Emerging from the rising wave of nationalism engulfing the country, President Donald Trump entered the political arena as an apparent joke candidate but managed to tap into a pulsating vein of tribalism within his base. Although Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee bear responsibility for losing the election last year, Trump won the election by utilizing social psychology tactics that he learned over a decade ago at Wrestlemania 23.
In April 2007, Trump appeared at ringside during one of the Wrestlemania matches and attacked World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO Vince McMahon before shaving his head alongside “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Bobby Lashley. After becoming president a decade later, Trump retweeted a video of the scripted attack, but with the addition of the CNN logo covering McMahon’s face.
As a wrestler, Trump’s performance at Wrestlemania 23 was abysmal. But as an entertainer, Trump knew how to sway the crowd of screaming maniacs to cheer for him: attack the largest authority figure in the room.
Although many popular champions in sports entertainment were either repeatedly injured or simply not skilled wrestlers, their true prowess lay within their microphone skills and ability to sway an audience during a fight. Despite not possessing the technical abilities of their colleagues, the most popular wrestlers play to the lowest common denominator: the whims of the fans.
In the world of sports entertainment, wrestlers are either considered a face (babyface) or a heel (bad guy). In the world of politics, Trump immediately emerged as a heel and decided to remain in the character of an anti-authority antagonist while ironically seeking the most prominent position of authority in the nation.
The Muslim ban. The border wall. The “Access Hollywood” video. Referring to Mexicans as “rapists.” Insulting Sen. John McCain’s war record. Belittling a gold star family. The list could go on, but the evidence all points to Trump continuously doubling down on his role as a heel throughout the presidential campaign.
Instead of rationally discussing social justice issues, including racial inequality, prison overcrowding, police militarization, etc., Trump has successfully manipulated Americans into arguing over whether or not it’s disrespectful to kneel during the national anthem. Last year, Colin Kaepernick chose to sit during the national anthem in protest against disproportionate and many unlawful police shootings involving black suspects. After discussing the matter with Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer, Kaepernick agreed to kneel during the anthem as both a form of peaceful protest and to honor those fallen soldiers who died defending the people’s right to free speech.
Instead of draining the swamp, Trump appointed McMahon’s wife, Linda, as Administrator of the Small Business Administration, while Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price has reportedly spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money on private chartered flights since taking office. Price recently resigned while Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and other Trump administration officials are under investigation.
During Linda McMahon’s Senate confirmation hearing, she introduced her son-in-law, Paul Levesque (aka former WWE Heavyweight Champion Triple H), sitting in the front row. The moment reminded me of a movie in which the U.S. President was a former professional wrestler.
Directed by Mike Judge and starring Luke Wilson, “Idiocracy” is a 2006 satirical comedy about an average American who awakens 500 years later in a dystopian future where intellectualism is shunned and corporations thrive. In the film, Terry Crews played President Camacho, introduced as a “five-time Smackdown champion, porn superstar, and President of the United States.”
Turns out Judge and the audience only had to wait ten years for the near-prophetic script to predict the arrival of a Wrestlemania performer with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct into the Oval Office. What’s next? Are we going to start watering the White House lawn with Gatorade?
Professional sports and professional wrestling tap into a primal level of tribalism that Trump has funneled into a form of nationalism which appears to be rapidly enveloping the political sphere across the world. Although Trump succeeded in playing the part of a heel in order to become president, many American citizens can no longer distinguish between the anti-authoritarian character that he’s been playing and the morally dysfunctional person who he has truly been all along.