Mohammad Hassan, Mr Fuji, and Kamala, to name but a few, were all bad guys purely on the basis of being from a country that is not “USA! USA! USA!”
- Meanwhile Trump also knows that if you stick a US flag on even the lamest grappler you can suddenly have Lex Luger main eventing to cheering arenas. Even the bland Jack Swagger still gets a pop just by regurgitating the patriotic slogan “We The People” before he predictably gets beat. “Make America Great Again” could be the subtext to any of the many USA vs The World storylines wrestling fans have been subject to since its inception, and can easily be imagined emblazoned on an authentic WWE t-shirt.
- Speaking of which – the hat! What wrestling fan doesn’t know that a good gimmick is half the battle, and that merchandise is where the real money is? Not only did Trump’s “Make America Great Again” become so iconic that he encased it in a Kane’s mask style glass box during his victory celebrations, but he even updated his red hat to a white one on election day, just like a wrestler wearing something a little bit special for Wrestlemania.
- Trump also knows that no matter what liberals with compassion and good taste may say in their online echo chambers of hashtag slacktivism, large swathes of America doesn’t actually care about offensive stereotypes either. If they did, WWE would have been taken off the air decades ago. Not only for its treatment of ethnicity (a check-list of every ethnic stereotype you can think of), but of gender (it is only now, in 2016, we have finally been allowed to use the word “woman” instead of “Diva”, and even then we still have a long, long way to go). And then there’s the gay-bashing. Who could forget Rowdy Roddy Piper’s brutal destruction of Goldust at Wrestlemania 12 because he tried to kiss another man and, shock, wore women’s underwear! Or the crowds cheering when Billy and chucky announced that they weren’t actually gay? While this lowest common denominator stuff disgusts those of us with good sense, in the heartlands of America it passes without comment. When Trump does it too, why would America react any differently than they do when it pops up on an episode of Raw or Smackdown?
- Trump has paid close attention to the way WWE whips up national pride and slavish patriotism each year with its Tribute To The Troops. If you repeat the myth that the military is to be praised without criticism year in, year out, then you not only get a population afraid to be critical of its military, but a population who equates militarism with patriotism. You better believe Donald Trump made sure to remind us just how many generals had offered him their support!
- Trump understands how to use angles to sell a narrative. So have it appear like people are trying to shoot him in Vegas, expose him on Access Hollywood, undermine him in the debates, and rig the election against him. It sells the story of an underdog outsider we need to root for. And every time Clinton comes across as a competent professional, use that against her. Spin the idea that she is too polished, that her competence somehow stains her as part of the broken system. As Paul Heyman once explained the success of ECW: “we accentuated our positives and hid the negatives”. Trump has sold us his lack of experience like it was an advantage, and in turn transformed the advantages of his enemy into her biggest weakness. Trump also understood the power of a good visual, using WWE-style entrance music and light shows at his convention speech and his acceptance speech to create an impact simply from appearing on stage.
- WWE have long been masters of social media, using Twitter especially to forward angles and storylines beyond its scheduled programming. Trump has seen how a well-timed tweet can cause headlines in wrestling dirtsheets around the world and used that to his advantage multiple times in this election.
- Indeed, Trump’s entire strategy of demonizing the mainstream media as somehow not giving him the respect he deserves whilst simultaneously courting it comes right out of the promotional strategy of WWE.
- Trump also knows the value of authenticity and “pipe-bombs” in a heavily controlled media landscape. Fans go crazy whenever it seems like anyone has gone off-script and spoken “the truth”. Immediately, the polished veteran looks like a stooge and the “loose cannon” appears like the only person in the company actually “telling it like it is”.
Essentially, Trump played this whole thing like a wrestling storyline. He was the ultimate underdog who came in, against all odds, to defeat the establishment. He used every cheap, heat-getting trick in the book to get the crowd to love him and hate his opponent. He built a character that was an extension of himself with the volume turned up. In other words: he got himself over. And people voted for him in droves.
