February 02, 2018
Donald J. Trump, moments before body-slamming Vince McMahon, 04/01/07
There’s perhaps no better arena to understand the spectacle at the heart of Donald Trump than the modern faux wrestling ring, where the fights are staged, the punches pulled (unless it’s the Don), and when blood spills it’s either fake or planned.
“He loved the sensationalism, the drama, the fantasy.”
Sam Nunberg, former Trump campaign aide[i]
Trump first became involved in professional wrestling in the 1980s, when he was looking to gain press for his expanding casino empire in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. It was a match made in heaven, as the savvy Trump would learn, palling around with billionaire Vince McMahon, owner of what was then the WWF but later became the WWE. Both enterprises benefited, though the WWE far more than Trump’s bankrupt Atlantic City casinos—the New York Times’s Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli call them “a protracted failure” where “Trump put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.”[ii]
In moving from the sidelines to center stage, and becoming an “actor” instead of a spectator, The Donald began to understand something of the power that comes from physically entering the ring. What he learned was invaluable, for here he took the no-holds-barred bravado of his business persona and honed it on the stage of blue collar angst and desire, the billionaire slumming with the plebes, and discovering what it’s like to experience the adulation of crowds. If he didn’t solve their problems, at least he gave them an evening’s entertaining salve to lessen the blows of mortgage payments, health care bills, car insurance, low-wage jobs and their kids’ demolished expectations. Here was a church, if ever there was one, but with megaton speakers and lights that’d burn your eyes out—and yes, genuine, family fare escapism.
“Trump connoted wealth and a no-guff, take-no-prisoners attitude, said Michael Axelrod, a Long Island fan,” writes Josh Dawsey, “who added that he remembered few other billionaire-types jousting in the ring. ‘People who go to wrestling matches don’t tend to like people who make more in one day than they make in their lifetimes,’ Axelrod said. ‘But he didn’t take sh– from anyone and made his own rules, and people seem to like that in their wrestling characters.’ In wrestling terms, he was known as a ‘babyface,’ or good guy, Axelrod said, adding he’d never seen him booed at a wrestling event. ‘I don’t think he would have liked getting booed,’ Axelrod said.”[iii]
At the heart of WrestleMania is one simple proposition: we the good are threatened by they the bad, and if a hero does not step forward to save us, all will be lost. In the convoluted good-vs-evil soap opera story lines, outsized characters and costumes and raucous crowds booing the bad hombres and cheering the white knight heroes, Donald Trump found a language he could use, the modern in-your-face, kick-your-butt, the-walls-are-crashing-all-around-us spectacle.
“I would say to him,” Sam Nunberg said, “we’re going to be the WWE of the [presidential] primary with the smash-mouth adrenaline pumping.”[iv]
Trump used lessons learned in years of appearances at WWE events to nuclear effect in the 2016 campaign, inventing enemies and scapegoats while painting himself as the only hero able to save the nation. It was a convincing, well-acted shtick, and one he mastered in the fantasy arenas of steroid-drenched men in colorful tights and overblown costumes who were able to punch each other without a single blow actually landing.
“Professional wrestling is fake. Trump’s punches weren’t.”
… as Travis Waldron summed up in the Huffington Post. When Donald Trump, in the middle of the fabled Battle of the Billionaires, clotheslined his opponent Vince McMahon to the floor and started pummeling, every fist connected with all the force our Bully-in-Chief could muster.
It was Waldron who wrote the definitive history of that bout—and bout it was. Months of setup, of creating story lines and characters, of a weekly amping of the crowd to a greater frenzy. On the night itself, Trump had money rain down from the ceiling to delirious fans—not his money, of course, these were all McMahon’s Jeffersons and Franklins, but no one was told this.
Trump, in Waldron’s words, played the role of “the magnanimous billionaire, the one who understood what they wanted.” They being the mostly blue-collar audience, genuine Red State NASCAR America, an audience Trump was only beginning to learn how to play to and manipulate using nothing more than the senses-shearing glamour of over-the-top spectacle. He was on their side, a bonafide billionaire who knew how the system worked from the inside and therefore knew how to stick it to the elites, embodied during that bout by the evil billionaire owner of WWE, Vince MaMahon. It was a role Trump was learning to enjoy
When Trump finally toppled McMahon, he never pulled a punch, never once gave it to him easy. If anything was real that night, this was it, and maybe that’s all we need to know about the man: when he promises to pull his punches, he never does.[v] And when he gives us what he thinks is stage-managed spectacle, it’s an open question whether he knows the difference, or whether it even matters to him that there’s a line between reality and fantasy.
… and the spectacle is hollow
In 2002, filmmaker Errol Morris interviewed Donald Trump about his favorite movie, Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, in part of a series with renowned businessmen and heads of state, including Donald Rumsfeld and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The movie, a portrait of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, chronicles the toxic, violent combustion that ignites when unspeakable wealth meets a talented but ultimately empty soul. “It was an attack on property,” Welles said in a 1960 interview. “And on acquisition of property… And on the corruption of an acquisitive society where a man of real gifts, and real charm, and real humanity destroys himself and everything near him.”[vi]
Trump recognized nothing of the monstrosity, of the failure of humanity, of the genuine darkness into which Kane’s soul descended at the movie’s end. Instead he found his shadow self, glittering in moody black and white high on the silver screen, and the faint glow of an object lesson.
“I think you learn in [Citizen] Kane that maybe wealth isn’t everything,” he told Morris, “because he had the wealth, but he didn’t have the happiness. The table getting larger and larger and larger with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier. Perhaps I can understand that.”[vii]
For the first few months of the Trump administration, that table stretched from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, where Donald Trump lives, all the way to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, Manhattan, where his wife, Melania, was living. How long it stretches now, in the echoing halls of the president’s private quarters, who knows?
[i] Josh Dawsey. “Trump’s obsession with WrestleMania and fake drama,” Politico, January 16, 2017.
[ii] Russ Beuttner and Charles V. Bagli. “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions,” New York Times, June 11, 2016.
[v] Travis Waldron. “The Definitive History Of That Time Donald Trump Took A Stone Cold Stunner,” Huffington Post, February 14, 2017.
[vi] Benjamin Hufbauer. “How Trump’s Favorite Movie Explains Him,” Politico Magazine, June 6, 2016.
Editor’s Note: This is our second excerpt from Hacking Trump. Find the first here.
As a twelve year-old in London, RANBIR SIDHU was one of the youngest organizers for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and later, as a newly-minted American teenager, he campaigned for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 election and also volunteered for the Green Party and anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements. His interest in American politics has remained steady since. He is the author of three previous books, Deep Singh Blue, a novel, Object Lessons, a novella, and Good Indian Girls, a collection of stories, and he is a winner of the Pushcart Prize in fiction and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, among other awards. He currently lives in Greece. Connect with him at ranbirsidhu.com.
From the book Hacking Trump by Ranbir Sidhu, published by the Unnamed Press on the anniversary of the presidential inauguration.