In the spring of 2005 a media consulting company advised Vince McMahon’s behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment that they needed seasoned television professionals working as writers and directors in their creative department. In June of that year I was hired by WWE Creative Director and Vince’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon, as a director of backstage segments with a group of other Hollywood veterans who had been aged out of a business already in the process of replacing scripted television with reality shows.
It was a grand plan that failed quickly and there was a revolving door for those who chose to take the job. After a tortuous four-month stint to my great relief I was fired for a multitude of cultural sins. Still it was an enlightening experience. My time there afforded me insight into a world that I knew nothing of upon my arrival and perhaps too much about by the time I was canned.
Most of the wrestlers were kind and generous to me and I greatly admired their commitment and courage although the stories being played out in the ring were to me mostly bad theater. There was no mistaking the emotional investment that every fan in these huge arenas had for the characters.
I came to understand that the entertainment that wrestling carried to every part of the country was valued and trusted and that the best wrestlers were brilliant performers and related to their fans on a deeply visceral level. It takes some of them years in the ring to develop a persona and the confidence to perform but the moment Donald Trump appeared on WWE’s Raw he fit like the Championship Belt around The Rock. If one considers Donald Trump and his current quest to become President of the United States, his current public persona can be easily understood through his involvement with Vince McMahon and the WWE.
The relationship of 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Donald Trump and Vince McMahon goes back to Wrestlemania 4 in 1988 when Trump sold McMahon on bringing Wrestling’s crown jewel to the Convention Center in Atlantic City. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the next year Wrestlemania 5 returned to Atlantic City, but this time at Trump Plaza.
Trump at that time was much less the blowhard and fabulist that we have come to know and his hair had not yet taken on a life of its own.
Trump at that time was much less the blowhard and fabulist that we have come to know and his hair had not yet taken on a life of its own. He was a welcome and entertaining guest on talk shows and the media embraced him as New York City’s favorite son, a champion tycoon in the fierce bare knuckle battles of the city's booming real estate business.
Trump was a Republican but in 1999 he announced that the GOP had gotten to be “just too crazy” and he left the party. You hear the ubiquitous comparison of Trump being PT Barnum but that isn’t analogous. Barnum lived behind the curtain, Trump lived in front of a gold gilded one and he has always put his life on public display and his name on as many buildings that he deemed deserved it.
After playing the part of Midas for years on talk shows, the news, and then on Mark Burnett’s “The Apprentice,” Trump had branded himself as a shaman of success. His esoteric golden empire included his vast real estate holdings, best-selling books, online universities, clothing lines, Miss USA, Miss Universe and the ever present 757 jet.
On his reality show he was the man with all the know-how, all the connections, all the smarts to be the most successful man in the world. His actual abilities or technical business acumen are never seen but he freely speaks of his genius and his confidence is supreme.The Apprentice’s Mr. Trump is a cardboard character presented in simple terms and he sells it well.
By 2007 Celebrity Apprentice had made Donald Trump an international brand. He stood upon a pedestal of his own making. He was Yoda with billions, always the one to be deferred to and blameless in any scenario. Criticism, though, could find a way under all that cardboard and it hit a very raw spot. His feud with Rosie O’Donnell in 2006 was the first dose the public got of The Trump venom. O’Donnell had called Trump out with malice on a segment of “The View” after he wouldn’t fire a scandalized 2006 Miss USA Tara Conner. She called him a “snake oil salesman,” brought up his cheating on his ex-wife Ivana, and Trump Resorts Atlantic City bankruptcies.
Trump was incensed. Bankruptcy?? “Niiiagara Falls!” and slowly he turned. Trump dialed up People Magazine and Mr. Trump, the shamanesque character that he and Burnett had been developing over the previous three years, stepped out of the boardroom and into the ring. Suddenly, the words “loser, dumb, no talent, fat, ugly, not smart, talentless, I’ll sue” started flying. This name-calling is now the base tool Trump uses on those who challenge him. It is the common trait of the school yard bully.
Vince McMahon took notice of the feud in January 2007 and wanted a piece of it. Wrestling characters are classified in two categories, Heels and Baby Faces, also known as Faces. The essence of any WWE presentation is to keep things simple. There are no gray areas in the storylines or performances and over acting and hyperbole are necessary to reach the back row of the big arenas that are filled with rabid wrestling fans who love the brackish theater of the Great Unwashed.
WWE creative loves to play to headlines and since the Trump-O’Donnell feud was a gift that kept on giving they tested the waters with wrestlers playing Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell facing of in a match. Vince made Rosie the Heel and Donald the Face. The Trump character triumphed to a hot and approving crowd and the writers room at WWE headquarters in Stamford started working on a story line. It would be Mr. Trump mano a mano with Mr. McMahon in “The Battle of the Billionaires” starting on “WWE Raw” with the story line resolving at Wrestlemania 23 in Detroit.
Vince pitched the story to Donald. He loved it. During a live broadcast of Raw, his character, Mr. Trump appearing on the Titantron, announces that he is about to drop buckets of real cash on an adoring crowd to overshadow Mr. McMahon’s faux generosity on Fan Appreciation Night. Trump nails the performance and uses the angle of showing up Mr. McMahon convincingly. The money falls from above and a furious Mr. McMahon performs his famous pissed off walk and storms out of the arena. The table is set and the next month Trump appears on Raw again for the formal signing of the Battle of the Billionaires match for Wrestlemania. This time Trump will have to cut a live promo with Vince. A promo is a semi-scripted performance in the ring to hype an upcoming match, usually for a pay per view event. Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Triple H, Stone Cold Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, Ric Flair, and Vince McMahon are just a few of the masters of getting into the squared circle and then delivering a muscled performance that whips the crowd into a frenzy.
