Trump, the political wrestler, knows the value of entertainment

Trump, the political wrestler, knows the value of entertainment

He doesn’t actually body slam anyone, but the outlandish theatre of pro wrestling is key to his style

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On Tuesday evening Donald Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary. But the more significant news arising from the Trump phenomenon took place that morning at the New York Stock Exchange, where TKO — the merged conglomerate of United Fighting Championship (UFC) and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) — rang the bell to begin trading.

The occasion was the signing of a 10-year, US$5-billion deal with Netflix to become the home of WWE’s weekly program, Raw. Now more than 30 years old, the three-hour show draws audiences big enough to justify Netflix paying US$500 million a year.

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Also on Tuesday night, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith had dinner with Tucker Carlson ahead of their public event together on Wednesday. That, too, is part of the same phenomenon, emphasizing the Calgary roots of a culture that now shapes politics and news.

I have been writing since the Trump candidacy in 2015 that it is not possible to understand his appeal without understanding the cultural influence of professional wrestling. The scripted (and real) physical conflict, the outlandish storylines, the caricatures of good and evil, the insulting rhetoric, the childish nicknames, the knowledge that everyone is in on the theatre — all of this is key to the Trump style. He doesn’t actually body slam anyone, but aside from that and the ring ropes, everything else is recognizable from a wrestling card.

To trace the trajectory backwards, Trump perfected his public profile on reality television, and wrestling was the original “reality” show. The wrestling was real, the drama scripted. In turn, the ethos of wrestling went mainstream with Muhammad Ali, who made braggadocio, demeaning of opponents and racial insults — Joe Frazier, the “ugly gorilla” — into a potent and popular public persona. Ali himself acknowledged that he learned how to be Ali from Gorgeous George, the flamboyant wrestling star of the 1950s.

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That wrestling would now be in a position to generate contracts at the level of the NFL and Olympics is an indication of how far the wrestlification of our culture has advanced. Trump did not create the phenomenon but he rode the wave.

Recall that Ali was present at the first Wrestlemania in 1985; Trump hosted the fourth and fifth editions at his casino in Atlantic City, and infamously was in the “battle of the billionaires” stunt at the 2007 Wrestlemania in Detroit. Trump even engaged in a little of the action himself, clotheslining WWE owner Vince McMahon outside the ring. Trump would end the segment lying prone in the ring, having been finished off by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. He would rise from the mat; 10 years later he was president.

A key moment in wrestlification took place in 1989. Tired of being regulated (and taxed) by state athletic commissions, McMahon testified before the New Jersey state senate that professional wrestling should be exempt, because wrestling is “primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.” McMahon got his exemption. Wresting wasn’t a sport; it was, in McMahon’s beloved neologism, “sports entertainment.”

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(A lawsuit filed on Thursday accused McMahon of sex trafficking. There is a seedy underbelly to the wrestling world — not entirely unlike the shadier aspects of Trump’s career.)

The question remained: Would fans, who always knew that it was more theatre than sporting contest, keep watching now that the pretence was dropped? They did, in droves. Wrestling grew bigger than ever. And within a decade “reality television” was the biggest new entertainment trend. It turned out that speaking the truth about what was “fake” was a stroke of marketing genius.

“Sports entertainment” proved massively popular, massively lucrative and massively influential. “News entertainment” followed, with the rise of cable networks, and in due course, “politics entertainment.”

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First up was Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a wrestling star who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. Next was Arnold Schwarzenegger, from the world of “fitness entertainment,” twice-elected governor of California, 2003 and 2006. Trump, who pioneered “business entertainment” in the 1980s, was next. He won’t be the last.

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Indeed, a key figure at the NYSE this week was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a WWE star who made the transition from “sports entertainment” to “entertainment entertainment” and is now a major movie star. He has, of course, entertained thoughts about running for president himself. Some people dismiss that as a publicity stunt, but so, too, did a great many when Trump rode down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015.

The Rock played football briefly for the Calgary Stampeders before turning to wrestling. And it was in Calgary in the 1960s through the 1980s that wrestling demonstrated — under the guidance of Stu Hart and his prodigious brood of wrestling sons — that it could become a genuine part of the local culture. Respectable people followed it — the quintessential Rotarian and admirable civic personality Ed Whalen conducted the post-match interviews that were an essential part of the show. People who grew up in Calgary at the time knew Stampede Wrestling as part of the local culture.

It’s not a long walk from the old, grungy Victoria Pavilion on the Stampede grounds to the fancy convention centre where Smith and Carlson did their show on Wednesday. Some of the business worthies in attendance there had been, as teenagers and young men, at the Pavilion to take in what Whalen would call a “ring-a-ding-dong-dandy.”

That may well be applied to the “news entertainment” of which Carlson was a most successful practitioner. Carlson and his ilk — on both left and right — are to news what wrestling is to sports. They are related, but entertainment — the more inflammatory and buffoonish the better — is the heart of the enterprise.

“Very few people on the planet understand the convergence of sports, entertainment, media, and business like the Rock,” McMahon said on Tuesday. Another one who does, better than anyone else, is Donald Trump.

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