Earlier this year Donald Trump tweeted a GIF of himself beating up a figure with a CNN logo for a head, which was taken from a Wrestlemania event the President of the United States really had taken part it. While the tweet didn’t do much to bolster Trump’s reputation among those who doubt his suitability for the country’s highest office, it did serve as a reminder that Trump’s long career as a celebrity included a stint in one of the US’s foremost forms of theatre – pro-wrestling.
The connections between politics and wrestling in the US are surprisingly numerous. Jesse “The Body” Ventura (a wrestler from the 80s) became Governor of Minnesota. Rhyno, a legend from the 90s promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling, ran for the Michigan house of representatives as a Republican campaigning on the issue of above ground swimming pools, though was unsuccessful. And Kane – the Undertaker’s storyline brother, who “had his life destroyed in a fire” and who literally sets the ring alight during his entrance, is currently in the middle of a campaign for Mayor of Knox County.
And while Trump wasn’t in politics when he was in wrestling, other politicans have made efforts to reach out specifically to wrestling audiences, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain did back in 2008, with extremely pun-heavy results.
Yet Trump stands out. He is after all the only politican to have been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and, up until his presidency, he considered it his greatest honour.
The period between January and June 2009 that earned Trump his place in the hall was geared up towards a face-off with WWE owner Vince McMahon billed as “Battle of the Billionaires”. Each picked a wrestler to represent them in a fight that would result in the losing “billionaire” being shaved bald. Like any other television soap opera, every character, of course, is scripted. To this day, Trump remains close friends with the McMahon family, who donated $7m to his campaign. Vince’s wife Linda is now Administrator of the Small Business Administration in Trump’s White House.
Court Bauer, a WWE writer during the time Trump was one of its stars, describes him as “pretty much reliable, predictable and easy to work with which, in my role when you’re doing live TV, is just about all you can ask for.
“He’d have some hostile crowds that would reject anything that was not pro wrestling crowds and, just like his time running for office, you couldn’t rattle him in that environment, which was interesting looking at the parallels.”
Could that experience have helped Trump get to where he is today? During his time on WWE, Trump was performing in front of live, sometimes confrontational, crowds for the first time. On one occasion, in a bid to bring the crowd on-side, he had hundreds of dollars with his face printed on them showered on to the audience from the rafters. In the wrestling storyline, he even went on to “purchase” WWE – until the stock market freaked out and they moved the storyline in a different direction.
There are also parallels between Tump’s current fondness for talking about and creating fake news, and his time in WWE. When he was wrestling rather than governing he still blamed the media for issues such as lying about his hair being a wig. He also turned to his own polling when Vince McMahon referred to real polls among celebrities showing 95 per cent wanted Trump to be shaved bald. Trump countered, citing the “newest polls” showed 95 per cent of “Hollywood” actually wanting Vince to be shaved. Having only one celebrity’s opinion to draw on was no barrier to making the claim.
And if you thought Trump bringing up his and his opposition’s manhood in front of live crowds was an anomaly arising from his poltiical career, think again. Instead of comparing “hand sizes” with Marco Rubio, he talked about the size of his “Trump Tower” compared to Vince McMahon’s “grapefruits”.
All of these theatrics are about one thing – manipulating the crowd, something that is as necessary in wrestling as it is in campaigning for the presidency.
“As a wrestler, your objective is to take these people in attendance, these viewers, and convert them into whatever you are selling by the message you are putting out there,” says Bauer. “And they are either going to need to cheer for you or boo for you by design. You need to figure that out and it’s the art of manipulating a crowd.
“So, the qualities, the DNA is so similar in both the running for office and being a politician and being a pro wrestler. Essentially it is a popularity contest and it’s trying to send a message that you are the hero, the saviour, the white knight in shining armour or you’re the dastardly villain. And obviously in politics you’re trying to position yourself as hope. You’re the guy that’s going to save the day. It’s a lot of bravado and those qualities are evident in pro wrestling no matter what league you watch.”
And what of that now-infamous moment that inspired the CNN-headed fight GIF, what can that tell us? Bauer remembers the moment when “Donald jumped right on him and got physical. I was expecting Donald to be a little prissy but he wasn’t so I was surprised by that.
“I guess if I was to go back and watch all of the different things we did with him, it’s just surreal to see where America is going into the next four years.”
In wrestling, when characters are successful they describe them as taking their own real personality and “turning the dial up to 100”. As President, Donald Trump has certainly done that.
Dan Higgins is host of The World According To Wrestling podcast. The latest episode exploring Donald Trump’s relationship with the sport in depth will be available from iTunes on 18 September.