Just Like Wrestlemania, Trump Puts on a Show

On hollow tribalism and American culture

Donald Trump pumps up the crowd prior to the start of WrestleMania 23 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, on April 1, 2007. Photo: Leon Halip/WireImage/Getty Images

Even for those of us who can bear to continue watching, it’s not easy to keep track of all the mad words that emanate from Donald Trump’s mouth and fingertips. One day it’s another racist dog whistle, the next it’s some dribble about the Mueller investigation. Yet for all that’s come since, and notwithstanding whatever bullshit he tweets today, there’s one recent expostulation I can’t get out of my mind.

It was back in October, at a rally in Montana, when the U.S. president joked off-handedly about how Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter is worthy of applause. “Any guy that can do a body slam,” he said, as the familiar tableau of red hats behind him snickered along, “he’s my guy.”

Among stiff competition, this was a remarkable statement—a direct endorsement of violence against a reporter doing his job. In the annals of Trump misdemeanor, it was up there with the infamous “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” gambit from January 2016.

More specifically, it was an instance of Trumpian idiosyncrasy so wild it persuaded me to revisit a question that any examination of Trump’s ascendancy must seek to answer: Is the 45th president of the United States an aberration, a missed stitch on the otherwise tight-woven cloth of liberal democracy? Or is he instead an apotheosis, a culmination of a distinctly American spirit of stupidity and violence, one so predictable that the journalist H.L. Mencken was able to prophesy its inevitability almost a hundred years ago:

It was a line of inquiry for which body slams provided an oblique way in.

The singular cultural phenomenon now known as World Wrestling Entertainment had already been around for decades when it alighted on British television screens in the early 1990s, via the recent Transatlantic import of cable TV. For kids like me, it became a fleeting obsession, peaking with Wrestlemania VII, which took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum on March 24, 1991. A couple of days later, I watched a morning rerun of this annual extravaganza at a friend’s house, where we deposited all the sofa cushions on the floor so we could reenact the suplexes and pile drivers in tandem with the action in the ring.

The Ultimate Warrior. Photo: The Denver Post via Getty Images

Among the most anticipated encounters was a “retirement match” between Macho Man Randy Savage, an unhinged all-American antihero, with big hair and a lumberjack’s beard, and fan-favorite The Ultimate Warrior, who was known for his half-crazed demeanor and his superhuman ability to body slam all 500 pounds of Andre the Giant. The stakes were high: to settle an ongoing feud, the loser would have to hang up his leotard for good. Savage entered the arena in a wide-brimmed hat and white spandex trousers. Warrior followed him in, snarling in tasseled pink boots and fluorescent face paint.

The bell rang.

Unfamiliar with the WWE script—unaware, at this point, that there was a script at all—we thrilled as the fight swung this way and that. For much of the match, Savage, cast as the villain, appeared to have the upper-hand. But then, channeling, as we were led to believe, some divine life force begotten by his ancestors, Warrior was revived. After some trademark rope-shaking and foot-stomping, Warrior bounced off the ropes to shoulder-charge Savage in the head several times in a row. Finally, with Savage concussed and prostrate on the canvas, Warrior placed a boot on his chest. The referee slid to the ground for the three-count, and Warrior, his bespangled arms held aloft, basked in the hollering and applause.

The drama wasn’t over. For Warrior’s defeated adversary, succor came in the permed form of his estranged girlfriend, Elizabeth, who’d been watching from the crowd. When Savage’s demented manager, the Sensational Queen Sherri, added insult to injury by castigating and assaulting Savage, Elizabeth entered the ring to intervene… Okay, this is all getting rather complicated, but Savage and Elizabeth were reunited and then carried off-stage on a dais to the strains of “Land of Hope & Glory.” Members of the crowd wept tears of joy. This was soap opera and high-octane sport in one. My God, I was sold.

U.S. wrestling burst from the screen in a pageant of glamour and super-sized stadia.

For the next week, at least, the schoolyard was abuzz with chat about the wrestling spectacular—until one older boy explained, with the pomposity of a sage popping a dozen delusions, that the whole thing was a sham. What had, to my callow child’s mind, seemed like a kinetic martial art, was all masquerade, the fighters just stuntmen in tight-fitting trousers.

And, in that moment, I derived a feeling that would calcify with each passing year: that whatever the U.S.—this extraordinary and enviable superpower—displayed on the surface seldom looked so simple when you lifted the curtain and peeked backstage.

It seems hard to fathom, against the polarizing backdrop of Trump’s America, that the United States in the spring of 1991 was a place most people in the West looked upon with a fair degree of admiration and awe. The Berlin Wall was rubble; communism was in its death throes. Saddam Hussein, Western democracy’s enemy du jour, had just been chastened by Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War. America’s grip on international geopolitics seemed unassailable, as Fukuyama’s End of History thesis became a reassuring axiom of irreversible democratic stability. But for kids, more pertinently, U.S. culture had established a global monopoly.

