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The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been the most analyzed and previewed television event since the Super Bowl. Everyone wants to know what Trump is going to do, looking to his previous debates, his rallies and even his years hosting “The Apprentice” for clues of his strategy.
But we already know what Trump is going to do, and it isn’t from those pursuits. It’s from his time in the pro wrestling ring.
Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg made headlines when he told The Washington Post that “not only does [Trump] want 100 million viewers, he wants to be a showstopper at the Roman Colosseum, the main event at WrestleMania.”
That last part isn’t hyperbole. Trump wants the debates to be the biggest wrestling show of the year – an event he’s already been featured in five times.
One of the most prevalent images in coverage of this presidential election cycles is nearly 10 years old — a photo of World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon being held down in a barber chair by turn-of-the-century wrestling icon “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as Trump prepares to shave McMahon’s head.
The photo was taken during the “Battle of the Billionaires” at WrestleMania 23 in 2007. It’s usually been attached to news pieces about how Trump’s outsized personality and outrageous statements have left the GOP with a candidate that is more like “The Millionaire Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase than Ted Cruz.
But Trump’s interest in pro wrestling was not some passing fancy. It is a long-running collaboration (dating back to the late ‘80s and continuing until 2009) that is the prism through which to view his entire candidacy, especially during the chaos of his post-convention implosion in the run-up to the November election.
Ever since Trump declared Mexican immigrants to be drug-smuggling rapists, it’s been difficult to view his never-ending parade of controversial statements without finding analogues in pro wrestling. In fact, nearly everything he has said and done – his attacks on Muslims, the Pope, women everywhere, political correctness and his primary opponents; his questioning of Sen. John McCain’s war hero status; whether or not judges with Mexican heritage can be unbiased; his calls for violence at his campaign appearances; all of it – has a wrestling counterpart.
For background: The basic, century-long dynamic of pro wrestling is the battle between good (the “babyface” or “face”) and evil (the “heel”) wrestlers. Each monologue or interview (“promo”) is designed to get “heat,” a reaction from the audience. The heel looks to generate as much heat as possible – by insulting his opponent, the crowd or both – before eventually being defeated by the face.
As other commentators have pointed out, it’s a dynamic explored by French philosopher Roland Barthes in one of the most-cited pieces of pro wrestling scholarship, his 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling.” Barthes argues that “the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.”
Wrestling is not a true “demonstration of excellence” like a legitimate boxing match. Wrestling is the portrayal of justice, wherein the heelish “bastard” receives his comeuppance. In describing this bastard, Barthes may as well be describing Trump:
“What then is a ‘bastard’ for this audience composed in part, we are told, of people who are themselves outside the rules of society? Essentially someone unstable, who accepts the rules only when they are useful to him and transgresses the formal continuity of attitudes. He is unpredictable, therefore asocial. He takes refuge behind the law when he considers that it is in his favor, and breaks it when he finds it useful to do so. Sometimes he rejects the formal boundaries of the ring and goes on hitting an adversary legally protected by the ropes, sometimes he reestablishes these boundaries and claims the protection of what he did not respect a few minutes earlier.”
Barthes explains that “this inconsistency, far more than treachery or cruelty, sends the audience beside itself with rage: offended not in its morality but in its logic, it considers the contradiction of arguments as the basest of crimes.”
While countless commentators have made the Trump-wrestling connection, Barthes seems to be describing how the majority of the press, the public and other politicians are viewing Trump and the presidential race. Journalists are outraged at Trump’s refusal to follow the conventions of political reporting. Democrats are outraged at his arch-conservative statements. Republicans are outraged that he’s forsaken the facade of moderation that they use to win elections.
But it is not “the transgression of insipid official rules” that has upset these stakeholders. “It is the lack of revenge, the absence of a punishment,” as Barthes says. As Trump embraced his role as a heel, he found more political success – not less – vanquishing establishment candidates, securing the nomination and now closing the gap in the polls.
Many in the media speculated that Trump would “pivot” in the general election, moderating his personality and political positions to build a winning coalition of voters. That’s what usually happens to both candidates in the presidential election.
In politics, the conventional wisdom is that playing to the base wins primaries but not general elections. In pro wrestling, this would be the “face turn,” when a heel – despite being the “bad guy” – becomes so popular that fans can’t help but cheer him. Shawn Michaels, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin all rose to prominence as heels – the pretty boy, the patronizing jerk, the loose cannon, respectively – before becoming the biggest faces in the business.
Trump’s own former chief strategist, Paul Manafort, seemed to acknowledge not just the need to pivot, but that Trump-the-heel is “the part that he’s been playing.” In a closed-door meeting with Republican National Committee members, Manafort admitted the difference between the Trump-the-person and Trump-the-candidate.
“When he’s sitting in a room, he’s talking business, he’s talking politics in a private room, it’s a different persona. When he’s out on the stage, when he’s talking about the kinds of things he’s talking about on the stump, he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose,” Manafort said, according to a tape of his comments obtained by NBC News.
Manafort later walked back the comment, saying that he and his colleagues were “evolving the campaign, not the candidate.” With that comment, Manafort appeared to have committed a crime that in pro wrestling is known as “breaking kayfabe,” dropping the suspension of disbelief that the proceedings are staged. In politics, it may just be considered a gaffe; one does not publicly acknowledge that the candidate is not always speaking as his or her true self.
But any sort of pivot from Trump was short-lived and quickly forgotten. The day after becoming the presumptive nominee, Trump celebrated Cinco de Mayo by sharing a picture of himself eating a taco bowl – an American invention – in his Trump Tower office, proclaiming “I love Hispanics!” – a conflation of Hispanic and Mexican-American cultures.
And after securing the nomination at the Republican National Convention and officially entering the general election phase, Trump has become a supernova of controversy. He entreated Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email, attacked a Gold Star family, accepted a Purple Heart without serving, asked why the United States can’t use nuclear weapons, called out a crying baby at a rally, predicted a “rigged” election, suggested that Second Amendment supporters do “something” about Clinton and the judges she might nominate, called for Clinton to travel without Secret Service protection, shared a stage with the controversial Don King, and – perhaps most loathsome to the media – used a press conference to deny his role in birtherism while advertising his brand new Pennsylvania Avenue hotel.
Yet none of these supposed “gaffes” – no matter how outrageous – have forced Trump out of the race. And none of them will, until Nov. 8. Because for wrestling to be “exactly what the public expects of it,” Barthes notes, “there is nothing more exciting for a crowd than the grandiloquent kick given to a vanquished ‘bastard’.”
That’s the one lesson of professional wrestling that Trump will learn on Election Day – if and when he finally gets that long-awaited “grandiloquent kick” from Hillary Clinton, the Electoral College and the American voter.
Chris Kelly is a contributing writer for The Washington Post and Vice. Previously, he worked as a Democratic campaign consultant.
Brandon Wetherbee is the managing editor of Brightest Young Things and host of You, Me, Them, Everybody and Ubi Est Mea for WGN.
Kelly and Wetherbee are the authors of The Donald: How Trump Turned Presidential Politics Into Pro Wrestling.
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