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The Ultimate Heel

How Donald Trump took a page from Vince McMahon’s WWE playbook and captured the imagination of millions

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At some point, maybe we should all admit that Donald Trump and his traveling cluster-kerfuffle was something we should have seen coming. He’s an avatar for a time with deep, complicated issues, to be sure. But no part of this campaign (nor the candidate) is sui generis; together, they are a confluence of two and a half centuries of the political, historical, and cultural binds that have tenuously held America together now collapsing upon themselves.

An understanding of this needs to be a priori. That this is by no means an unprecedented run to the White House should be, too. (Well, it wasn’t unprecedented, but then the Republican nominee for president explicitly said in the second debate that he would throw Hillary Clinton in jail if he won. That is probably a first, at least in a U.S. election.)

Outside of the banana republic business, the Trump character isn’t even particularly unique as televised entertainment. And if you hadn’t picked up on all of this yet, this cycle’s October Surprise (presented by Access Hollywood), followed by his Operation Human Shield press conference — which happened just hours before his gripping, Michael Myers–esque debate performance — made it clear: Donald Trump’s the bad guy on this show.

Not in the sense he’s a bad person, per se. Or at least not in the way, say, Ted Bundy was a bad person. Trump may be a horrifying misogynist and serial conman, but he’s not … well, not totally … an inhuman monster. At least his kids seem to like him.

Nor is he your standard-issue franchise movie antagonist. While it can be fun to compare him to Voldemort or Lex Luthor, the juxtaposition doesn’t quite fit. Despite pretty glaring flaws, they — unlike Trump — are men of real, albeit nefarious, accomplishment.

Donald is performing in a different kind of role: part showman, part chickenshit, all heel; he’s the professional wrestling villain, distilled. A twisted patriot roaring for the wrong time and a nonexistent place, trying to play himself off as the kind of man who can be Chairman of the Board with first-strike capability. He’s been working this angle the entire time. The very first scene of Trump! gave it away on free TV (live at Trump Tower).

For those who have blocked it out of their memories, the WWE Hall of Famer turned GOP standard-bearer arrived, via escalator, for the announcement of his candidacy to entrance music. Of course, the music was Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” — about as American as a Hulk Hogan music video from the ’80s. (Sans, sadly, Hogan playing a flag bass guitar.) And for those who’d say, “But ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ is a song written by a Canadian about how terrible he thought the first Bush presidency was,” Trump’s response would likely be something along the lines of this:

Trump then cut a worked-shoot promo on the entire country of Mexico, called immigrants rapists to generate heat for his campaign, and debuted his catchphrase: “Make America Great Again.” Dude put in work. The whole thing was just red, white, and blue pyrotechnics and a MAGA T-shirt away from Trump headlining WrestleMania. Trump has singlehandedly turned political theater into its sports-entertainment equivalent, complete with its own blustering minority of neckbeards loudly making it all about themselves.

Among others, Bob Schieffer explicitly picked up on this when he said almost exactly the same thing — “This was WrestleMania, this wasn’t about presidential politics” — but with more disdain following the macabre spectacle of Trump-Clinton II. The deterioration of political discourse to which Schieffer is referring to is part of an evolution, still being worked out, that professional wrestling fans encountered much earlier.

Wrestling fans were early adopters of the internet because of tape trading, and it’s been decades since those who believe themselves to be insider fans were split into camps with built-in echo chambers that allow us to exist in alternate realities. Those are places where angst is rewarded, and the eminently qualified, but precisely manufactured — like John Cena and Hillary Clinton — are antagonists blocking the things we love from the true greatness we can see if they would just allow things to be shaped in our image.

Before digging into all this, one would be remiss not to mention the Babe Ruth of dirty campaigning: Richard Milhous Nixon, a man truly after Trump’s own heart. However, while Trump may share a similar brand — “paranoid, racist sociopath promising law and order to a ‘silent’ ‘majority’” — Tricky Dick was orders of magnitude more intelligent and cunning. Nixon’s a man about whom it has been asked: “How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant and so morally lacking?” And while he’s clearly lacking morals — or at the very least a strong comprehension of basic decency — after three debates, it almost seems like a stretch to call him functionally illiterate.

