From ‘The Donald’ to ‘The Demagogue’ – How Trump Employs the Pro-Wrestling Playbook
You’re probably wondering how professional wrestling - the athletic performance art of staged violence - relates to Donald Trump and his presumptive nomination for the Republican presidential candidacy.
One of the key aspects of pro wrestling is gimmicks, the term for pro-wrestlers’ characters, used to project a façade to audiences. We generally describe something as gimmicky if we consider it tacky - a fair way to describe a man whose private jet features solid gold bathroom appliances. Gimmicky also refers to the disingenuous and devious, however. In pro-wrestling, gimmicks are masks that project a façade to audiences. This is the basis of the comparison.
Trump is familiar with wrestling as a friend of Vince McMahon, billionaire former owner of corporate pro-wrestling monolith WWE. Trump even appeared on WWE in 2007, at his height as an entertainment phenomenon and star of The Apprentice. He was portrayed as a ‘babyface’ (good guy) in a rivalry against McMahon, the ‘heel’ (a.k.a. bad guy). We live in a reality where the man who shaved Vince McMahon’s head bald - assisted by Stone Cold Steve Austin - in front of thousands at WrestleMania 23 could soon become US president. Really.
It’s no secret that pro wrestling, while including serious hazards and injuries, is a staged spectacle with predetermined victors. Its fictional universe is known as ‘kayfabe’, and grants a fluid fourth wall between fiction and reality, so it can creatively take advantage of real life.
The Mexican promotion Asistencia Asesoría y Administración is doing just that with Trump. One of AAA’s current performers is a hulkingly muscular American called Brian Cage, who performs as a villainous ‘rudo’.In a fascinating example of art imitating life, Cage’s persona is that of a xenophobic, chauvinistic Trump supporter who cheerleads Trump’s vitriolic anti-Mexican rhetoric to elicit antagonism from the Mexican audience.
In the show that inspired this article, Cage marches to the ring wearing a red pro-Trump vest and insults the audience using a mixture of English and Spanish. He ‘cuts a promo’ (a.k.a. makes a speech), describing Mexico as a “piece of crap” and the US as the “greatest country of all time”, then demands the audience “give respect as we pay homage to the next great American president, the man who is Making America Great Again: Donald Trump!”
The stadium lights dim, and the big screen plays Trump’s infamous speech, which complained about Mexico sending rapists, drug dealers and other cast-offs to the US through inadequately controlled borders. Notably, while Cage is obviously the villain, with a gimmick that is obnoxious to the point of being comedic, he does not seem hyperbolic when compared to the real Trump. The speech is perfectly suited to the spectacle. Cage becomes a vessel of Trump, riling the audience who can watch him get his comeuppance.
Similar to pro-wrestling’s fluid fourth wall, Trump’s campaign is a merger of showbiz with politics. It has devolved the American media cycle into a freak show where the promoter is also his own willing subject, where Trump’s previous, flamboyantly ostentatious gimmick ‘The Donald’ has given way to ‘The Demagogue’. The Demagogue is the blustering bully - Trump’s personality on steroids - and stands for the basest kind of populism.
In Republican debates, Trump hurls sophomoric insults at opponents while assuring viewers about his penis size. His public rallies descend into crescendos of violence, while Trump attacks the journalists gifting him non-stop coverage as “unreasonable”. Like a pro-wrestling heel, he plays into the spectacle through his sheer vulgarity.
Trump is much like A tub-thumping 19th century carnival huckster
Trump has been justifiably criticised for being drastically inconsistent on his political positions and allegiances. He first ran for presidency in 2000 as a candidate for the Reform Party, founded by the billionaire Ross Perot. Perot was considered an authoritarian by many, bringing criticism of Mexican immigration and free trade deals to the fore of the debate, but he was positively a bleeding-heart progressive compared to The Demagogue. The Trump of 2000 was a liberal on certain issues – supportive of universal healthcare and gun control, and advocating a mass redistribution of wealth to cut the national debt. Now, after leaving Reform for harbouring far-right extremists like David Duke and Pat Buchanan, Trump unapologetically courts the Ku Klux Klan and praises Hussein and Gaddafi for their “strong leadership qualities”.
Reform’s most successful politician, Jesse Ventura (elected Governor of Minnesota in 1999), was himself a pro-wrestler and commentator in the 1970s. He compares the machinations and corruption of the American political system to pro-wrestling. The Democrats and Republicans – like heels and babyfaces – publicly pretend to hate each other, but behind closed doors conspire together for mutual self-interest.
A registered Democrat until 2009, Trump donated thousands to the Clintons and praised Hillary Clinton as a brilliant future president. Now “Crooked Hillary”, his probable opponent in November, is conveniently his anathema. It’s a textbook example of Ventura’s metaphor.
Trump claims to be devoted to peace while pledging to “bomb the shit” out of the Middle East. He narrates himself as the antidote to vested interests, despite having bribed and bartered with them for years. He aims to appropriate socialist Bernie Sanders as the saviour of working class Americans, despite being a multi-millionaire member of the one per-cent. He decided to oppose an increase in the minimum wage that leaves the working class languishing in poverty, reversing his view in a matter of months to conform with the Republican party and placate its apparatchiks.
Trump identifies as a fiscal conservative who would cut taxes for the wealthy but, seemingly taking advice from Robert Mugabe, suggests that the US print more money to finance his plans to increase the already colossal military budget. He is popular among disenfranchised, marginalised Americans who hold the establishment in contempt, but, being an arch political glad-handler and master media manipulator, he holds the same establishment in the palm of his hand. Trump is much like the tub-thumping 19th century carnival hucksters, who promoted early pro-wrestling matches and sneered at the rubes who bought them as real.
So is The Demagogue - the Trump who would round up Mexican immigrant families for deportation, bar Muslims from the entering the US, and instruct the military to torture detainees - the real Trump? Or, like The Donald, is it just a gimmick?
Far from being the straight-talker he frames himself as, the man is so widely unreliable and Machiavellian, and such a chameleon under public attention, that it’s nigh-on impossible to figure out. To Trump, consequences are an afterthought when compared to maximising electoral appeal. He lambasts political correctness, yet is willing to say anything (or pay anything) in the name of ruthless politicking.
Whoever the real Donald Trump is, there’s no doubt that the pressures and responsibilities of the Western world’s most powerful position - if he were to attain it - would unmask him of his gimmicks. But the White House is not a wrestling ring. It holds the balance between peace or catastrophe, and prosperity or decline. What happens when Trump lifts the championship belt of the Presidency? Unless an unmasking occurs before the election, disaster could be inevitable.
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