The United States we saw on the screen and on the billboards was the country where everyone lived in big houses and the good guy always won, if not immediately then at least before the credits rolled. It was the eternal sunshine of Flipper, Baywatch, and Beverly Hills Cop. It was the preternatural talent of Madonna and Michael Jordan. It was the virility of Mike Tyson and Schwarzenegger dispatching dark foreign armies single-handed. The fantasyland of Knight Rider, Ultimate Warrior, and Cindy Crawford’s mole.

It was all such an antidote to the drizzly austerity of post-Thatcher Britain. We had our own wrestling, shown each Saturday as part of a sports roundup program generously titled World of Sport. But while U.S. wrestling burst from the screen in a pageant of glamour and super-sized stadia, our version looked as though it took place in a drab town hall on a Monday night. Its stars were Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, chronically obese men in home-stitched leotards, bouncing into each other with jolly bellies of pie and ale.

This version of the U.S. only retained its luster if you narrowed your eyes, if you allowed the details, the inconvenient counterpoints, to be subsumed by the pageant.

Is it any wonder that we revered the brash superpower across the Atlantic? At school, it wasn’t unknown for kids to fib about having U.S. ancestry in order to elevate their social capital. Me, I claimed to be one-quarter American, augmenting this falsehood with the yet more dubious one that my single mum drove a Rolls Royce, which perhaps evokes something of the yuppie preoccupations of the wealth-obsessed period I grew up in.

It should go without saying that ours was an abbreviated view of life in the U.S., circumscribed by a youthful disinterest in history and news. We didn’t know much about Vietnam or the civil rights movement, not to mention the drug war or the L.A. Riots. Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air played each week on terrestrial TV, and the African-Americans on our screens seemed to be doing just fine.

It would be stretching the truth to say that this impression of the U.S. as a universally prosperous and confident place evaporated the moment that older kid punctured my post-Wrestlemania credulity. Instead, the resonance of the wrestling match, and the epiphany it presaged, was more something that coalesced in hindsight, as the image of the United States I’d ingested during its post-Cold War pomp splintered against the hard reality of the greed, inequality, and militarism that buttressed its prosperity behind the scenes.

I wasn’t alone. Between 2000 and 2008, Pew Research Center figures suggest that the proportion of Brits with a favorable view of the U.S. fell from 83 percent to 53 percent (under Trump, it has fallen to 50 percent). “In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common,” said Barack Obama, during a 2008 speech in Berlin. But by then even the note of self-awareness that accompanied Obama’s election could do little to resurrect my fantasy of the U.S. People hung onto the symbolism of his historic victory and the promise of his stirring words. But, to me, the polarities of that 2008 campaign, in which the rumblings of conservative Americans’ descent were already audible, augured ill.

After the catastrophic War on Terror exposed the lie of its moral superiority, after Hurricane Katrina exposed the nation’s contempt for its hidden underclass, the U.S. no longer seemed like a place to be envied, but rather the nation that had led the way in shaping a world of selfishness, runaway consumption, and impending climatological cataclysm. It was the country of Sarah Palin’s folksy, gun-fetishizing patriotism, and Fox News sophistry. And it was a country where grown men, holding foam hands and crude banners, drank watery beer and yelled in support of steroid-pumped actors in spandex pretending to beat each other senseless with moves like the “people’s elbow” and the “socko claw.”

Sgt. Slaughter. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This version of the U.S. only retained its luster if you narrowed your eyes, if you allowed the details, the inconvenient counterpoints, the interests and viewpoints of other countries, to be subsumed by the pageant. As such, wrestling entertainment seemed its perfect allegory. Wrestlemania VII had presented a world whose protagonists could throw punches without consequence. It was a world where the abusive tirades and trash talk caused their subjects no real anguish, and even bad guys like Sgt. Slaughter, a perma-grimacing paramilitary who lost his world title to Hulk Hogan in the other headline match of 1991, could oscillate between villainy and heroism over the course of one week’s plotline. Hell, it was a sport where your term never had to end: a few months after Warrior ended his career, Randy Savage was back in the ring.

Donald Trump, in his erstwhile persona of property tycoon and relentless self-publicist, bestrides the 27 years between then and now as the very avatar of the uncomplicated, bellicose U.S. that held kids like me in thrall, and he ended up becoming its ultimate beneficiary. He even trod the WWE boards. In oft-shared footage of WWE events from decades past, Trump can be seen making multiple cameos, sometimes blowing off to a mic in a foreshadowing of his future campaign speeches, most famously beating up franchise owner Vince McMahon, body slamming him ringside in the much-trumpeted “Battle of the Billionaires.”

