Professional wrestling is the enigma of American sport that seemingly refuses to die. An art form of excess, revolving around America’s greatest loves: Blood, sweat, theatre, muscled men, the hero and the villain, broken bones and suspended belief. The outrageous characters and storylines that blur the lines of reality, from Shawn Michaels, the arrogant and narcissistic Heartbreak Kid to the cloaked vigilante, Sting, and the deranged Mankind, alter ego of wrestling legend Mick Foley, are part of the foundation of the tradition that keeps fans coming back.
However, the most influential storyline in the illustrious annals of, as CM Punk puts it, ‘one of America’s three original art forms’, is not a feud between World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon and Steve Austin in the late nineties. It also wasn’t the ultimate baby face Hulk Hogan turning to the dark side of the New World Order in World Championship Wrestling, but one featuring two of the most prominent figures in American pop culture in the 20th and 21st century. The aforementioned Vince McMahon and the 45th President Elect, Donald Trump.
When Donald Trump enjoyed a couple of ‘Steve-weisers’ after Wrestlemania 23’s main event with Stone Cold Steve Austin, the billionaire fused with the working man. In turn he subsequently fell victim to the most awkward ‘Stone Cold Stunner’ of all time from wrestling’s biggest star, and caught a photo opportunity of a lifetime. For that moment, he allowed Americans to experience their own vision of paradise. Giving the proverbial finger to their employer, to their boss. As the star of reality TV show ‘The Apprentice’ and billionaire property mogul, Trump represented the man on top. Stone Cold represented the no frills, no bullshit man willing to get his hands dirty. The perfect ending to the perfect metaphor.
Here’s a quick history lesson and an even quicker wrestling lingo preface. A lot like an US presidential election, professional wrestling, or sports entertainment, appears to follow a very simple formula. There are ‘faces’ and ‘heels’ who either take on the adulation of the crowd or feel their collective scorn. During the 1980s, Hollywood Hulk Hogan was the ultimate ‘face’, encouraging kids to ‘train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins, be true to yourself, be true to your country and be a real American’, whilst bodyslamming 500 pound men and… snorting bulk cocaine and injecting an obscene amount of steroids behind closed doors.
Heels throughout wrestling history were relatively simple until the early 90s as the typical wrestling fan grew tired of the cartoonish good guy-bad guy mechanism. In fact, Stone Cold Steve Austin is (barely arguably) the greatest heel of all time as well as one of the biggest drawing wrestlers of all time. His persona revolved around his desire to cause as much havoc and mayhem as possible while answering to no one. This, some may argue, is at the very heart of the alternate American dream.
As connectivity and technology has rapidly increased, so has our need for information and our need to stay informed. The good guy and the bad guy schtick has been clouded by our own perspectives and maturity levels. This led to the introduction of the ‘Attitude-Era’ of wrestling in the middle of the ‘90s, which McMahon introduced as a move to a more contemporary campaign. Staring down the barrel of the audience, McMahon stated ‘We also think that you’re tired of the same old simplistic theory of ‘good guys vs. bad guys.’ Surely the era of the superhero urging you to say your prayers and take your vitamins is definitely passe.” With time and floundering ratings, wrestling has changed significantly since then, however the popularity of the antihero has not ceased to entertain.
In the ‘Battle of the Billionaires’ in 2007, Trump and WWE Chairman, Vince McMahon, both came into the contest having had a long history of presenting themselves as the heel that the people needed in their own worlds. McMahon’s own rivalry with Austin might just be wrestling’s masterpiece, where the workingman took on the elite in a Machiavellian tragedy for the archives. However, there was no need to poeticise this battle. Trump and McMahon’s rivalry, which culminated in a ‘Hair v Hair’ match between two WWE superstars chosen by the two billionaires at Wrestlemania 23, illustrated the American public’s lust for petty, narcissistic made men bickering over who was the more important and more influential iconoclast.
