His hair is distinctive, one could say impossible, but there it is. A microphone is only a few inches from his lips, but he still leans into it. He does not really yell into the mike, but the voice is certainly not conversational. His words can be adamant; they can be bullying. He denounces enemies, enemies that stand in the way of greatness. He talks about the alliances he has entered or created and how strong they are. He makes promises about how he will perform, performances that he guarantees will be great. There is nothing nuanced in what he says; there are no ambiguities. It is a world of black and white; of good and bad; of greatness or failure. There is not a single shade of gray.
He pauses often, seemingly waiting for his audience to catch up. The audience reacts visibly and audibly. Each denunciation, each bragging claim elicits a hoot and a holler. He encourages the audience to mock his opponents, and the crowd often responds with a sing-song chant. This is an interactive, audience-participation performance. The speaker supplies the initial energy, but he soaks back energy as the frenzied crowd reacts to him.
The audience doesn’t really care about the specifics of his promises. They know that many can’t be kept. Indeed, they won’t be surprised if contradictory promises are made in a week or a month or that the alliances announced today are changed tomorrow or that the enemy previously castigated in absolute terms is now a dear friend with whom he has been secretly colluding. The audience is there not for truth, but for an attitude, and he supplies and feeds that attitude.
This audience seems bound together by something more than what most audiences have. They know that others, “nice” people, “successful” people, “elite” people not only do not share their enthusiasm, those others, this group knows, think there is something wrong, ludicrous, maybe even shameful or dangerous and low class in what this audience feels. Here, however, together with this crowd and the performer who understands their visceral reactions, each can indulge the passions they all enjoy, and this brings them closer together.
Perhaps this is a Trump rally, but what I was trying to describe is pro wrestling. Since the rise of Trumpism, I have thought that those who are mystified by the appeal of Donald Trump might learn something by trying to understand the allure of professional wrestling.
The theatrics of professional wrestling remains strikingly similar to what they were in my childhood of Verne Gagne with his sleeper hold and his between bout pitches for a nutritional supplement. There were good guys (Wilbur Snyder, for example) and bad guys (definitely Dick the Bruiser) in a simulated reality of pain, danger, and unbelievable heroics. The business, however, has changed in some important ways.
What I watched growing up was largely regional. Different parts of the country had different wrestling companies. As a friend once said about a wrestler, “He was the world heavyweight champion of the greater Cleveland area.” The spectacle might have been similar everywhere, but the performers changed with the territory.
Vince McMahon of what is now the WWE (World, or maybe Worldwide, Wrestling Entertainment) changed that. His wrestling organization, started in the Northeast by his father, did not respect others’ territories. He drove many regional operations out of business or bought them out as they started to fail. WWE now dominates the business, and wrestling fans today pretty much all see the same product. The rise of cable television, the Internet, and other media has given more choice for news and entertainment and has fragmented popular culture. We don’t share as much in common as we once did.
Professional wrestling, with its nationalization, has gone in the opposite direction. The odds are overwhelming that its fans all know, and probably have opinions about, Kevin Owens, The Undertaker, the New Day, and Triple H. Wrestling is one of the few popular forces that is producing an increasingly unified cultural base, but a base that is out of sight to the rest of America.
The wrestling business has also changed because, while it is not trumpeted, it is not now a secret that the contests are not real sporting events. While back in the day, some fans may have thought that the spectacle was a legitimate sport, today it is acknowledged that wrestling is “sports entertainment.” All but the most naïve of wrestling fans know that while the wrestlers can be athletic and do take risks, the violence is simulated and the outcomes follow predetermined story lines. Wrestling’s popularity has fluctuated through the years, but its popularity does not seem to have been harmed because those involved no longer steadfastly maintain that it is “real.” Instead, it has always been a form of reality TV; something that pretends to be real.
The allure of pro wrestling to the outsider is hard to fathom, but it must have something to do with the power of simulated reality, violence, the simplicity of good and evil, outrageous characters, and the continuing tensions of soap opera. As epic poems, sagas, novels and movies show, we want, maybe need, superheroes and supervillains. At least some of the time, we don’t want nuance, caveats, and tough choices. During the wrestling shows, we have those heroes and villains and only easy choices. Who and what is good or bad is crystal clear.
