In 1988, Donald Trump made a deal with the World Wrestling Federation to host WrestleMania IV at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Trump — who sat ringside for the mega pay-per-view event — was as much a part of the proceedings as was the WWF brass. WrestleMania was a popular spectacle (essentially the Super Bowl of pro wrestling) prior to Trump’s involvement, but almost overnight, he helped legitimatize a fringe, cult-like “sport” into mainstream popular culture. It had the look, feel, and production of a Mike Tyson boxing-title bout. Macho Man Randy Savage became a household name and Trump Plaza would go on to host a second consecutive WrestleMania, the only venue to do so.
Pro wrestling’s biggest stage was where Donald Trump the political populist was born.
This was also the culture that gave birth to Donald Trump. Though a far different figure now than the one seen in old interviews with David Letterman or Connie Chung, Trump openly yearns for a time-traveling DeLorean to take us back to that era of perceived invulnerability. When Trump bellows out his trademarked slogan — Make America Great Again! — and warms up a crowd to “Eye of the Tiger,” he’s referencing an era of unassailable American strength or at least his perception of it. The reality is that the Hulkster’s body slam of the Giant was a fully staged show, and the Macho Man’s rise to capture the title had already been scripted before he was handed the belt.
But Americans didn’t care. We loved the show.
Long before the #TrumpTrain or #CruzCrew, there were #Hulkamaniacs. Those arguing with Trump’s most ardent supporters over his inauthentic conservative stances get about as far with them as one would arguing with wrestling fans about the authenticity of their sport. It simply doesn’t matter to them. It’s entertaining; the more elaborate the rhetoric or stunts, the more exciting and therefore satisfying it becomes.
Trump is tapping into this same sentiment in 2016, but in a different arena — both figuratively and literally. Trump didn’t suddenly discover the blustery fighting persona that’s eating up hours and hours of cable-news airtime. He cultivated it over decades of witnessing firsthand the spectacle of sports entertainment, live and up close — backstage, ringside, and then inside the ring itself.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is as much about making Trump great again, as it is about trying to make America great again.
As the 1980s and the World Wrestling Federation — hit their peak, Trump sought to merge his interests with the world of sports entertainment. He saw dollar signs and not just those emblazoned on the back of Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s iconic sequin dinner jacket. Trump saw a sport at its height and wanted to make himself part of it, both as an investor and as a fan. It would be disingenuous to suggest that Trump didn’t have a real love for professional wrestling: He clearly cared about the sport and wanted to see it succeed.
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But it’s no wonder Trump wants to return to the era of super macho, million-dollar men. The very Trump colosseum that helped lay the foundation for the larger-than-life personality we see today is no more: Trump Plaza filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014.
It was in this era, he believes, that both America and Trump were at their peak. But just like the staged show, Trump is only recalling the exhibition in his head, not the reality of the history.
As the WWF tapered off and plateaued into the mid ’90s, so did Trump — both personally and professionally. The newly formed rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was gaining traction by showcasing younger and edgier talent just as the stars of the WWF began to age and fade. Donald Trump’s trajectory followed the WWF’s. He found himself on the brink of bankruptcy, as did the WWF.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is as much about making Trump great again, as it is about trying to ‘Make America Great Again.’
Both WWF owner Vince McMahon and Donald Trump lost millions in net worth during this period. Both ran professional football leagues into the ground (Trump with the USFL and McMahon with the infamous XFL) along with many other failed ventures and product lines with the brand name attached. Trump’s tabloid exploits overtook his reputation as King of Business Authors while McMahon’s wrestling empire struggled. Both men’s products had become stale and overshadowed. But as a decade full of disappointments for them entered a new century, both the WWF — rechristened “World Wrestling Entertainment” in the early 2000s after losing a trademark dispute with the World Wildlife Fund — and Trump made their comeback, this time as partners.
Success for professional wrestling (as with success for Trump) relies on “the art of perception,” as Trump wrote in his 1991 book Surviving at the Top. At the very end of the ’90s, the perception of failure for both Trump and the WWE morphed into a perception of success with new television deals and tweaks to the brand to suit the changing times.
The WWE found its resurgence with mega personalities such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Dave Bautista, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, and Triple H (Paul Michael Levesque, who would go on to marry Commissioner McMahon’s daughter). What Saturday Night Live was to television, the WWE had become to sports entertainment: Forgettable casts of characters had given way to a new generation of enormous talent. And Donald Trump was paying attention.
