NEW YORK >> Making bombastic boasts. Dropping signature catch phrases. Attaching insults to rivals’ names. Shouting down perceived enemies.
If President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on television personalities, journalists and political rivals feel like something straight out of the pro wrestling circuit, it may not be a coincidence.
Wrestling aficionados say the president, who has a long history with the game, has borrowed the time-tested tactics of the squared circle to cultivate the ultimate antihero character, a figure who wins at all costs, incites outrage and follows nobody’s rules but his own.
“In our terminology, he’s playing it to the hilt,” said former World Wrestling Entertainment writer Dan Madigan.
On Sunday, Trump’s apparent fondness for wrestling emerged in a tweeted mock video that shows him pummeling a man in a business suit — his face obscured by the CNN logo — outside a wrestling ring. It was not clear who produced the brief video, which appeared to be a doctored version of Trump’s 2007 appearance on World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. But it was tweeted from the president’s official Twitter account.
Madigan was first struck by the parallels last summer when Trump was introduced at the Republican National Convention. There was a backlit Trump, unveiled in stark silhouette, who then sauntered onto stage at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, just like wrestling’s most infamous antihero, The Undertaker.
“His demeanor, duration of his walk to the podium, his playing to the crowd. … Pure Undertaker,” Madigan said.
And Trump’s tiger-like pacing on stage behind Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate last fall in St. Louis? That’s how wrestlers stalk their opponents during pre-match taunting sessions.
In subsequent months of Trump’s tweets and public feuds, it became clear to Madigan and other former WWE writers that, consciously or not, Trump was channeling professional wrestling in his politics.
“The parallels are uncanny,” said Domenic Cotter, a producer who in the mid-2000s cut backstage segments for WWE.
Depending on your political affiliation, the writers said, Trump is playing one of two classic wrestling characters: The “heel,” or ultimate bad guy, who wins at all costs; or the modern-day wrestling protagonist, dubbed a “face” or “babyface,” in wrestling parlance.
“I think of Donald Trump as the ultimate babyface,” Cotter said, “almost in the ilk of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, who was this rage-against-the-machine, anti-authority and establishment figure.”
Cotter saw Trump employ a classic pro wrestling tactic during his first news conference as president-elect, when he ordered CNN reporter Jim Acosta to be quiet and barked, “You are fake news!”
“In wrestling terminology, he cut a promo on that CNN reporter and got over him, basically,” Cotter said. “In wrestling, some smarmy heel is going on and on and on and the baby face quips a response right back and the audience goes crazy.”
Perhaps Trump comes by it naturally. He hosted back-to-back WrestleMania events in his Atlantic City, New Jersey, Trump Plaza in 1988 and 1989. And then, most famously, there was a mock “Battle of the Billionaires” in 2007 when he body-slammed and then shaved the head of WWE boss Vince McMahon.
Most recently, he picked McMahon’s wife, Linda, who ran twice unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut, to head the Small Business Administration.
Ranjan Chhibber, a humanities and film studies professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville who has written about pro wrestling, said Trump is most clearly portrayed in the ring by the industry’s current bad-boy-turned-hero: CM Punk, a brash 38-year-old wrestler whom writers have dubbed the “Voice of the Voiceless.”
CM Punk’s character often says he will say things no one else dares to say, and wrestling writers have created a new narrative for him that’s almost tailor-made for the current political environment of leaked emails and unauthorized dossiers: revealing the secrets of what happens backstage.
“This is pro-wrestling writing genius,” Chhibber said.
In wrestling, writers create season-long dramas that turn the mat into a stage for fantasy. Narratives pit good against evil, stronger personalities win over more subdued ones, and announcers legitimize the at-any-costs tactics of the “heels.”
When Trump publicly supports Russia’s Vladimir Putin, depicted by the U.S. intelligence services as a sort of global “heel,” he is effectively playing the role of the announcer who builds up the bad boy in the ring, justifying his alpha-dog behavior, Madigan said.
And when Trump assigns prefixes to his political rivals’ names (think “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” Brzezinski or “Crooked Hillary” Clinton) he is effectively emulating the longtime wrestling announcer Bobby “The Brain” Hennan, who cheered on “heels” over rule-following “babyface” wrestlers he disparaged.
“The hero is boring. He does the same vanilla thing,” Madigan said. “You always watch what the bad guy says and does.”