We have World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., to thank for Donald Trump’s current soaring numbers in the 2016 U.S. presidential run.
It was in the ring where Donald Trump learned how to craft and test drive a political persona that has been recurring in American politics since the founding of the republic: the populist outsider who promises to come in and break up the “dark forces” that are conspiring to work against the people.
Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “American Politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” who rally around a phantom conspiracy to rile up voters. (Think all the “illegal immigrants” Trump wants to build a wall to keep out.)
Trump weaves this longstanding tradition with a political arsenal he lifted straight from professional wrestling: catch phrases, one liners, big entrances, feeding off crowd reactions, creative disses, etc.
“If you think about what makes a pro wrestling character great, it’s the pageantry, making an entrance,” Sam Ford, a research affiliate with MIT and Western Kentucky University who teaches and writes about pro wrestling and pop culture, said. “It’s having a catchphrase that the fans can chant along with you. It’s being able to insult your opponent in the most creative way possible. It’s being able to talk in soundbites that can easily get repeated on future programs. It’s having a brash style. It’s having an aura about you.”
All of which make a political candidate great, too.
“Where wrestling and politics intersect is that in wrestling, you may play a character that you’re nothing like in real life,” wrestling legend Jesse “The Body” Ventura told Fusion. “I think pro wrestling is one of the best prepared things you can have for politics.”
Ventura would know. He’s the biggest example of a former wrestler who transitioned into politics: he became governor of Minnesota in 1999. He also taught a class on wrestling and politics at Harvard University.
The Lessons Trump Learned
Trump already had a famous character on television by 2007: the mean boss of “The Apprentice.”
But his incarnation on WWE was as the hero. So, it’s not surprising that he chose his wrestling persona, and not the character that he crafted in “The Apprentice,” for his presidential run.
Here’s what Trump’s campaign manager may have gleaned from the WWE appearances:
1. The Gospel of Wealth
A strand of American life that Donald Trump has honed throughout his life, and especially in his WWE story, is the Gospel of Wealth. This idea is deeply American, and it states that, “Work means success. Without work, there can be no success.” So, when Donald Trump boasts how rich he is, he’s using his own wealth as a way to prove how smart and hardworking he is.
On the election trail, Trump frequently returns to his billionaire status. When he announced his candidacy, he said, “I’m really rich.”
2. The Populist Billionaire
As opposed to WWE owner Vince McMahon—who has contempt for the fans—Trump “gets” the people. He’s one of them—but one who has “made it” through his own hard-fought victories. He’s proof of the potential we have if we work hard enough. He’s the populist billionaire, ready to take down the evil elitist machines.
“Wrestling in the old days was good versus evil. Where you certainly don’t want to go out and be the heel or the villain. You’re not going to get too many votes,” Ventura said. “On the flip side, you have the babyface, or the good guy. His job is to be mom, apple pie, and the girl back home. He’s the dragon slayer. He’s gonna be the upstanding person who slays this evil villain. You have to be careful not to become the villain in politics, or you’re not going to win.”
You can see echoes of this in Trump’s current pitch to the American voters:
“All I want to do is make us rich, save your Social Security, [and] stop having everyone rip us off!” Trump said.
Also, he likes to return to the false claim that he is self-funding his entire campaign. The intrinsic argument is that Trump would magnanimously take four years off from making money to help fix the country.
3. Angry Minds
The Trumpian tradition in American Politics has its roots deep in our history. Back in 1964, Richard Hofstadter published his seminal book “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In it, he stated that “American Politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” characterized by a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
“The central thesis there was that there’s a long history of candidates in America running against what they perceive to be conspiracies, or running against groups of powerful interests that have it in for the ordinary citizen, or that have rigged the game against ordinary people,” Matthew Wilson, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University, told Fusion.
The typical group of voters who Trump appeals to is what historian Donald Warren called the Middle American Radicals, or MARS, voters. These voters are mostly white, lower middle class people who don’t fit neatly into the left-right spectrum. They are as suspicious of corporate and media elites as they are of blacks and Hispanics. And they love WWE.
“Trump taps into a lot of that resentment of elites,” Wilson said.
So let’s rewind the tape and examine Trump’s ringside political education.
WWE hosted Wrestlemania IV at Trump Plaza in 1988. Donald Trump, of course, popped up. Here he is at the press conference with Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, and sitting ringside. (Wrestlemania is the annual pinnacle of the pro wrestling calendar.) Despite traditionally hopping around the country, Wrestlemania IV was such a success that they returned to Trump Plaza for Wrestlemania V.
“The relationship between Donald Trump and Vince McMahon, the World Wrestling Federation owner, started in the 1980s,” Ford said. “Vince McMahon was building his media empire, and WWF was at its pop culture heights with Hulk Hogan. Meanwhile, Donald Trump had built an empire and aura around him in the real estate world.
“And so I think it made sense for these two faces of 1980s capitalism to create a business relationship.”
The Donald occasionally attended WWE events over the years. Here’s a picture of Trump with WWE wrestler The Mountie in the early 1990s:
In 2004, at Wrestlemania XX in NYC, he was even interviewed live from front row ringside by none other than Jesse Ventura.
