TPM has already chronicled the long professional relationship, public friendship and in-ring head shaving of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and World Wrestling Entertainment chairman and chief executive Vincent K. McMahon. The men’s friendship makes sense. To a real estate mogul with live venues to fill, a professional wrestling company is a natural business partner. That both McMahon and Trump inherited their businesses from their fathers is another point in common. They also share a love of the carnivalesque, even if McMahon will tell you he’s built a multimedia entertainment company while Trump has fashioned himself a master of all business.
But the kinship runs even deeper than this. Trump must have picked up a thing or two from McMahon, because Trump’s bid for president has basically been one long professional wrestling monologue.
Both men employ the rhetoric of wrestling as a battle cry. Indeed, for years, while Trump fired people in NBC’s The Apprentice, McMahon strutted to his rings, dismissing talent left and right with a guttural “You’re fiiiiiired!” The difference between The Apprentice and the WWE is that McMahon’s victims often got some retribution later on. Trump could always fire at will without anybody ever taking a lead pipe or beer can to his skull.
In the WWE mythology, McMahon is almost always a bad guy. So, if he doesn’t get knocked on his ass for his misdeeds, there’s no pay off. McMahon can act like a horrible misogynist for weeks at a time but eventually The Rock, or Steve Austin or John Cena or somebody is going to run out and start the retribution part of the storyline. Trump, calls Megyn Kelly a “bimbo, and then accuses her of asking tough questions because she is “bleeding out of her wherever” and her boss calls him to make nice. Where’s a steel chair when you need one?
Trump is boorish but in the Dog Days of primary season, he’s captivated an audience by making them wonder what taboo he’ll break next. Republicans who might want to bring Trump down before he humiliates the entire party have to wonder, like Frank Luntz, if they’d ever courted Trump for any favors or asked for a job. Trump met Lindsey Graham’s criticisms by outing the Senator for previously soliciting him for a good reference with Fox News hosts and then providing proof of their familiar relationship by releasing Graham’s private cell phone number.
“I think Rick Perry is probably smarter than Lindsey Graham,” proclaimed Donald. If any insult should lead to a fight that can only be resolved in a steel cage, it’s that. A gentleman just doesn’t call a gentleman dumber than Rick Perry in a public forum.
There will be time, in the aftermath of the campaign, for observers to decide whether or not the early Donald love tells us anything about American politics. But we know, from financial success of McMahon and his company, which has also contributed to the financial success of Trump and his companies, that the rhetoric of professional wrestling resonates with people when it’s done well.
The rhetoric sustains a show based on simulated, scripted combat to the point that it matters when “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (one of the best talkers in the business) dies at a young age. It matters when Hulk Hogan, hero to children who demanded his opponents articulate a course of action when under assault by the largest arms in the universe, is also outed for saying racists things on a sex tape. This tactic of boasting, schoolyard threats and unapologetic insult speaks right to the id.
There’s a theory of politics—some call it “High Broderism”—that says the American people don’t want this at all. We’re supposed to want a politics of high-minded dignity, honest debate and compromise. Under this theory, the early Trump support is nothing more than frothing partisans acting like maniacs during the very early part of a primary election. These Republicans will eventually settle down and support the gentleman from Florida named Jeb and all will be right with the world.
But the old-money world of the Bush family isn’t any more America than the rough and tumble, pro wrestling world of Trump. The Bush family approach to politics, where our betters enter the fray in some sort of service to the plebes, leaves a lot to be desired.
Trump will likely go down in history as a joke candidate, his pro wrestling persona the evidence that he was never serious. But his early successes shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s refreshing to see these guys hate and dismiss their opponents and antagonists. It’s nice to see hypocrisies called out rather than politely left to stand. Trump attracted his supporters by laying the current race raw. Raw, McMahon will tell you, is the longest running weekly episodic television program in the United States—there has to be a reason for that.
Michael Maiello is a playwright, author and essayist. He has written for Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Forbes and theNewerYork.