In 2004, in the midst of the reality-TV boom sparked by ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and CBS’s Survivor, Trump signed a contract with NBC to host what would become the reality-TV mega-hit The Apprentice. It was on this show that Donald Trump stopped attempting to revive the über-confident businessman ideal of the ’80s and embraced the media-conglomerate boogieman persona that had followed him since entering the public eye. He became the character he wrote about in his books and permanently donned the blustery, charismatic Gordon Gekko cliché personality that those who profiled him always suspected he was at heart.
Americans no longer had to go out and buy Trump’s books or attend Trump University to be a part of the show. We simply had to turn on the TV.
The Apprentice, like wrestling, was made to look real. Instead of fooling the audience with flying elbows and acrobatic drop kicks, Trump and his “board” worked with script writers, producers, and editors to create the week’s drama. Trump had his catch phrase and his theme music. And just like pro wrestling, the audience loved the show — not caring if any of it was real.
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Trump and pro wrestling were flourishing again behind the same audience that found a home with them in the ’80s — the blue-collar, predominantly white-male audiences that Trump is catering to during his presidential run. But the real story isn’t how the audiences came back to Donald Trump and the WWE, it’s how Trump finally put decades of answering questions about running for president from the likes of Letterman and Oprah aside, and embraced that audience himself — coming within a stone’s throw of capturing the GOP nomination.
It was with this audience that Trump found a home as a populist champion — giving the people what they wanted and planting the seeds for the tone of his presidential campaign.
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In January 2007 on Monday Night Raw, Trump made his grand entrance into the ring of the WWE and went from being a mere spectator to the main event. In the midst of a selfish performance from Commissioner McMahon — who had cast himself in the role of primary villain on “Fan Appreciation Night” — Trump appeared on a large screen that towered over the arena. The Donald, seizing the moment, not only stood in defiance of McMahon’s establishment rhetoric but gave the audience a gift in return.
Trump, the good, tough, and smart billionaire, rained thousands of dollars of McMahon’s own money down upon the ecstatic crowd. It was a rehearsed, planned, and staged skit by the writers and producers of the WWE — but again, it didn’t matter. Trump had returned the audience’s money, and in the process convinced thousands of people, in that moment, that he was looking out for them (just like a circus show master or a Batman villain, depending on your point of view).
The crowds ate up the act, but not nearly as much as Trump did.
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He parlayed his appearances on Monday Night Raw into a prime-time WrestleMania 23 match. The mega event was billed as the “Battle of the Billionaires” and featured a showdown between a wrestler sponsored by Trump (Bobby Lashley) and a wrestler chosen by McMahon (Umaga) — and was refereed by none other than famous McMahon antagonist Stone Cold Steve Austin. Even the taunt-filled ringside contract-signing showcased Trump, prefiguring his insult-laced debate performances. At stake was a golden head of hair: The loser would be forcibly shorn of his famous locks in front of a record pay-per-view crowd.
But of course Trump wasn’t going to lose his iconic mane or the match, because the art of the deal declares that Trump never loses. By the time the show was over, Trump was throwing elbows, shaving McMahon’s head bald, and being stunned cold by Stone Cold.
Trump was now a full-fledged Man of the People. It was all orchestrated, but it didn’t matter: People loved the show.
The spectacle was intoxicating to Trump — and he hasn’t been the same in the public arena since. Reaching back to the ’90s for video clips and interviews of Trump from his Manhattan office or penthouse, you see a more reserved, businesslike Trump — someone desperately trying to control his image with every interview, never fully embracing the person questioning him.
The crowds ate up the act, but not nearly as much as Trump did.
But once he entered the ring, the persona of Trump the showman took over — and it’s this persona that presents itself in politics today, enthralling riled-up crowds ready for a fight. Trump the businessman died the moment he stood nose to nose with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Trump the showman was born as he took a razor to Vince McMahon’s fleshy melon — and like a shark with a taste for blood, that’s all it took.
If Trump could translate his populist success to anything, it had to be politics. His fans, as loyal and rabid as any of John Cena’s, care about Trump’s conservative bona fides about as much as they do the Undertaker’s. What matters to them is that Trump, like the Undertaker, exists to punish their enemies — and that punishing will be broadcast and celebrated.
Trump’s blue-collar base believes he’s one of them. He loves the pageantry of it all as much as they do, and he’s spent years upon years cultivating them. These people are fans of Trump more than they are fans of conservatism. They believe he can do to ISIS what he did to Vince McMahon’s dome and that he can save the American economy just as he returned everyone’s admission fee: If Trump can unload bundles of money from arena rafters, or air their favorite television show without commercials, why wouldn’t he be able to build a wall on the southern border or defeat ISIS?
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The pay-off to Trump’s base for its loyalty to him comes in the form of the political rallies that have become gladiator-style full-contact participation-encouraged spectacles, his own personal Trump Rumbles. Any messaging Trump might have had as a credible presidential candidate has been overshadowed by promises to pay the legal expenses of his acolytes who assault protesters, which has translated into real punches and real elbows being thrown.
