Trump Supporters and Wrestling Mania

Taking a break from the usual television news broadcasts on CNN and BBC, I happened upon an emission of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) called WrestleMania. While the modern-day gladiators were performing in the ring, I started following the crowd, which was thoroughly energized. Hooting and yelling for one of their heroes or vilifying the obvious villains, they held up signs of love and hate. It was a binary moment of raw emotions.

In one of those gottcha epiphanies, I realized that the wrestling supporters I was watching were the same people whom I had just seen hooting, yelling and vilifying at Trump midterm rallies. Same type of dress, same visceral reactions to the performance they were witnessing. While one group was screaming “Lock her up,” the other was raising posters that read “Die Rocky Die” or “Unleash the Fury.” The screams at Trump rallies – where posters are carefully screened – are similar to the violent signs at WWE events. Only the scrupulous mis-en-scene of Trump events stopped the followers from expressing themselves with angry slogans.

Not being an avid fan of wrestling and not having listened to all of Trump’s speeches during the midterm campaign, I had lost focus on the key to Trump’s success – his supporters. By focusing on the President himself, I had lost touch with his base. Rather than thinking about the “deplorables,” I had chosen to ignore them. Rather than concentrating on swing voters, like suburban white women, I had forgotten about Trump’s loyal followers.

Now you may think my gottcha moment was ill conceived. You may think Trump and the WWE are like apples and oranges. But there is some history to back me up. Pre-politician Trump and the creator of WWE, Vince McMahon, went through several performances about which of their favorite fighters could beat the other. Trump and McMahon played the crowds, just as President Trump plays the same crowds at his rallies. In the end, Trump’s fighter won, and Trump physically attacked McMahon. In that infamous 2007 Battle of the Billionaires, McMahon’s head was shaven by Trump before 80,000 spectators in the culmination of a successful crowd-pleasing campaign.

The relationship between Trump and the wrestling impresario has continued. Trump named Linda Marie McMahon, Vince’s wife, to be the Administrator of the Small Business Administration in the Trump Administration. There is obviously some complementarity here.

Is there a counter to the wrestling mentality? When at the 2016 Democratic National Convention Michelle Obama said; “When they go low we go high,” the question is how low the wrestling crowd can go. Watching the video of the Trump/McMahon phenomenon, it is inconceivable to imagine that the man wrestling McMahon to the ground outside the ring would one day be president of the United States.

How could it happen? The answer is not to focus on Trump or to try to psychoanalyze him, but to focus on his crowds. Whatever one says about him – he did receive 40 million votes in 2016 and remains above 40% in approval ratings – his base is not just the television fans who followed him on The Apprentice. Sitting in one’s living room waiting for the punch line “You’re fired” is not the same as actively attending a wrestling extravaganza with a hand-made sign yelling and screaming for some muscle-bound brute clobbering another brute performing in the ring before a powerless referee. (The rule of law is no more respected in the WWE ring than it is in the Oval Office.)

I hesitate to suggest that you watch the WWE on television. However, there is a fascination with the orchestrated nature of the costumes, heroes and villains as well as the dialogue between the wrestlers/actors. There are speech narratives between the performers that sometime harken back to the villains and heroes of the Cold War. Television wrestling has become a big business conceived and produced to appeal to the audience’s basest instincts.

And the fact that it is a big business reflects the success of President Trump. He, like the WWE, has touched on something that appeals to millions of Americans. Not that all his supporters watch WWE, but there is an energizing effect in his appearances and the wrestling events that recalls crowds in the Roman Colosseum where the Emperor gave re-assurances against the invading hordes. The artificiality of the wrestling, like the artificiality of Trump’s hair and pronouncements, recharges the batteries. Amidst confusion over globalisation and diminishing U.S. prestige in an interdependent world, there is something re-assuring about a childish picture of good and evil with all the accompanying paraphernalia to guarantee that the good (we) will triumph.

It’s all about performance. It’s all about appealing to the audience. Vince and Donald have found a formula that resonates. Is there any formula to “flip” their fans?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.