Before we delve a little deeper into Trump’s own relationship with wrestling, an analysis of the similarities between American politics and American wrestling is worth our time. From the perspective of Democrats and the left wing, Barack Obama presented himself as the ultimate face in his presidency. Charming, charismatic and down to earth, his first title reign was akin to that of Hollywood Hulk Hogan in the early 80s or John Cena in the middle of the 2000s, but with time and outside influences, namely those pesky Republicans and the Global Financial Crisis, Obama’s popularity waned. Hogan’s popularity waned with time and allegations of steroid misuse prior to finally acknowledging the public tide and turning heel, as did Cena with the WWE’s refusal to turn him heel, illustrating that the public’s flippant attitude to the ‘good guy’.
In a lot of respects, Ronald Reagan was the Republicans’ ultimate face, with his war on drugs, strong action against the Soviet Union and his ruthlessness in ending the Cold War. With time, Reagan’s legacy has been thrown into question, particularly in the domestic war on drugs, which the documentary ‘13th’ illuminated the many social ills that have come from the ultra-aggressive policy. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker forlornly states in the documentary that, ‘Right now, we now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s.’ Just as they seem to do in wrestling, you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
In politics, the reality is that the heels can gain even more traction with the voters or fans as the faces for their attitude toward destroying an ideology, a leader or a religion, as Reagan showed with communism, Bush showed with Saddam Hussein and Trump, along with a few of our very own, with Islam currently. In politics and wrestling, having no character or angle at all is the worst scenario of all, as is being shown in Australian politics with Opposition leader Bill Shorten. (As Jack Waterford put it, ‘[Shorten] has seemed scripted, unauthentic. No amount of marketing has yet persuaded us that we know him. Or that we should trust him.’) The same can be said about Malcolm Turnbull and a whole host of politicians in the 21st century. Division creates conflict and good storylines, whether real or fabricated, immoral or dangerous.
Donald Trump is the ultimate political heel. Hated by many (the Democrats and seemingly the majority of the free world), loved by the rest (the alt-right, hard line Republicans and himself), Trump presented himself as the Stone Cold Steve Austin of the 2016 presidential election. No respect for the prevailing traditions, procedures and the line that keeps an election from entering a deeply personal territory, Trump resonated with the stronghold of the WWE’s viewing audience. Twenty and thirty something white males and the working class.
You only have to view one of the Donald’s particularly aggressive rallies to see a common trend. His brand of jingoism, his ability to breakdown the divides between the elites and the working class, his machoism and the way he antagonises the perceived enemy appealed to the audience he and his team set out to reach. He had no qualms with being the villain. In fact he thrived in a role as the man who is the bastion of the ‘truth’.
Salon columnist Chauncey DeVega even contended that Trump’s election campaign came straight from the professional wrestling handbook, stating that, ‘his time spent in the world of professional wrestling is invaluable for understanding the path he has cut through the GOP primary field—because the playbook employed by Trump over the past several months bears an uncanny resemblance to the storytelling and character-building stratagem of professional wrestling.’ Trump loves wrestling, and the influence it has had on his rise to becoming the 45th President isn’t all that hard to spot. There are a number of elements to consider:
Element #1: Trump is never wrong
‘I will give you a show like you have never ever seen before. Why? Because I can.’ Shawn Michaels
‘I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.’ Donald Trump
Whatever the topic, his perceived expertise cannot be wrong. This is straight out of the WWE superstar handbook. Donald Trump is the personification of his own American dream. The man who made a catch phrase out of the process of destroying someone’s life and the rich uncle who ceaselessly argues about how the generations that have come after him are selfish, lazy and useless during Christmas dinner. ‘I’m taller than you. I’m better looking than you. I’m even stronger than you’ Trump puckered to McMahon in the lead up to the match. Sounds a lot like when Trump called Rosie O’Donnell a ‘loser’. Same as Seth Meyers, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Cher and terrorists. Yeah, just terrorists in general.
‘A little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular… I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.’ – Trump in ‘The Art of the Deal’.
