For some time I have been trying to find the right frame of reference to understand the appeal of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. It isn’t hard to grasp why so many voters find an “outsider” appealing – lots of working class Democrats and Republicans feel like their party establishments have taken them for granted. With regard to some of the issues that Trump features in his campaign - illegal immigration, harmful trade deals, reckless intervention in the Middle East – there is no real difference between the Democratic and Republican establishments, despite the feelings of many (most?) rank and file voters.
So there is no lack of reasons for voters to be angry and to look for someone who is not perceived as in insider. Many voters on the left and right feel unrepresented and exploited by the moneyed interests that control both parties. This explains the incredible popularity of Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz. 2016 is a great year for an insurgency candidacy.
But out of all of these options, why has Donald Trump been able to galvanize so much support? The recurring refrain I hear is that he “tells it like it is” – “he means what he says.” And yet this is the one thing that is demonstrably FALSE about Donald Trump. He does not tell it like it is, and he does not mean what he says. And this has been pointed out over, and over, and over again. Just the other night I almost fell off of the couch when Trump said that the IRS might be auditing him because he was such a strong Christian. This despite the fact that he has claimed never to ask for forgiveness, even though he has done many things that by ANY definition of Christianity would merit the need for forgiveness (like serial adultery, for starters).
How then to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon? How can someone whose personal character is so deplorable, whose political positions are so malleable, and whose public persona is so juvenile, be winning state after state in the GOP primaries?
And then it hit me – the answer is professional wrestling.
I am a long-time fan of pro wrestling. I still have the championship belt I made as a child as part of the wrestling fun we would have in my neighborhood growing up. Every month I would go to Rupp Arena to see Jerry “the King” Lawler take on the newest bad guy (“heel” in wrestling lingo) brought in by dastardly manager Jimmy Hart. I still love to watch videos of the old school stuff.
Some of you are sneering at the very mention of “rasslin” and feel it necessary to point out that it’s “fake”. Well, duh! It is entertainment, like a play or a movie. And no one walks out of a movie saying, “It’s fake.” Pro wrestling, at its finest, gave just enough reality to allow its fans to suspend disbelief and enjoy the matches as if they were legitimate athletic contests. And the enjoyment came in the visceral “good guy vs bad guy” drama presented in the ring. Of course, back in the day there were always a few people who didn’t see through the illusion, and actually thought the show was completely legit (these fans were called “marks” by the wrestlers). But most of us knew what we were watching, permitted the suspension of disbelief, and enjoyed the show for what it was.
For many years Donald Trump has excelled at a performance art that claims to be “real” but is in fact highly choreographed - “reality television.” And before that, The Donald was heavily involved in professional wrestling. Trump Plaza in Atlantic City hosted two Wrestlemanias, and in 2007 he appeared in WrestleMania 23 in a match against Vince McMahon dubbed the “Battle of the Billionaires.” Trump’s connections with the WWE are so strong that in 2013 he was inducted into the celebrity wing of the WWE Hall of Fame.
And just like any good wrestler, Donald Trump has managed to perform in such a way as to get over with the fans (the electorate). Despite his painfully obvious lack of substance, some voters have even become marks for him (and I would guess it is roughly the same group of people that think rasslin is real and Obama isn’t an American).
But I don’t think most people supporting Trump are marks. They are just so fed up with the status quo in Washington that they are willing to suspend disbelief about Trump’s character failings, about his deeply un-American authoritarianism, about his demagoguery on the issues, and support him out of the visceral satisfaction that this somehow sticks it to the real bad guys.
I get that. I feel frustrated with the establishment as well. I have little respect for the parties and their unwillingness to tackle the entitlement crisis, their cowardly failure to stand up to the Israelis and Saudis in our Middle Eastern policy, and their failure to work together against the extremists on the right and the left. But Donald Trump is not the right person to carry the banner for reform and renewal. His track record offers absolutely no reason to believe that what he says today is what he will do tomorrow. He is not the voice of the anti-establishment. For decades he has been the establishment.
One of the great heels in wrestling was a character called “The Million Dollar Man” (Ted DiBiase). His gimmick was that he was incredibly wealthy, and could buy whatever he wanted – even the championship. Each week he would come out on TV and select a fan to do some sort of demeaning task for a sum of money, always with the slogan, “Everyone has a price for the Million Dollar Man.”
Donald Trump is proud of his billions, and apparently, there are lots of people who do have a price. They have decided to sacrifice civility, thoughtfulness, and prudence to vote for the Billion Dollar Man. As angry as I am, and as frustrated as I am, this is a price I cannot pay.