With all the hubbub in the news lately, we somehow missed the induction of the late Rick Rude into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in March. Known for his flamboyant arrogance and aggressive hair, Ravishing Rick was a star of the Golden Age of rassling, the 1980s, when he and the likes of Hulk Hogan, André the Giant, Jerry Lawler and Ric Flair helped to turn a lowbrow guilty pleasure into a cable TV empire.
Rude — whose ring name, and thus his persona, sprang from his actual name, Rood — was vain and crass and given to taunting opponents and audience members alike. He once had a pair of tights made with a picture of Jake “The Snake” Roberts’s wife silk-screened across the pelvis. He celebrated his victories by grabbing a woman from the audience, seemingly at random, and planting a big, wet kiss on her — because, evidently, when you are a star they let you do anything. No gesture was too broad for this world of human cartoons.
It was a world that included one Donald Trump, the Ravishing Rick Rude of politics. Too little attention has been paid to Trump’s wrestling background, which was sufficiently broad that he reached the hall of fame a full four years ahead of Rude.
Trump was among the first self-promoters to hitch a ride on impresario Vince McMahon’s WWE juggernaut. He sponsored two of McMahon’s early WrestleMania extravaganzas back in the Golden Age, steering them to the Historic Atlantic City Convention Hall and promoting them through his Trump casinos. At the 1989 spectacle, you may recall, Hogan employed a devastating leg drop to defeat Randy Savage for the “world” championship, while Rude battled the Ultimate Warrior for the somehow-different “intercontinental” championship.
But the peak of Trump’s career came in 2007, when he was written into the script of WrestleMania 23 as one-half of the Battle of the Billionaires, facing off against McMahon. Before a crowd of 80,000 at Detroit’s Ford Field, with a million more watching on pay-per-view, Trump played his role to the hilt, clotheslining McMahon and pretending to pummel him on the floor before shaving the promoter’s head as the fruit of victory. The drama culminated with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin administering a Stunner punch to the future commander in chief.
This might be a mere footnote to Trump’s story — a celebrity-age version of young Abraham Lincoln’s match against an Illinois roughneck — except for this: The Trump presidency is right out of a WWE script. His brawling news conferences, his beefs with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Mika Brzezinski, the who’s-up-who’s-down chaos inside his White House, all bear the imprint of a man schooled on the melodramatic storylines of pro wrestling. In case we failed to notice, the president underlined the point by tweeting a clip from his WrestleMania triumph, with the CNN logo superimposed over McMahon’s face.
Trump might not have known who Frederick Douglass was when he took the oath of office or that health care’s a complicated business. But he has long been an expert storyteller, with a deep appreciation of the innate human appetite for narrative over data. Our brains naturally organize information into story form, and one of the oldest, most powerful patterns is the tale of a conflict: Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, Ravishing Rick vs. The Snake.
Outrageous Don scripted his campaign as a series of professional- wrestling scenarios, complete with menacing foreigners, unclever nicknames and plenty of trash talk. When the show got him elected, he doubled down, taunting world leaders and journalists alike. We haven’t seen him in tights yet, thank heavens, but he did get a bit saucy with the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron. Trump’s improvised line about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” would not be out of place on the USA Network’s weekly “WWE SmackDown.”
You might say all politicians tell stories of conflict. But with Trump, it’s relentless. He takes us from bout to bout — Trump against China, Trump against Comey, Trump against Kim, Trump against Fake News — with a head-spinning undercard of Jared against Bannon and Spicy Spicer against The Mooch. Every policy choice, every personnel decision, every setback can be fodder for the next day’s script. Faced with alt-right fascists marching in Charlottesville, Trump spun an “alt-left” to pit against them.
At this point, many Americans would like to change the channel. And indeed, pro-wrestling ratings have been dropping for years. But as long as Trump’s core audience laps it up, there will be more — culminating, perhaps, as Bob “the G-Man” Mueller delivers a Tilt-a-Whirl Headscissors Takedown followed by a Rude Awakening.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.