While some might see this as the sign of a mind skewed to fight for every inch or a fair indication of a man with a distinct lack of empathy and self-awareness, it also shows a commitment to the narrative. A man who would see this as a quality to uphold would be none other than Vince McMahon. Although our signature is long form writing, a history lesson on wrestling in the USA is for another time. However, in short, McMahon made ruthless decisions that pulled the WWF/WWE from one of many, to THE ONE, as any ‘Greed is Good’ businessman would argue is the way to go.
Purchasing his father’s company in 1982, as Trump was building his real estate empire, McMahon ruthlessly set about grabbing onto the myriad of wrestling companies that were previously unthreatened by an unwritten agreement to stay off each other’s turf. By 2001, McMahon had become the Commodus of the wrestling world, with just as much blood on his hands. But he won. The last one standing, like he was in the 1999 Royal Rumble. And that makes it right… right?
Element #2: Trump thrives on tension and atmosphere, and knows his kayfabe very well
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists.” The Donald – 2016
Wrestling depends on tension. It depends on anticipation. It depends on the story unfolding before your eyes meaning something. It is something that the WWE has lost sight of with the PG era being replaced by half baked storylines that revolve around making superstars into merchandise sellin’, shallow storyline tellin’ caricatures, rather than embracing the spontaneity and the moment. In a former era, wrestlers like Ric Flair, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock were just given the microphone and allowed to go off on their opponent, creating stories for eventual matches that felt like something was truly on the line.
The spontaneity of political speeches has been dulled by cue cards, 24 hour news cycles and PR teams. However, Trump is different. Trump is watchable and entertaining, like a runaway train. He’s gruff, ridiculous and raw, and he knows how to bait his audience. He’s also extremely dangerous, considering the position he holds, but he thrives on walking a fine line. As he wrote in ‘The Art of the Deal’ in 1987, ‘I play to people’s fantasies’.
Kayfabe once was the unwritten rule of pro wrestling. ‘You know wrestling is fake?’ Well, of course it is. But like every television drama you watch, at the bottom of your heart you know that. You know that once you stop watching it, you exit the world. But the feeling of being entrenched in that world is this unwritten contract between the audience and the actors. The fourth wall is not to be broken. It is not satire. It is real because you believe it… even if you don’t really believe it.
The etymology of the concept has its roots in early carnival days of wrestling where the term was a play on the term ‘keep’ or ‘keep quiet’. It wasn’t so important to have the knowledge that it is real, but rather to suspend one’s disbelief and buy into this alternate universe. As Nick Rogers wrote in the New York Times, ‘Ask an average Trump supporter whether he or she thinks the president actually plans to build a giant wall and have Mexico pay for it, and you might get an answer that boils down to, “I don’t think so, but I believe so.” That’s kayfabe.’
It’s like wrestler Kane being from ‘Parts Unknown’, Stone Cold Steve Austin being ‘arrested’ every few weeks, Chris Jericho becoming insanely jealous and obsessive over Shawn Michaels and Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts having the backstory of being a tortured, destroyed soul. It isn’t completely real, but there are enough aspects, whether real or perceived, that allow the audience to buy into the concept.
Donald Trump is a man we feel we know, but at the same time he confounds. Who is the real Donald Trump? Does it really matter who the real Trump is? We buy in, we’re interested. Many of us hate him and what he stands for, others love him. It depends on how what side of the coin we look at. He’s a showman. And for showmen, the most important element of their character is not whether it is true or just for show, but whether people are watching and buying in.
Element #3: Without a common enemy, wrestling (and Trump) falls down
‘Did you ever notice that America is shaped by one big toilet bowl?’ Bret Hart, one of the WWE’s biggest draw cards of the 80s and early 90s. Also a Canadian.
‘The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!’ – a Donald Trump tweet – 18 February, 2017.
