In the 16 months between launching his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and closing it with an ad that recalled the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” President-elect Donald Trump broke practically every rule of politics and rejected the norms of conventional wisdom at every turn. He insulted women, Gold Star families and war heroes. He mocked the disabled and traded barbs with the pope. He lied consistently about his record and claimed that the whole election was rigged against him. In most years, any one of those actions would disqualify candidates from office and ensure their defeat.
Trump might not have been playing by the rules of politics, but he won the game. So how did he do it? Those looking to his career as a developer or reality TV host came up short in predicting Trump’s survival and eventual victory, because those are only part of the story. The most important lessons Donald Trump ever learned were in a pro wrestling ring.
Trump’s decades-long relationship with the world of pro wrestling — and its chief company, WWE, and chief mastermind, Vince McMahon — has been well-documented. He sponsored two early WrestleManias, endorsed Jesse Ventura for president at one and headlined another (he didn’t wrestle, but he did help “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shave McMahon’s head). In one storyline, he “bought” the WWE’s flagship program, “Monday Night Raw,” causing the company’s real-life stock to take a hit. He’s even in the company’s Hall of Fame.
Trump’s time in the squared circle wasn’t simply a business venture: It was a chance to commune with McMahon, with whom he shares a nearly parallel biography. Born to leaders of regional industries, both men took over their fathers’ businesses and turned them into national powerhouses. After ascending to the heights of American culture in the 1980s, they suffered setbacks — legal, financial, personal — in the ’90s before roaring back to prominence at the turn of the new millennium, with the same “You’re fired!” catchphrase, no less.
In pro wrestling, Trump found a world where his particular skills come in handy. Pro wrestling is a morality play where the hero (the “babyface” or simply “face”) battles the villain (the “heel”). The heel gets “heat” — a negative reaction from the crowd — by insulting his enemies and his audience, cheating at every turn and claiming that the game is rigged against him. The audience boos the heel and eagerly waits for the face to give him his comeuppance.
Throughout this presidential campaign, Trump relished his role as a heel, and nearly every one of his positions, statements and actions had an analogue in the annals of pro wrestling. This week, political junkies who were also attuned to the rules of wrestling expected Trump to finally get his comeuppance by losing in dramatic fashion to Hillary Clinton. Obviously, that did not happen. So is the pro wrestling rulebook yet another one Trump has managed to rip up?
Not quite. Heels do win. Arguably the best professional wrestler of all-time, Ric Flair, is a 16-time world champion who reigned for more than 3,000 days over his career, often for longer than a year at a time. Flair also dubbed himself the “stylin’, profilin’, limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun,” which the Donald would surely appreciate. Even today, the two top champions in the WWE are heels. Heels win championships because it’s good storytelling to have a babyface chase after them. Eventually, a face will win and get the “rub,” or boost in stature within the WWE’s hierarchy, that vanquishing a bastard heel provides. But not every face can climb that final mountain.
If Donald Trump was the heel, then Hillary Clinton was the babyface (if a flawed one) in this campaign. She stayed cool, calm and collected, while Trump seemingly became more extreme as Election Day neared. Even though she played the face, though, a winning combination of voters never got behind her.
Unlike the election, pro wrestling really is rigged, from top to bottom. The booker picks the faces and the heels, plots the storylines and determines the outcomes. If it is done well, the fans cheer the faces, boo the heels and buy tickets, merchandise and pay-per-views. But even the best booker misjudges his audience, from time to time. It even happened to McMahon, a billionaire who built a global entertainment brand.
One of the biggest stars in the WWE today is Roman Reigns. He’s a 31-year-old former football player with the physique of a Greek god, movie-star looks and a prestigious pedigree: he’s a member of the Samoan Anoa’i family, which makes him a cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. After he’d been wrestling for several years, it seemed as if Reigns had been chosen by McMahon to be the face of the company to succeed another star, John Cena, as Cena had followed The Rock and Stone Cold before him. Reigns won big matches, was thrust into the main event and was used as a PR spokesman, filming a PSA for the Ad Council’s “Fatherhood” campaign and other promotional duties.
Then the fans revolted.
Even though everyone knows wrestling is rigged, McMahon’s heavy-handed push of Reigns was a bridge too far. Most fans preferred Daniel Bryan, the scrappy, undersized vegan who up through the ranks of smaller, independent wrestling promotions before coming to WWE. Reigns is a prototypical babyface and the perfect candidate to carry the WWE into the next generation, but he can’t get over with fans. From his look to his in-ring skill to his lineage, he’s perfect on paper. Fans just refuse to root for him.
Maybe what this week taught us is that Clinton is the Roman Reigns of presidential politics. Trump — thanks to what he’s learned from McMahon — is Ric Flair. And with the conventional wisdom of politics in disrepair, perhaps we should be watching more WWE and less cable news to figure out what happens next.