Which is why he’s at his most frightening — and least electable — when he tries to mimic his friend and former (?) business associate (?), one Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Like Nixon, McMahon appears highly capable in a way that Trump categorically doesn’t.

Although both had their father lend them a helping hand, McMahon’s opportunity was being sent to Maine to make something of himself, while Trump received a “small loan of a million dollars”. There is also the caveat, of course, that despite having the size for it, Donald didn’t get his start in the spotlight through sports entertainment. This leaves him in an enormous deficit when trying to embody the projected self required for professional wrestling and politics that comes preternaturally to McMahon.

Trump instead got his start as a fixture on the gossip pages of New York newspapers in the ’80s. These columns, in a time before the internet or widespread cable programming, functioned as text-based reality programming: The subjects weren’t fully formed beings, but caricatures framed in relief of the situations they found themselves in. And from this, the ur-reality-show — professional wrestling — became a natural extension of Trump’s brand when WrestleManias IV and V were hosted at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino.

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Getty Images

The relationship would continue for decades (and if Linda McMahon’s enormous contribution to a pro-Trump super PAC is any indication, it still continues). Trump’s second-most famous stint in the public eye was an attempt to replicate Mr. McMahon’s billionaire character for The Apprentice — the show is widely considered what normalized Trump for the American public — right down to the catchphrase. Trump’s persona, however, has always felt (at least to this observer and John Mulaney) like he was playing the character of a billionaire.

Businesswise, their relationship would reach a crescendo at WrestleMania 23, when Trump and McMahon squared off in a hair vs. hair match, with muscle-bound military man Bobby Lashley and the late “Samoan Bulldozer” Umaga acting as proxies in the Battle of the Billionaires.

The storyline surrounding it — as this video from Fusion posits — hits many of the same notes as his campaign, minus the horrifying rhetoric and with a set of less deplorable deplorables (say what you will about those neckbeards, nearly all of them are better than racist, xenophobic misogynists). All of this campaign’s greatest hits were on that album: Railing against the establishment and claiming he’s the only one who can fix what’s wrong with the country (or in WWE’s case, Monday Night Raw) while pushing himself as a man of the people while having an actual tower which literally has his name on it.

In addition to the practice that the WWE run provided him at honing his craft as a rabble-rousing outsider, it highlighted Donald’s greatest — and perhaps only — gift as a performer: a transcendent ability to read a crowd. For all of his massive faults as a politician — seeing him try to answer a follow-up question on any subject feels about as disconcerting as watching Brock Lesnar attempt a shooting-star press — to watch Trump work a room of his supporters into a flag-waving, T-shirt-buying frenzy is to wish he’d been born Donald Bollea.

But much in the same way you wouldn’t want to see the Hulkster work a cruiserweight match — where technical acumen and the ability to act quickly are prized above showmanship and charisma — that ability is (a major) part of the reason he’s been so ineffective in head-to-head debates. The primping and showboating (or hotdogging, as some would call it) — in Trump’s case, mostly his manic facial expressions and inveterate chair fucking — plays to many like disinterest and immaturity in the face of grave consequence. That is, leading the real world instead of headlining WrestleMania 23.

For his supporters, this sort of reaction must be a jarring one after he seemed so “real” to many of them for much of the campaign.

That perceived realness is why these performances have not pushed those fans away. When people want to root for you, they will allow you to get away with pretty much whatever you want. They feel safe believing in you, and willing to do anything to maintain that feeling. They don’t see you as the thing you are — whether that be a racist demagogue or a talented but inexperienced senator from Illinois trying to fake it until you make it — but the things that they see in themselves through you.

