Professional wrestling is making its mark on politics. The World Wrestling Entertainment boss Vince McMahon and his wife, Linda, have been active in electoral politics and have also been major donors to conservative groups. Terrance Gerin—a long-tenured wrestler known in the WWE ring as Rhyno—is running for office in Michigan. Hulk Hogan has flirted with the idea of running for office, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also seems to be exploring it.
And of course, there’s Donald Trump, who isn’t exactly a wrestler but has a long history with the WWE and does happen to be the first member of the WWE Hall of Fame to secure a party’s nomination for president. But there’s a caveat—Trump isn’t the first member of any wrestling hall of fame to secure a nomination. That honor belongs to Abraham Lincoln, who happened to be a giant and dominant frontier wrestler before all that politics stuff and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992. The Party of Lincoln seems to have inherited his penchant for the sport, if nothing else.
Jesse Ventura—known in his time in the ring as “The Body”—is the former governor of Minnesota who still stands as the most prominent professional wrestler to successfully enter politics. His new book, Sh*t Politicians Say, is a collection of quotes curated by Ventura, and his disdain for American politicians and parties shines throughout it. Something in his crass and irreverent—sometimes offensive—style seems to speak to why wrestling has had such an influence on politics recently.
Our conversation about politics, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, the two-party system, wrestling, ballet, the war on drugs, and more has been edited for length and clarity.
Vann R. Newkirk II: Do you have a count of who has the most quotes in the book?
Jesse Ventura: No, not at all. We went in to do the research and we spent about a year, you know, researching and finding the quotes, because of course in the book we go all the way back to the Founding Fathers and some of the things they said to each other, which I found really remarkable. They weren’t by the campfire singing kumbaya back in those days apparently. Because what John Adams said about George Washington, and what he and Jefferson said about each other was not very complimentary.
You could bring it into today’s election except they spoke a little more eloquently I think that what we do today. But the amazing thing about that was even with them not getting along, which apparently is clear by some of the quotes we show you in the book, I personally found that they still got together, they still created the fabric of this great country, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights so it shows clearly in those days anyways. Adversarial people could come together for the common good and the country, and I’m afraid I don’t see so much of that today.
Newkirk: I saw. I think the one that I really liked was the one about wrestling being like ballet. [Laughs.]
Ventura: Well I always stated that. I think pro-wrestling is like ballet with violence. You know they’re phenomenal athletes, just like Nureyev or the other great ballet stars, you know. Yes it’s choreographed a bit but it doesn’t diminish their athletic ability and how talented they truly are, and it is theater, you know, let’s be honest about it. So what it is, I’ve always thought the best way to describe wrestling is ballet with violence. [Laughs.] Because most ballets don’t have as much violence as wrestling, at least the ones I’ve seen. I’m not a ballet expert—I’m much more knowledgeable of wrestling—but the ballets I’ve seen in my life, they don’t quite have the violence that wrestling does.
Newkirk: There’s a lot of stuff in there about Trump. A lot of the things that Donald Trump said. Is he singled out?
Ventura: No, not a bit. In fact, you’ll notice—it’s just that he says more! You know if you’ve got a person that will, for lack of better terms, stick their foot in their mouths more often. If you notice in the book, George W. Bush got a whole chapter, Sarah Palin got one, because they seem to be the ones to say the most ridiculous things at the most ridiculous times. And so naturally if you’re more talented at doing that you’re gonna get more air time, or more page time in the book. And that’s how we did it, certain people say a lot more, so we got “Crap the Republicans say,” “Crap Democrats say,” and then we break it down to those individuals, and the Bush administration … Oh my, you could write a whole book on them alone.
Newkirk: With Trump, I guess there’s a sense that he’s an outsider and he’s come from the world of entertainment and he has links to the world of wrestling as well. Are there things that you’ve noted as similarities with him?
Ventura: You know, not at all. Donald’s link to wrestling was when I first met him I think at Wrestlemania 4 and 5 or 5 and 6. We did two of them at Trump’s place in Atlantic City, New Jersey, so that was the initial tie with Donald. And then I knew Donald out at the American Century golf tournaments. He was out there when I used to play. So I’ve known Donald Trump now for quite a while. In fact, he even flew to Minnesota in support of me when I ran for governor.
Donald Trump is not a Republican. Donald Trump has been an Independent truly his whole life. He just chose to go after the nomination with the Republican party, just like Bernie Sanders did with the Democrats. Like I initially stated when they [ran], I said I was ecstatic over it because they were destroying the two parties and I thought that was wonderful. As you know I despise these parties; I think they’re the problem, they’re not the solution. And I believe we should ban political parties, and the forefathers agree with me.