At times, Trump speaks directly to the camera and makes production demands of the lighting crew. He insults everyone from fellow Republicans to the press to the individuals in the crowd, because his character demands that the show must go on. When he lumbers around a stage making stabbing motions while ridiculing Ben Carson, it’s not because Trump has an ideological disagreement with Carson on how best to rein in rising health-care costs, it’s because he views the good doctor as a woefully inadequate opponent in the ring asking for punishment.
Trump talks openly about wanting to punch people in the face. And his campaign staff doesn’t seem to think twice about getting physical with the crowd, while his rallies have overtaken the WWE as the new populist pastime.
The Trump persona is reflected in the hundreds upon hundreds of fascinating and amazingly detailed alt-right online meme images of Trump as the God-Emperor glistening in gold plated Warcraft armor, descending from the Empyrean to save America with a Trump-branded border wall. He is their Ultimate Warrior, and he will still be their hero after November because this isn’t about one election.
Politicians are easy marks and make perfect wrestling heels. That makes hating Trump’s opponents seem very natural to his fans.
With help from right-wing celebrities, Trump has smartly positioned himself as a flag-waving Hacksaw Jim Duggan, smacking politicians around with his 2 x 4 as the crowd eats up every last second of it. Politicians are easy marks and make perfect wrestling heels. That makes hating Trump’s opponents seem very natural to his fans, just as they enjoyed hating the Iron Sheik or Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov. “The Establishment” might as well be a team of leather-clad wrestlers in face paint and spiked shoulder pads.
Trump grabs the mic and channels Ric Flair and lets the audience do the rest for him. The ring and the podium are interchangeable props to the show.
If Trump stands any chance against Hillary Clinton in a general election, it’s this element that he will have to tap into — painting Hillary as a cartoonish ring manager pounding the mat with her cane and bullhorn just as he branded his GOP competition with ring names like “Little Marco Rubio” and “Lyin’ Ted Cruz.” Trump’s problem is that Jake the Snake Roberts was never on record talking about how he admired Ravishing Rick Rude.
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What his Republican primary opponents never figured out about the character Trump is playing is that he can’t be defeated by arguing about middle-class tax policy any more than Bret the Hitman Hart can be defeated in the ring by detailed discussions of the Alternative Minimum Tax or Medicare Part D. You might as well ask Brutus the Barber Beefcake about the nuclear triad. The best way to have defeated Trump the character would have been to clothesline him in front of a live audience — to the roars of the crowd and the horror of Jake Tapper.
Jeb Bush couldn’t figure this out. Marco Rubio figured it out but ultimately didn’t have the stomach for treating a generational election like a Mean Gene Okerlund pre-match interview. However, Trump finally got that moment from Ted Cruz when Cruz pointed at a camera and angrily told him to leave his wife the hell alone after Trump retweeted an unflattering meme of Heidi Cruz’s face. To Trump it’s just another ridiculous chapter of Wife vs. Wife in this Electoralmania 2016 — with Melania Trump as his Miss Elizabeth, poised and confident in her warrior’s abilities.
All of this, of course, plays right into network media’s hands at the expense of honest and serious debate. CNBC’s John Harwood was more concerned with playing the role of Stone Cold when he put on the most infamous debate moderation performance since Candy Crowley’s. CNN now has former American Idol and Apprentice contestants appearing to offer political analysis — along with Trump’s mad cabal of celebrity family members and any campaign staffers not currently facing criminal charges.
Network news media have figured out a way to bring pay-per-view pro-wrestling-style events to the masses and Trump is their conduit. Barack Obama was always a pop-culture icon — but he came from the world of politics. With Trump, they have found a target who comes from the world of entertainment — someone who is more than happy to pile drive the GOP and the American political system into the mat, to their ratings’ delight.This past Sunday, WWE celebrated WrestleMania 32. The arena is still packed, the pay-per-view is still a premium — but the show seems like just another rematch thanks to the almost year-long show Trump has been putting on.
Trump is providing something for the networks and his fans that professional wrestling can’t: The unscripted drama of real punches being thrown. Trump’s speeches are long, rambling monologues that resemble a coked-up Macho Man Savage more than they do Huey Long. But this is by design and it’s all 30 years in the making. At stake in Trump’s personal cage match with the country, however, isn’t a head of hair: It’s a historic GOP majority in Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court.
But the electorate no longer seems to care. We’re just enjoying the show.
— Stephen L. Miller publishes The Wilderness, where he writes on viral politics and social media. Follow him on Twitter @redsteeze.