In 2013, a couple years after making his first potent political intervention by promulgating the “birther” scandal, Trump was granted admission to the WWE Hall of Fame. As a vehicle for self-promotion, these appearances made perfect sense: A self-styled paragon of red-blooded machismo, Trump was of that world.

Would anyone have been that surprised if, during the presidential debates, after stalking Hillary Clinton around the stage like a comedy shadow, Trump had suddenly clattered her over the head with a folding chair? Would it have derailed his campaign if he had?

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that over time I would come to see the moment I was disabused of wrestling’s authenticity as one that foreshadowed the end of the global love affair with the U.S., and to see wrestling, with its belligerent posturing and inconsequential violence, as a template for the unravelling of the United States’ national conversation.

In January 2016, when Trump said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any voters, most observers dismissed it as hyperbole, just another outlandish instance of Trumpian bombast.

Trump kicked up a shitstorm of all those grievances, then rode it all the way to Washington.

However, by October 2018, when a series of letter bombs were dispatched to the president’s enemies, and a gunman massacred 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, few remained under any illusions about the spell that had been spun. That this spate of violence had been in some way catalyzed by Trump’s relentless conspiracism and demonization of his opponents should prompt little argument. That it would do next to nothing to undermine his base is something else altogether.

In discussing the way that Trump strips away the performative politesse of Beltway convention, a superficial analysis might describe a politician “lowering the tone” or “telling it like it is.” But what he actually does is far more radical. In a culture saturated in media and make-believe, Trump’s pantomimic style blurs the line between theater and reality. He taps into a rich seam of selective dissociation—that unintended offshoot of the liberal project, where people aren’t merely permitted to be whoever they want to be, but can also believe whatever the hell they want to believe.

When I watch footage of the Warrior-Savage fight now on grainy YouTube clips, it’s hard not to gawp at my pre-pubescent gullibility. The theatrics, the ebullient personas, and the extravagant stage combat look preposterous to my more cynical adult eyes. Here’s the thing, though: Cheering for the muscular clowns was fun. The older boy’s enlightenment pissed me off because I’d wanted to believe the show was real. The binary of it—the good versus evil, the neat Manichean frame—was comforting. It gave us reason to cheer, to lose ourselves, and it was so fucking dumb and mad that it was easy to convince yourself that none of it mattered anyway.

Almost two years after Trump knocked down the door to the Oval Office, the postmortem of his rise continues unabated. The usual explanations for his success are the ones you’ve read a hundred times by now, all true in their way: that he channeled the latent bigotry kept quelled by the politically correct imperatives of the liberal ascendancy; that he empowered the cultural revanchism of a dispossessed working class; that he exploited the fury of people who had internalized the shibboleths of the American dream, yet wondered why their graft and patriotism hadn’t been rewarded. Trump kicked up a shitstorm of all those grievances, then rode it all the way to Washington.

People follow Trump because he furnishes their victimhood with legitimacy and like a political P.T. Barnum, he puts on a good show.

But, perhaps as much as any of those, I often wonder whether the prevailing motive—and the aspect of Trump’s appeal that permits his supporters to make peace with the man’s undeniable grotesquery—is the one you feel when you’re a child, watching a 280-pound meathead with a mullet shoulder-charge a bad guy in the head three times in a row. It is the infantile appeal of mindlessness.

When I watch that video of Trump paying homage to Gianforte’s temper, I can’t help but wonder whether those people behind him are still capable of dispassionately processing the implications of his words. Because, by now, for a zealous faction of the U.S. public, Trump has become bread and circuses for the beer-hat era. He stands there, a cartoon figure, and presents his acolytes with the elemental barbarism of a cage match—no matter how much disbelief they must suspend in the process.

They follow him not just because he furnishes their victimhood with legitimacy, but because, like a political P.T. Barnum, he puts on a good show. They follow him because he rekindles the simplicity of a bygone time, when even the most unfulfilling life was slightly burnished by the shared glow of national exceptionalism. They follow him because he blurs the line between our primal enjoyment of seeing someone take a plumb punch to the jaw, and our comprehension of that punch leaving a bruise, breaking teeth, rattling a brain.

Deep down, in whatever vestige of reality they have yet to surrender, they know it’s a con. Mexico was never going to pay for that wall; the industrial jobs are gone for good. But the crowds fill the auditoria. They spew the slogans, and they boo and cheer. They buy the hats, and if there were foam hands for sale, they’d buy them too.

Pick your reality. Pick your champ.

“He’s my guy.”

When I was 10 years old, I understood that just fine.

Essays, features and assorted ramblings for over 80 publications, inc. NYT Magazine, WaPo, NYT, The Atlantic, WSJ, Nat Geo, and TIME: www.henry-wismayer.com.

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