Newkirk: One more question on wrestling.
Ventura: Oh you haven’t asked much on wrestling yet.
Newkirk: I grew up a big wrestling fan and I’ve been really interested in its particular influence recently on politics. There’s alway been a history—Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler—with Donald Trump, with your career, with the McMahons becoming...
Ventura: I don't think it’s fair to put Trump in there. All he did was provide buildings. And those buildings held championship boxing matches, they held a whole bunch of other stuff, I mean Donald was involved in wrestling only in the fact that it made him money on a particular day. I don’t think it’s fair to include Donald Trump as a “wrestling personality” involved in politics today. That's just me personally. If you feel otherwise, have at it.
Newkirk: Well even excluding him, there’s a definite influence.
Ventura: Well, I taught at Harvard. I went out and taught at Harvard when I got out of office and one of my classes one day you would have found very interesting. My class that I taught at Harvard—John F. Kennedy School of Government that particular week—was how pro-wrestling prepares you for politics.
Newkirk: Tell me more about that.
Ventura: Well, people kind of laughed about it and I said, “Well, wait a minute.” What wrestling does for you in politics, number one, in pro-wrestling you have to be able to talk. You have to able to communicate with a microphone. You have to be able to communicate to the public to either enrage them, motivate them, do something with them so that they will buy a seat and come out to watch you perform. Now what’s the difference between them buying a seat and giving you their vote? It’s basically the same thing, you’re selling yourself to them. So a pro-wrestler, that’s what he does for a living. He sells himself to the public. Him or herself. Whether you’re a villain or a hero or whatever.
Second of all, when you have a match it’s very ad-libbed and Murphy’s Law always happens every match. Anything that can go wrong will. So you have to be able to think quickly on your feet and react to it to keep a match flowing and current. Same thing in politics. You’re gonna get a question; you’re gonna get something that you’re not prepared for and you have to be able to handle that. I think wrestling gives you great experience in doing that. And finally—and this is what I told my Harvard kids—finally, foremost the person that you are in the ring in wrestling may be nothing like who you are in reality. You could be playing a role when you do wrestling and you could be completely different in your personal life. Well, in politics the same thing holds true.
Many of these elected officials are just like wrestlers in the public and then they're the opposite in private. Case in point, do you remember a few years ago who was some congressman from Florida who voted against every gay bill and it turned out he was gay, do you remember that? Yeah, so there’s a classic example of it. This guy who was gay hid the fact that he was gay, voted like he hated gays, and so he created a personality that was completely averse to what he really was. And wrestling’s the same way. You know, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, what you see in wrestling may be nothing like what Jesse Ventura is outside the ring. That’s a performance, you know? And politicians are the same way. Who you see may be nothing like who they really are. They’re giving you their political television personality, not necessarily the person that they truly are. So it’s things like that that make wrestling truly an easy step to go from wrestling into the political arena because you’re so prepared for it on the speaking end. Well when I ran for governor, I never used one prepared speech ever.
Newkirk: I want to ask you about Dwayne [The Rock] Johnson. He’s made some noise, or people have been making noise for him about him running—
Ventura: Running for what?
Newkirk: Political office.
Newkirk: Because he fits exactly what you were saying. He is a person who knows how to speak, how to present himself and how to self himself.
Ventura: I would tell Dwayne Johnson don’t bother with it. You have a phenomenal career in Hollywood. Why would you want to go into politics? Ride the Hollywood horse until it falls. Are you kidding me? Politics, he can’t earn near the money he’s making. Unless he just truly wants to make a difference I guess. But, Dwayne’s a very talented man, no doubt about it. And I would encourage him not to waste it in the political arena.
Newkirk: You don’t think that he could be like you? An outsider? A person who really wants to change things?
Ventura: Sure he could! I’m not saying he couldn’t do it. Absolutely he could. Anyone can. Oh not, anyone, you know, but if qualified. Like, when I ran for governor they all said, “Well how are you qualified to be governor?” I said, “It’s simple. I’m 35 and I live in the state, that’s all it says.” People forget the fact we’re supposed to be a citizen-government. You’re supposed to take what you’ve learned in your life to bear, take that knowledge and go to Washington or whatever it might be. Rely on that, vote your heart and conscience, and when you’re done—here’s the good part—when you’re done go back to what you used to do.
We’ve kinda forgotten that too haven’t we? Now people make careers out of getting elected, careers out of public service. There should be no retirement if you do public service. Then you’d get term limits. Take away the retirement, you’d get term limits then. Nobody’s gonna stay there 30 years without a retirement. That’s what’s ridiculous about it, that you get retirement for public office. Bull crap. Should be taken away.