Donald Trump has already begun campaigning for his 2020 tilt at retaining the presidency. Kind of sounds like retaining the WWE championship belt. But without an opponent, what is the point? Without a common enemy, what joins the people? Without Muslims, Mexicans, Jeb Bush, journalists and political elites, how does Trump survive in this political climate? Where would Stone Cold Steve Austin be without Vince McMahon? Daniel Bryan, the 5 foot 8 champion be without the authority of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon saying he doesn’t cut the mustard to be a Wrestlemania main eventer? Sgt. Slaughter without the Iron Shiekh – the simplistic metaphor for the Gulf War in 1991? Hulk Hogan and the 520 pound Andre the Giant?
It is human nature to look for something to believe in. God, love, music, nostalgia, change… and in Trump’s case a collective hatred for a particular group of people… the common enemy of a group of people you look to appeal to. While Trump spews vitriol, hate, nonsensical musings about how America used to be great, he also speaks (perhaps screams) to the everyman’s insecurities. They’re after our jobs! They’re poisoning our children! They’re stealing Christmas! Give him a title shot, you greedy bastard!
The median age of the WWE’s television audience is surprisingly getting older, despite the company’s commercial focus on kid-friendly content. It also connects with Trump’s rise to power. As Blake Oestricher of Forbes Magazine says, ‘there is another reason why the typical WWE fan is getting older: Nostalgia.’ A massive reason for Trump’s victory? Nostalgia. Make America Great Again. Make Wrestling Great Again. The same bell rings.
Wrestling built and retained its audience through division and conflict. To this day, the old fans remain even if the current product pales in its gore, bloodshed and magic. Donald Trump built his base in a similar way. Rallies, division, conflict and a man with his microphone. The most engrossing storylines are those that are grounded by reality. Infidelity, overcoming adversity and pain, both physical and mental, defeating the authority, class v class, betrayal, romance, the comedy of human life and raising above one’s own ability for the sake of something intangible. Some watch wrestling for that escape, others watch Geordie Shore and then the rest of the world seems to use Game of Thrones.
Most humans like to keep things relatively simple. Trump tapped into that by playing the game. Building up the idea of a class war, a race war, an arms war and a war that would leave the working class behind. Trump has taken the lesson from pro wrestling and kayfabe that you leave it up to the audience to nod when they get the wink and a nudge to acknowledge that it is all predetermined.
The issue with the presidency, the consequences of a victory at Wrestlemania don’t end with the changing of a title belt, the triumphant raise of the arm and onto the next angle… The wink and a nudge that we thought came with the wall around Mexico never came. With Trump becoming the 45th president, we have seen it become more complicated and ridiculous. “As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them—they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over,” he added. “As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs.” How do you end that angle?
For a man who has seemingly built his career on the principles of pro wrestling, the opportunity for a new angle never stops. His whole life is a PR stunt, a chance to create new business and a photo opportunity. The Stone Cold Stunner he received at Wrestlemania 23 showed his willingness to give back for the spectacle and the story to a global audience. He may be considered abhorrent, disgusting, sick, depraved, greedy and a hypocrite by many, but he is inherently watchable.
As former wrestler Shane Douglas told Ben Terris of The Washington Post, wrestling is all about the show. “In my business my job is to make people believe they are seeing something they’re not seeing,” he said. “If I throw a punch that looks like shit and the guy falls down, the fans will boo. . . But if you land that punch right, the fans will buy a T-shirt, they’ll buy tickets the next time around. The optic is very important. Optics can drive an economy.”
In the wrestling world, bums on seats are everything. In popular culture, you could argue the same thing. Looking at our world from afar, you’d probably just think it was all one big Wrestlemania. However, for all the ridiculous back stories, storylines, feuds, tension and atmosphere, the greatest leveller has always been the wrestling itself. The staple of the whole façade.
Trump selling, albeit terribly, the Stone Cold Stunner may have sparked his ascension to the White House, but politics, like wrestling, is a fickle beast. You don’t deliver in the ring and the audience gets restless, until they eventually just switch off. Trump’s approval rating has dipped to 32%. Don’t be surprised to see him at 2018 Wrestlemania with his aides collectively shaking their heads.