It is not my point and beyond my abilities to analyze the allure of wrestling, and anyway, the appeal may largely be visceral and, thus, cannot be satisfactorily explained to those who don’t feel it. But what should be recognized is that the spectacle has had an enduring appeal. And if I am right, that Trump at a rally performs much like a pro wrestler talking to the audience, and that audience responds much as a wrestling crowd does, it may make sense for those who can’t grasp Tumpism to try to grasp pro wrestling.
When Trump was gaining traction in the political arena, this wrestling fan thought back to one of the WWE storylines. It featured Donald Trump. Oh, yes, Trump has been a part of pro wrestling for quite some time. As I recall, Vince McMahon backed one wrestler and Trump another, and either Trump or McMahon would have his head shaved depending upon which wrestler lost some big event. This billionaire-baiting went on for weeks or maybe even months, provided us with the recently reprised and altered video of Trump “taking down” Vince McMahon in a moment of made-up macho madness. But of course, no one could really believe that Trump was going to appear bald to further wrestling ratings. The mere thought of it, however, whipped up the crowd. Politicos have studied Trump’s business record and pop culture critics have talked about The Apprentice, but pundits mystified about his appeal should also have been studying Trump on Monday Night Raw and then watching more of the wrestling shows.
Perhaps roots of Trump can be found in Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan, but we should also consider Gorgeous George. Gorgeous George was–perhaps next to Milton Berle–early television’s biggest star. Professional wrestling has always presented itself as what is now called reality TV, and GG was America’s first huge reality TV star. Gorgeous George (George Raymond Wagner), often shortened by TV announcers to Gorgeous or Georgie, was in wrestling parlance a “heel,” a bad guy. (Good guys are “babyfaces” or just “faces.”) But he broke stereotypes. In what was supposedly a testosterone-fueled world, his character displayed effeminacy. Flunkies would precede him up the arena’s aisles spraying perfume in his path. He entered the ring wearing elaborate robes no “man” would have been caught in—festooned with ostrich feathers, for example. No one but his valet was allowed to touch his robe, and the referee in a Chaplinesque routine would be repeatedly blocked from doing so. And he had that hair. It was some sort of yellow or straw color never seen in nature, and it was curled and primped in ways that only permanents and feminine implements could produce. His hair was secured with what otherwise would have been called bobby pins; his were called Georgie pins. Before a match, he would elaborately remove and toss them to the crowd. The hair was central to the character. The storylines often said that he would not fight someone unless the opponent contracted not to touch his hair. And late in his career, as other wrestlers were eclipsing him, he fought a match where the loser would have his locks sheared. Gorgeous lost the match and his hair.
There is a line from Gorgeous George to Trump. This path meanders with stops for Muhammed Ali and James Brown, both reportedly fans of Gorgeous. It goes through Ric Flair, William Regal, and other wrestlers. But although the line goes to him, Trump in some ways has flipped (piledriven?) the Gorgeous George persona on its head. Gorgeous played the heel to fill the arenas with those who came to jeer him. Trump, too, acts the heel, but not to the faithful in front of him. Trump unites with the audience and together they act as the heel to all who are not Trump’s fans or are, like Vince McMahon, Trump’s real or imagined nemeses. It provided pleasure akin to that at a wrestling spectacle when he would say–and the crowd would join in denouncing–little Mario, that nasty woman, the lying press. The fantasy of pro wrestling, however, becomes dangerously real when Trump wants the audience to join him in jeering at and taking down legitimate news media. Wrestling stars in the ring have a made up and scripted role, but Trump seems not to realize the President of the United States is not a fictional character.
Gorgeous entered the arena to work and work up the audience. When the crowd frenziedly taunted him, he would shout back, “Shut up, you peasants.” The crowed would roar with delight. Trump’s has shifted the heel’s performance. His audience roars because Trump and his audience together seem to shout to all those that are not enthralled by him, “Shut up, you elites.”