But getting back to Dwayne Johnson, if he wants to do it, fine. But I wouldn’t. If he called me and asked my advice whether he should stay working and doing movies in Hollywood or step into the political arena and get elected at something, I would tell him keep doing movies.
Newkirk: I’m noting a tone of cynicism here. You’re cynical about politics.
Ventura: You have to be. See, I’m the outsider. I know what it’s like to battle these two parties, and I know that if you join them, forget it, you sell out. If you join one of the political parties, then you’re nothing but a puppet on a string. You’re just a puppet. And so the only way you can not be a puppet is to be an Independent like me. And when you’re an Independent like me, you get attacked viciously.
Newkirk: One thing that might give you some hope is young voters are becoming more likely to be unaffiliated. Is that something you’ve tracked?
Ventura: Well, unfortunately Bernie Sanders has dropped the ball for them. The young people were all on board with Bernie and last summer Bernie came to Minnesota and I went down there because I thought possibly I would endorse Bernie. And Bernie cold-shouldered me, he gave me about one minute in the hallway and all I had time to ask him was, “Bernie, if you fail to get the Democratic nomination will you continue the movement as an Independent or will you endorse an Independent to keep this movement going?” He looked at me and says, “No, I will endorse the Democrat.” So right there I knew Bernie Sanders wasn’t really an Independent, he’s just a progressive Democrat. Because his loyalty’s with the Democratic Party. Why he calls himself an Independent is beyond me.
And the young people now have nowhere to go. You notice they’re not, you know, running to Hillary. Because Hillary’s the corporate Democrat that they’re fighting against. So where can they go? I would hope that everyone does what I’m doing, I’m voting proudly for Gary Johnson, the governor of New Mexico—former governor—who’s running with the Libertarian Party. He’s doing the two major things I wanna see done. I wanna see us pulled out of the wars in the Middle East. He’s the only candidate that said he’ll try to do that. And I want to see an end to the war on drugs. Because you know all these problems we’re having right now between black people and police right now throughout the country?
Newkirk: Yeah I was gonna ask you about that with the events in Minnesota.
Ventura: Ok, one of the root causes is clearly racism. But racism, you’re not gonna solve with a quick law or anything like that. Racism is like a disease that takes generations to fester. Just as it’s going to take generations to cure it. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This is the ’60s all over again. I’m reliving—deja vu—what I've already lived in the ’60s of the civil-rights movement. Dr. King being killed, Malcolm X being killed, and the things going on today. Now, racism’s one of the major problems and that’s a given. The other one no one’s talking about, none of these talking heads, none of these pundits, none of these so-called people that are gonna solve it will even bring up the other root cause. You know what the root cause is?
Newkirk: What’s that?
Ventura: The war on drugs. And you don’t hear anybody talking about that, do you, except me? Here’s why: The war on drugs has caused the militarization of our police forces. Now maybe they're using the war on drugs purposely to do that. So that eventually they can get us to a position of martial law, which I see isn’t necessarily not in the near future. But, going back, the war on drugs has caused the militarization of our police forces. Where they batter down doors, they go in warrantless, they violate the Constitution and the bill of rights. And what happens when they bust in the doors? It’s shoot first, ask questions later. And that’s the mentality that’s prevailing because of the war on drugs. You shoot first, and then you worry about the questions.
Does that sound out of line? I don’t think so—to what we got out there today. So we need to end the war—also, the war on drugs is a business. Because they’re allowed to confiscate things. They’re allowed to make money. So it’s a business-making venture for the police departments to profit from. Because when they bust a guy for drugs they can take his car, they can take his house. How the courts allow forfeiture to happen because of that is to me so unconstitutional it’s ridiculous. See our judges bear the brunt of this too. They’re the ones that also said corporations have the same rights you do. Well, that’s fascism. Mussolini would be proud of us today.
Newkirk: I think what you're doing with this book fits in line with what you said. You’re taking everyone to task in a way that doesn’t really happen in a lot of mainstream places. Is all this purposeful?
Ventura: Oh I’m paying a price for it. I can’t get hired in the United States. I’m blackballed here. I can’t work at what I do, which is entertainment and all that. I can’t get a job. My last two jobs, my boss has been a Mexican and my next boss will be [from] another foreign nation. Because they’re not concerned, but this country has blackballed me now. Imagine that. A governor, a mayor, and an honorably discharged Navy veteran from Vietnam, and I can’t get a job. Oh yeah, you pay the price. If you take on the status quo, you’re damn right they’re gonna make you pay. But it’s ok. I hold my head up high and I can look at myself in the mirror everyday. That's the most important thing.