But Trump’s deep foray into the WWE would begin in early 2007, on the back of his much publicized beef with Rosie O’Donnell.
In January, WWE aired a skit mocking their feud. In it, a fake Trump and fake O’Donnell wrestle. The Fake Trump defeated The Fake Rosie O’Donnell by throwing a cake in her face and executing a perfect “Hair Butt” off the top rope.
(Bonus feature: McMahon introducing O’Donnell and all her “lesbianic fury.”)
“And it was really awful. I mean, really bad,” Sam Ford said. “Wrestling fans hated it, but WWE did that on purpose because, unbeknownst to a lot of the fans at the time, its goal in the storyline was to be so bad as to make Donald, the real Donald Trump, mad enough to complain about how he was depicted.”
Incensed by the WWE besmirching his character, the real Donald Trump took fake offense, sending a real/fake letter to the WWE criticizing the skit. McMahon read the letter aloud on RAW.
The next week, Vince McMahon fired back with a letter of his own—offering to do a guest appearance on “The Apprentice” to help boost its ratings.
And thus began the full-blown “Battle of the Billionaires.”
By the end of January, McMahon was in the ring praising himself (to boos) when Trump appeared on the big screen. Trump boasted that he knew what fans wanted much better than McMahon did. To prove it, he dropped thousands of real American dollars in cash from the ceiling as the crowd went wild, much to McMahon’s embarrassment.
Trump had already positioned himself as a populist in tune with the working-class fans.
This contrasts with McMahon’s character, who took over from his father and brought professional wrestling from its scattered, regional days into the national cultural force it is today, bragged about knowing what the fans want better than they do, while Trump literally made it rain on the people.
A few weeks later, the two billionaires confronted each other in the ring. McMahon complained that Trump had committed one of the unforgivable sins in the wrestling industry: stealing McMahon’s catchphrase. (McMahon was dismissing employees in the ring by yelling, “You’re fired!” years before “The Apprentice” debuted.)
Trump countered that, not only is he taller and richer, he’s also stronger than McMahon, too. To prove it, Trump proposed a fight.
McMahon backed out because of a “previous injury,” but they decided to each pick a tribute to fight in their steads in the next Wrestlemania.
Instead of betting money, which they obviously already swim in, the two put something on the line that has no price—their hair. The winner would be allowed to shave the loser’s head, a longstanding match type in wrestling called a Hair Match.
“The idea of the hair match is you put your pride on the line,” Ford said. “You’re willing to deface yourself physically if you don’t win. … In wrestling, of course, your body is the ultimate representation of yourself.
“That conceit becomes perfect for Trump versus McMahon. For years, wrestling fans had joked that McMahon must be wearing a toupee because his hair had this sort of poof slick-back. Obviously Trump’s hair has an aura of its own.”
Legendary working class wrestling hero “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—who, we should note, is bald—was selected as a special enforcer for the match.
And then—they fought.
It looked dire for Trump. But, then, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin got involved. He executed his signature move—the Stone Cold Stunner—on McMahon’s tribute, Umaga, allowing Trump and Lashley to win.
With his victory, benevolent billionaire Donald Trump persevered, while the greedy McMahon was put in his place.
It’s particularly apt that the Texas redneck Steve Austin helped Trump win—a working class endorsement of the billionaire’s policies.
But that’s not where it ends. Inexplicably, Stone Cold stunned Donald Trump, too. Just cuz.
And then Austin shotgunned a few beers. Just cuz.
Two years later, in June 2009, Trump made a return to WWE for a short story arc and to continue workshopping his persona.
Vince McMahon announced that he was selling Monday Night RAW, WWE’s flagship television program, and to a surprising party: The Donald.
The first change Trump proposed was airing RAW commercial-free, again positioning himself as the ally of the fans. A week after selling, McMahon had a change of heart and tried to buy back RAW. He offered to refund Trump’s money and renege the deal. Trump, businessman that he is, held out until McMahon offers double what Trump paid seven days prior.
After striking the deal, McMahon delivered the famous “You’re fired!” line to Trump, at which point Trump bitch-slapped him. They had to be pulled apart.
Hall of Fame
In 2013, Trump joined such dignitaries as Bob Uecker, Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, Mr. T and fellow politician Arnold Schwarzenegger as members of the Celebrity Wing of the WWE Hall of Fame.
Next up? A photo on the walls of the White House.
Everybody gets the Stone Cold Stunner
Let’s go back, though, to the end of Trump’s 2007 WWE storyline, when Stone Cold stuns him for no discernible reason.
“One of the things that’s interesting about wrestling is it’s completely absurd,” Sam Ford said. “But, when you have the blue collar Stone Cold Steve Austin lay out Donald Trump at the end of the skit…perhaps it also says that the blue collar worker ultimately doesn’t trust either billionaire.”
Now, eight years later, Trump is tangling with the beer-swilling middle class again. Will he be able to convince the American people that he’s a benevolent billionaire? Or will they again betray him after what looks like an early endorsement?
We’ll find out come November.
And that’s the bottom line, ‘cause Stone Cold said so.