It also doesn’t hurt that nearly every U.S. presidential election thus far has had at least some of the ingredients found in Trump’s toxic gumbo. Donald’s okra (if you will) is explicit xenophobia, a favorite of “outsider” campaigns like these. Whether it targets religious minorities (like Catholics and Muslims) or immigrants (in the past, Chinese; in the present, Mexican; in the future, Martian), xenophobia (whatever their particular flavor of nationalism) allows candidates to lean in on the fear of the other. This fear can then be mobilized to attack any “others,” including journalists, other party members, and even fire marshals (like, a lot of fire marshals).

And xenophobia gets over, pretty much anywhere and at any time. Donald working as a subversion of the foreign menace heel trope is an odd but effective twist on a formula most commonly associated with Soviet and/or generically Middle Eastern characters. He even manages to routinely get “U-S-A!” chants going at his rallies, the highest honor this kind of character can achieve. The manner in which he reminisces about the good old days are intentionally unsettling, but work in precisely the same way Bret Hart’s hatred of America did when he went to Canada: His fans hate the version of the country he’s talking about, even if it’s not the same country that actually exists.

Though, as is the case with heels of any archetype, this particular stratagem works best when it has — at its core — a kernel of truth. Not, of course, that those not born in this country are to blame for its problems, but that there are problems. In that way, Trump’s version differs from the Iron Sheik’s tragically unnuanced “Iran, no.1; Russia, no. 1; America (Spit Take)” view of the world. Though his cozying up to foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin is eerily reminiscent of Sgt. Slaughter’s phase as an Iraqi sympathizer, and he’s roughly one and a half bad news cycles away from setting a Hillary Clinton flag on fire.

Trump’s angle on America leans closest to Ludvig Borga — a Finnish wrestler who briefly wrestled in the WWF as an anti-American heel before running for (and winning) a seat in the Finnish Parliament as a right-wing Finnish nationalist — in words and deeds both in and outside of kayfabe. Borga telling a Finnish radio station, “We have a lesbian as president and me as parliamentarian. Everything seems possible,” in reference to the decidedly straight leader of his government seems like a call directly out of Donald’s playbook. Minus, of course, the open letter Borga (real name, Tony Halme) released later as an apology to then-President Tarja Halonen.

Although Trump’s xenophobia is unprecedented for major-party candidate in the modern era, his race-baiting is relatively mild. George Wallace, of course, rode an explicitly pro-segregation platform to 46 electoral votes only 48 years ago in one of the most successful third-party runs ever. And Woodrow Wilson — he of a Nobel Peace Prize — functionally resegregated the federal government after winning the presidency. This was, not surprisingly, after he stated that there was no place, nor would there likely ever be one, for black people at Princeton University while he was the school’s president.

However, while it seems to be his personal choice when at his rallies, Trump plays this patriot-out-of-space-and-time least engagingly of all of his wrestling-style characters. It’s difficult to pull off, to be sure. You have to be able to couch your meaning, and let your targets (the white working class) know that you know “what’s really going on.” And his lack of political polish is most glaring when he broaches “America” as a broad concept, because his idea of America is largely unimaginative: Trump’s “Great” America is a place which only existed in legends from a much darker period in our history.

No one should expect, or for the love of God hope, that Trump would have the skills of say, Ronald Reagan — beloved grandpa figure and routine user of region-specific racial coding like “young buck” and popularizer of the term “welfare queens” (not to mention the slogan “Make America Great Again”) — when broaching the subject. Or even Triple JH, whose feud in the lead-up to WrestleMania XIX with Booker T — by any measure, the most accomplished African American performer in professional wrestling history — included him literally saying “people like you don’t get to be world champion” and still winning the feud for literally no good reason. Though, much like this campaign will for our country and Donald Trump, that program is widely considered a low point for the WWE’s relationship with race and Triple H’s career in general.