Usually the opponent will come into the ring for the promo and get nose to nose and usually its capped off with some violence. The WWE is a National Theater of Confrontation that delivers a simple dynamic with a good guy to cheer and cry for and a villain to boo and throw tomatoes at. Wrestling fans come in all intellects, races, sizes and ages. Vince McMahon will always make sure he plays to the dumbest fan in the back row of a sold out arena so everyone gets the meaning. So now does Donald Trump when he rants about Mexicans or threatens China or snipes about a woman’s period.
The story line of The Battle of The Billionaires would deal with the two characters’ vanity. It will actually be “The Hair Match.” The loser to suffer the shame of having his head shaved in the ring. Due to a McMahon “injury” The Battle of the Billionaires would have to be performed by proxies representing the two men. Mr. Trump’s entrance in this episode was typical old school. He appears with a beautiful girl on each arm in his costume: A Trump suit and tie from the Macy’s collection with the ubiquitous cashmere dark overcoat, his trademark look from The Apprentice.
Trump delivers the promo with skill and comfort. He is the Face in the story and Mr. McMahon is the classic Heel, venal and narcissistic and exploitive of his customers. Mr. Trump is the admired and pompadoured, straight-talking Gourgeous George Baby Face who will share his wealth with the crowd and be fearless in the face of evil.
Mr. McMahon exhibits a false bravado that shows respect and fear of Mr. Trump. It is beautifully played by Vince with the flare and ease of a man who answers to no one. He gives his adversary the crowd to take and when Mr. Trump sends Mr. McMahon flying over the signing table that guy in the last row gets Donald Trump just like he gets Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, John Cena and Shawn Michaels. Mr. Trump is relatable and as the cheers rolled down for him from the packed arena that night Donald Trump must have felt that he had found something, a visceral way to get through to The Everyman.
Wrestlemania 23 and its 1.2 million buyers broke the buy rate record for any previous Wrestlemania. There was never a chance that McMahon’s stand in, Umaga, was going to defeat Donald Trump’s, Bobby Lashley. There was no value in Mr. Trump losing the match and no way would one think that Trump would ever agree to get his head shaved in a wrestling ring in front of millions. In the end Mr. McMahon got his head shaved by the referee, the iconic Stone Cold Steve Austin, as Mr. Trump helped hold him down to the cacophonous approval of over 80,000 fans at Ford Field. Stone Cold would have the last word though, and welcomed Mr. Trump into the wrestling business with his specialty move, the Stunner. He laid him out cold.
When Donald Trump got up off the floor and left the ring that night he had found a comfort zone and an angle to communicate to the masses. After his post-Apprentice steroidal fame he was no longer just a real estate magnate with some side ventures. He had never played to a crowd of this magnitude before but those nights in the ring pretending to be that Master of the Universe was revelatory. He knew how to connect with the masses now. But he also knew after playing the Face that he had to turn Heel to really “go over” with fans because the Heel can say what he wants, throw insults, cheat and grow his fan base. In wrestling the Heels have the hot following and evoke the most passion and in politics the Heel now gets the attention, too.
Trump had supported and donated heavily to Democrats in 2008 and publicly supported Barrack Obama’s campaign. So when President Obama’s advisor, David Axlerod, rejected Trump’s offer in 2010 to take over the BP Oil Spill clean up and then turned down his plan to build a new ballroom for state dinners in the White House, the never-to-be-disrespected Mr. Trump turned Heel. President Obama would be his new Rosie.
Soon, Mr. Trump had become a Birther. He commandeered the ring with mike in hand and proclaimed he would take down Obama with the “amazing things” his crack team of sleuths had found out in Hawaii regarding his origins. The talk was untrue and simplistic but reached that dissatisfied guy in the last row. Mr. Trump was dismissed as a buffoon and was masterfully embarrassed by the Baby Face Obama at the 2011 correspondents dinner but he did not tap out. A true Heel licks his wounds and comes back with a vengeance and Mr. Trump has done just that.
Mr. Trump the Baby Face from the Nineties is now Mr. Trump the Heel, who stands in the wrestling arena of presidential politics and serves up Twitter trash about stupid people, horrible people, ugly people, talentless people, and Mexican rapist people. John McCain is not a war hero. Trump never served but likes people who aren’t captured. Here’s Lindsey Graham’s phone number. People who like him are winners, terrific, great. The ones who don’t are dismissed with that Mussolini scowl and branded as horrible, terrible, or losers. Mr. Trump knows he’s right because, “I was the best student in the greatest schools and I am a really, really smart guy.” He plays the villain with relish because he is certain that he is loved by everyone. “Latinos love me. Blacks love me. They will vote for me”
However, Mr. Trump’s skin appears paper thin. He sued Bill Maher for $5 million over a joke and then Timothy O’Brien for $5 billion over claims in that his stated net worth was over inflated. The Maher suit was withdrawn and the court dismissed the O’Brien case. He discovered Twitter was the perfect platform and showered fire then aim attacks on Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Seth Meyers, Robert DeNiro, Cher, and Megan Kelly. He hits with the ferocity of the Rock blasting Mick Foley with a metal folding chair. And his poll numbers and fan base grow.
He is never prepared with remarks or a stump speech. Just like that wrestler in the middle of the ring with a mike in his hand he has the instinct to always have something to say, usually made up on the spot but intoxicating to his base. The left is abhorred and the pundits dumbfounded by his abrasive message and delivery but there are a lot of people and not just the brick heads in the last row, who like what they hear and ask, “Why not”?
Could Mr. Trump’s muscled performance actually whip the crowd into enough of a frenzy for him to become the first Heel to be elected President of the United States?