Updated on March 15, 2016
Even this deep into the primaries, has anyone gotten Donald Trump quite right? The comparisons to fascist ideologues don’t quite work because of his reputation for disingenuousness. The impulse to dismiss him as pure “entertainment” or to discount his chances doesn’t quite work, either, because of the real, tangible current of American sentiment that supports him.
But maybe commentators are just looking for answers in the wrong places. Perhaps no good historical political analogy to Trump exists. The key to understanding Trump, instead, could be the dirty, violent, machismo-laden world of his business past. Not real estate or reality TV—but professional wrestling. Really.
Many other commentators, including my colleague James Fallows have noted Trump’s history with wrestling and drawn parallels between it and his political career. But that history seems even more salient now that violence has become such an important issue on the trail. Trump’s involvement with wrestling dates back 27 years, when World Wrestling Entertainment was still the World Wrestling Federation, and his casino helped bring its flagship pay-per-view event WrestleMania IV to New Jersey. His subsequent involvement in wrestling and his friendship with the WWE boss and fellow billionaire Vince McMahon have been well chronicled, but Trump’s true moment in the spotlight—and in the ring—came during the 2007 “Battle of the Billionaires” story arc, in which he actually played the good guy “babyface” (or “face”) counterpart to McMahon’s “heel,” or villain. In wrestling, most heels are incorrigible self-promoting jerks who often use below-the-belt moves and taunts. Babyfaces tend to be All-American types that play it straight.
That arc saw a long run-up to the match between Trump and McMahon on episodes of the weekly show Monday Night Raw, featuring phallic boasts, celebrity endorsements, crowd-pleasing grandstanding, lots of bloody violence, and constant references to polls by Trump. He consistently botched lines and forgot the names of his endorsements and partners, a fact that only further endeared him to crowds. It ended at WrestleMania, with Trump giving McMahon a clothesline takedown and a haircut (an actual haircut, not a fancy wrestling move), and with Trump suffering a brutal stunner move at the hands of the beer-swilling Bionic Redneck and guest referee, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Although all the pieces don’t quite fit, and nobody expects Trump to deliver a signature wrestling move at the convention (although this year, nothing seems out of the realm of possibility), doesn’t this sound familiar?
This past weekend made clear that the campaign is following a different story arc, with Donald “The Don” Trump now playing the heel, instead of the babyface persona he used in WrestleMania. Breitbart News suffered a potential schism over an alleged assault of journalist Michelle Fields at a Trump rally, protests stopped a Trump rally in Chicago, and Trump seemed to endorse the violence of his supporters and threaten other candidates with them. For heels in the ring, crassness is the norm, 7th-grade put-downs carry the weight of Socrates, violence is always the answer, women are hypersexualized and insulted, all publicity is good publicity, personas are created and shed as often as costumes, racial stereotypes are often played for laughs or fear, and the only cheap shots are the ones that referees see. “The Don” has mastered these elements in his path to the title. Like other legendary heels at their best—Mankind displaying the outer limits of human pain tolerance and endurance in a cage or Kane trapping his brother in the underworld—Trump has parlayed a messy, bloody, royal rumble of a primary fight into success as the Republican frontrunner.
Trump’s improbable political career has always been oddly close to the world of wrestling. One earlier bid for president came in 2000 on the Reform Party, a potpourri of strange bedfellows including billionaire Ross Perot, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and Pat Buchanan. The party had just pulled off its first major victory in the election of Jesse Ventura as the Governor of Minnesota in 1998. Ventura, known in the ring as “The Body,” entered politics after a career as a wrestler in the WWE/F. He turned down an opportunity to lead the national Reform Party ticket, instead recommending that Trump challenge Buchanan’s hold on the Reform Party leadership as its candidate. Where did Trump and Ventura meet? WrestleMania. Trump the wrestler helped create Trump the politician.
The 2000 candidacy would not last beyond its exploratory phase because of deep internal policy and leadership fractures in the famously ill-fated party, but Trump emerged with the lessons from his own campaign—and perhaps Ventura’s career. Americans cared about the show, even if it was sometimes scripted.
Trump’s involvement in both professional wrestling and politics would continue, including a later arc and induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 that saw him make some of his earliest statements about his ambition for a 2016 run. McMahon announced, “Donald might very well be a great president of the United States.” Trump wanted to take his showman’s talents, which were natural gifts in the sweat-soaked soap opera of Raw and WrestleMania, on to the next show.
And so on the campaign trail, “The Don” became the perfect heel. “The Don” holds rallies where people are punched in the face. “The Don” makes mama and short jokes about opponents while bragging about his genitals on stage. “The Don” calls women ugly to their face and makes crude menstruation jokes. All he’s really missing is a steel chair or two, and who’s to say that isn’t coming?
This doesn’t mean that Trump’s ascent should be any less alarming or that it should be treated as anything less than real political news with serious, long-term global and domestic repercussions. Indeed, viewing Trump through this lens should be even more alarming. Some in the media refuse to take his campaign seriously or have labeled it entertainment, and some still wring their hands and call his open bigotry and endorsement of violence un-American. But Trump’s heel turn plays on well-established and very American chords of racism, fear, and xenophobia.
Trump is willing to take the stances he needs to win, but there is no guarantee that he won’t continue that same brand of crowd-pleasing showmanship if elected. A yuge wall? No problem! He’ll fly to Mexico himself and intimidate the country into paying for it. But what if the winds of popular opinion shift in favor of something even darker than deportation? Would Trump have the integrity to withstand such popular demands? The key to Donald Trump is that he understands what many Americans crave in an era of cynicism about the political process: a show that both promises high-flying acts and subtly acknowledges the wires involved. He’s so willing to dive into such a clearly created character that even his disingenuousness is transformed into a kind of earnestness. And like any good heel, it is hard to stop him by either playing it straight or attempting to out-heel him.
So, how does one stop a heel? Perhaps Trump’s own babyface campaign against McMahon might serve as an example. The carefully scripted “Battle of the Billionaires” arc centered on Trump as the hero of fans who had become disgruntled with McMahon’s tenure. As Trump’s real-life rallies and events openly carry the stain of violence, and as the establishment continues to question the merits of an endorsement, it may be disgruntled Republicans and independents, even those who once supported Trump, who provide the three-count. But with polls still forecasting favorable results in Florida and a close race in Ohio, don’t expect Trump to hit rock bottom any time soon.