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Trump’s campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, the alt-right’s version of “Classy” Freddie Blassie, plays in a world of active provocation and is not necessarily a master in the dark arts of racial coding (though he and Breitbart certainly dabble). Which is good for us, as Trump was never going to get his racism over the way he has his xenophobia, especially without the help of someone like late Republican boogeyman Lee Atwater, who infamously articulated the strategy (and its pitfalls) in candid and gory detail:

Although obviously horrifying, Atwater’s explanation elucidates why race-baiting can, usually, be such a (thankfully) tricky strategy to pull off: We are all referees in that match. Much in the same way you can really only get caught putting your feet on the ropes for extra leverage during a pin attempt once, nearly every permutation of racial coding eventually ends up being called out by enough people to drive its efficacy into the ground. Like an eye rake when the official isn’t looking, racism can no longer outright win you an election in and of itself, but if employed at the right time, it will assist directly in your victory.

Timing, of course, is a function of restraint, which our short-finger vulgarian desperately lacks. This poses a problem for him — which became clearer and clearer as he tried to attract voters beyond his base — because Trump is at his most electable as an old-fashioned, chickenshit heel in the mold of Ric Flair and Jeff Jarrett. But the style requires a real understanding of the ebb and flow of authority, and much more importantly, the application of said authority.

In Flair or Jarrett’s case, it’s the rules of the sport. For Trump, it’s the norms of a functioning small-d democratic society. He employed the tactics — eye rakes (mostly against fellow Republicans), broad claims of rigged systems working against them (as opposed to, for the sake of clarity, the new specific accusations of outright voter fraud) and working the refs — that had gotten over (for both him and the Flairs or Jarretts of the world). As the field narrowed and the competition (and vetting) became stiffer, though, Trump’s overreliance on them ended up being his downfall: He got caught too many times doing the same thing and was put in a series of one-on-one cage matches with the wrong opponent.

This was especially true after the grotesquerie with Bill Clinton’s accusers, when it became clear that the GOP nominee’s goal was to injure, not hurt, his opponent. Before that, although the comparison between his alleged misconduct and Bill’s was not equal and incredibly sexist — a wife should never have to defend her husband’s indiscretions — it still resonated with voters. When he complained that people were mean to him, what a jerk Hillary Clinton is, or how legitimately disconcerting Bill’s sexual history was, it revealed a kind of vulnerability and fear of failure that made him almost … endearing isn’t the word … less gross? Less gross, let’s go with that. Now it’s become much more predatory, however: A national gaslighting.

Perhaps shockingly, despite all the talk of genital grabbing, funerals for miscarriages, and punishment for women who have abortions, even the Trump campaign’s misogyny-laden and objectifying use of women as political props has precedent in presidential elections. Just as “Lock her up!” has become the far right’s rallying cry in 2016, in 1884, “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” was the unofficial slogan of the GOP rank and file as they attempted to besmirch Grover Cleveland’s otherwise clean name with rumors of a child born out of wedlock. The strategic dissemination of the story by Cleveland’s opponents was haunting in precisely the same way Trump’s nightmarish press conference with Clinton’s accusers felt. It creates that sensation of nausea and boiling anger that surfaces when forced to watch the exploitation of someone’s pain for the gain of others.

But, through it all, his core group of fans remain, holding him up as a crusading hero looking to “drain the swamp” (as he puts it now). His belief that he could shoot someone and still garner votes seems more prescient every day. It’s that cult of personality which has allowed the Republican nominee for president to imply that veterans who take their own lives while grappling with PTSD aren’t as strong as those who don’t; tweet at 3 a.m. that his followers should look for a nonexistent sex tape of a former beauty pageant-winning Latina woman he referred to as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping;” and make fun of the physically handicapped, in public, through pantomime.

This kind of naked duplicity — like claiming a desire to make America great “again” while constantly articulating yourself as the very worst of what our country has to offer — is what professional wrestling is built on, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to get over when nuclear codes are involved. It takes just the right opponent, time, and place to be successful, which is why, to truly understand how we got to where we are today, you need to look to Tippecanoe (and Tyler, too!).