Remember Hulk Hogan? Main-eventing wrestling legend of the 1980s? Well, we all know about the sex-tapes and the racist language, but people still love that guy. He’s currently negotiating a return with WWE for next year’s Wrestlemania in Florida and no-one seems bothered about the racist things he said anymore.
Meanwhile, the Attitude Era’s hero, Stone Cold Steve Austin, remains one of the most popular wrestlers of all time, despite being arrested for domestic violence after allegedly beating his then-wife, Debra, in steroid fueled rage.
Why do I say this? Because for those of us who thinks it matters that Donald Trump is a racist who openly admitted to sexually assaulting women, we have to remember the lessons WWE teaches us: horrific scandals will be ignored so long as you can still get a crowd to pop when your music hits. Even Chris Benoit still has his supporters who cheer whenever a crossface is used in a match. For the “Make America Great Again” crowd, Trump’s moral failings were irrelevant: he made them feel good when he appeared. They got to shout along with his catchphrases and have their own prejudices and paranoias given credibility and voice as Trump reflected back to them a superhero version of their own wretched worldview. A larger than life bigot who represented each and every one of them on the political stage, just as Stone Cold once represented each of us who wanted to tell our boss to take their job and shove it, Dusty Rhodes once represented every working class American going through “hard times”, Bruno Sammartino the Italians, Pedro Morales the Puerto-Ricans, and John Cena those of us who “never give up”, no matter what life throws at us.
I remember being in the crowd at Madison Square Garden the night Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Along with the majority of the audience on hand, I took great pleasure in booing him as he spoke. What was there to like about this deplorable man – rich, exploitative, and the head of the “birther” movement who couldn’t accept a black man in the White House? We booed, and Donald felt the hate. He remarked that we were a tough crowd, and then, to try and avert our hostility, he made his daughter, Ivanka, stand up and told us to take a look at how beautiful she was.
Before then, Donald Trump had merely been an erratic oddball to me who, when not appearing on WWE TV, I would watch on the American version of the Apprentice and laugh at how irrational he was in his decision-making about who would be fired compared to the far saner UK version, where Alan Sugar’s decisions actually made sense. But in that moment, I realized what a truly vile person Trump actually was, essentially pimping out his daughter to take the pressure off. Making her stand like a piece of meat to be ogled by a crowd so that he could feel better about himself.
But I also realized that what I thought didn’t matter, because it worked. The crowd stopped booing and cheered Trump’s daughter. The morality of the moment was transcended by pure political pragmatism. He’d done and said whatever worked to appease the mob and by the end they were cheering.
Throughout this campaign I have been reminded of that moment over and over. Realising that when it comes to democracy, it comes down to showmanship and crowd psychology far more than it does reasoned and logical debate. I knew Trump would win because he was a wrestling fan talking to a wrestling audience. And as always, I would find myself an outsider, rooting for the minority wrestler the rest of the crowd were booing. Not understanding the booking decision to push this guy, or why so many people seemed to buy into the obviously bad writing. Voting for Clinton became like buying a Damien Sandow t-shirt; hopeful, courageous, but naïve.
And yes, even Trump’s attempt at a conciliatory acceptance speech and potential backing down on things like repealing Obamacare should be familiar to wrestling fans. Now that he has won the championship, he is attempting to turn baby-face.
The thing is though, this is usually where things fall apart for heels who reach the top and try to turn face: the naturally awful personalities which allowed them to work so effectively as the bad guy is impossible to turn off, and the attempts at being good feel inauthentic and fake. Maybe it works for a show or two, but soon enough their true colours materialize again and they are stabbing their tag-team partner in the back, throwing someone innocent through a table, or launching unilateral nuclear strikes on China and heralding the beginning of the last ever battle humanity will ever know.
Trump’s presidential victory is a travesty of democracy and a sad indictment of the intellectual maturity and moral integrity of the American people. But make no mistake – it is a tragedy for which he gained the blueprint from professional wrestling. Dan McKee