Best known as the man who caught pneumonia and died a month into his presidency, William Henry Harrison’s victory in the election of 1840 was, as Face the Nation host and Whistlestop author John Dickerson calls the chapter on the race, “The Birth of Umbrage.” Dickerson explains the title as follows, “The tactic feels modern, but candidates have been collapsing on the fainting couch since the first genuine campaign. In 1840, William Henry Harrison’s ‘log cabin and hard cider’ crusade was founded on a protracted regimen of umbrage.”

After an editorial said of Harrison, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and … a pension of two thousand [dollars] a year … and … he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin,” the log cabin and the hard cider began appearing at the massive rallies his party hosted for their man of the people. Like “CM PUNK” chants during every match for the six months after he abruptly left the company, the Whigs’ rallying cry had very little to say about the issues at hand, and was instead used a bludgeon against those who stood in the way of what they perceived to be progress toward their ultimate goal.

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As it was with Punk and Harrison before him, Trump’s underlying argument has always been “I should be The Man, because I’m the best and y’all just haters,” without any real evidence to support the claim, at least beyond their own presupposition of its validity. It’s all fueled entirely on that very specific kind of entitled aggrievement that umbrage embodies.

And this is the kind of thing that happens when there’s a shift in the economy — Harrison, a Virginia aristocrat, played this strategy following the Panic of 1837 and became the first in long line of populists that are sent out after seemingly every recession and economic shock — or a major change in a product people engage with (as was the case with Punk’s “pipe bomb” promo, which filled the Attitude Era void left in the wake of WWE’s switch to a TV-PG). Abrupt, seismic changes like these leave swathes of voters (or fans) behind, unsure of what to do with themselves and how to validate their self-worth or the worth of said product.

Instead of being active participants in a process, supporters who share the umbrage become fans who want you to say your catchphrase (Trump’s bits of call and response during his rallies are truly a sight to see) and speak only to their issues. They buy your merchandise and cheer for you as a way of identifying themselves as a part of something. And if you’re playing the heel, they want you to bad mouth other people with things they wish they could say themselves just as a way to relieve the stress that comes from the lack of control they feel over their lives. They want to be shocked by the terrible things you say, especially if you make them feel like they’re the cool kids at the back of class making sure that the nerds don’t get too high on their horse.

There’s also a sense of ownership over the product — whether it’s the country in which you live or the traveling circus of professional wrestling — that’s hard to shake, even if that sense was entirely mistaken from the beginning. When it reaches a fever pitch, some leaders try to divert it into a renewed sense of community, and an ability for the citizen under their leaders’ guidance to generate their own value in a changing world. Others lean on the inability of many to separate expectations from evaluations — the thematic use of the word “again” to imply something having been lost (or stolen, as Trump would argue) being the most common tool used by this particular campaign — to turn this into a tightly wound sense of entitlement.

Long ago, the inability or outright refusal to separate what we think we deserve from what we should reasonably expect became the largest blind spot for wrestling message boards. Now, in the era of Trump, it’s infected the American voter writ large. We remain incapable of accepting a shifting cultural paradigm that has us move ever so slightly to the side of spotlight while still basking in its glow. We will eventually need to accept this change and help get others over, or we will become the heels looking up at the lights as the ref tells us the fight is over, like Trump almost certainly will become on November 8. This is all because we forgot the cardinal rule of wrestling: A heel always gets their comeuppance in the end. That’s why at WrestleMania 23, Vince got his head shaved and Trump skated.

Though, while everybody with a microphone (or a Twitter account) would like you to think otherwise, real life isn’t professional wrestling. If Trump wins in November, hopefully nobody riots.

Nick Bond is cohost of Rudo Radio and an editor of some kind at The Classical. He tweets using his self-appointed third-person nickname (TheN1ckster) because he lacks the ability to process shame.