Good grief, Biff Tannen has taken over the White House!
Everyone needed a coping strategy back in 2017 and that was mine. But it wasn’t long before the shortcomings of the parallel between Trump and the villain from Back to the Future became apparent. There’s only so far one can go with a model in which the moral dichotomies – righteously resistant youth vs. intimidating old imposter – are both unchanging and transparent from beginning to end. The story lined up too neatly, too coherently. Above all, too satisfyingly.
The modernist vision of a strained and traumatised culture awaiting the healing touch of a good pair of hands just doesn’t pass muster any more. Whose culture? Whose trauma? Whose hands?
Let’s start with Trump’s hands, back in 1988. There he is, holding aloft the championship belt for WrestleMania IV and flanked on either side by WWE champion Hulk Hogan and challenger Andre the Giant. Then forty-one years old, the Donald was already being sounded out by talk show hosts as a potential presidential challenger.
Trump’s demurrals baffled his hosts. Looking back, one suspects an undercurrent of rivalry had developed among them as to who would get a ratings bump by peeling away his façade first. They should’ve taken him at his word. I’ve put myself through those old recordings and, trust me, he just doesn’t sound interested. Politics? Yawn. The Presidency? Mammoth yawn.
Yet the idea didn’t blossom but it was effectively sown. In hindsight, the question is which changed more in the intervening period: Trump’s thinking or political culture? I’m betting the latter. Notwithstanding Ronald Reagan’s ascent from B-grade Hollywood acting to current US president, the idea of public service as transcending rather than channelling self-interest was firmly entrenched.
Almost three decades later, Barack Obama felt confident enough to invoke the same principle when he told reporters during an ASEAN economic summit in California that US voters wouldn’t pick Trump because ‘they recognise that being president is a serious job.’
If Trump was never as articulate as Obama, by then he had arguably become more observant. His formula was the opposite: if the rules and roles don’t suit, change them. If breaks with convention were necessary, make them part of your modus operandi. Don’t hide. The public hate a sneak, but they adore a gutsy malcontent.
This was straight out of the WWE copybook.
Trump’s stylistic indebtedness to professional wrestling and his appearances on WWE have occasioned much interest. To fully get its measure, it’s useful to travel back to the 1980s. In the wrestling videos from that decade, you’ll see the same good boy vs bad boy showiness; the same propensity of performers to claim victory even before the bell has rung; and, now and again, the idea of a ‘dodgy referee,’ corrupted by the ‘bad guys’ or otherwise in league with them to begin with (in which case, a steady dialogue from the commentators whips up a sense of indignation).
One of these days, forensic political scientists are going to trawl through the era, seeking explanations for what came next. If they’re looking for a symbol, my recommendation would be this one:
Long before the MAGA caps, the Trump and WrestleMania brands were making each other great. At this stage, Trump was mostly interested in the financial payoffs that WrestleMania might bring his hotel and casino operations. But the cameo roles grew on him and vice-versa, until he became a sort of satellite entity in orbit around WrestleMania, drawn to and drawing from its gravitational pull.
Trump’s genius was to take this formula and apply it to politics, using the same nudge-nudge, wink-wink prompts to the electorate as those directed at wrestling audiences asked to suspend their awareness of how obviously scripted each bout was. Except that this time, rather than encouraging them to buy into the idea that politics was only ever what it appeared to be, he invited them to feel a sense of outrage at how it was never what it appeared to be.
This was technique #1, and it was important because it created intimacy with the people who would eventually vote for him. It was also a message that could resonate perfectly well on either side of the ideological spectrum. Trump came to power as a Republican, but it’s hard to see that fact as anything other than opportunistic. As someone who has changed his party affiliation five times, he could as easily have taken charge as a Democrat, had opportunity beckoned.
Having set the stage, as it were, Trump granted himself license to behave in extraordinary ways, thumbing his nose at any institution that didn’t suit him. Again, that was straight out of WrestleMania, though in either case it wasn’t the existence of rules that was the problem. On the contrary, every single WrestleMania bout has depended on a nominal acknowledgement of rules for its narrative structure. But the script sets up the breaking of them as an inevitability and incorporates barefaced examples into every fight. Nominal rules exist only to be broken. Common weapons include foldable chairs, planks of wood, and stepladders. Moves that would be illegal in any unscripted sport – eye gauging, choking, stamping (or the appearance of them) – are so usual that they merit no comment. See it often enough and you’ll wonder why the other side doesn’t follow suit.
Then there’s the commentary. This dimension is a curious one, because the current flair for the dramatic wasn’t present in the earliest WrestleMania tournaments. Initially, commentators were almost sombre, passing judgement on matches much as they would if they’d been watching Greco-Roman wrestling during the Olympics. Then came the realisation that audiences didn’t want fairness – they wanted in-your-corner partisanship.
Which is what they were given. Trump came to rely on that style of dialogue as background noise for his election campaign. To accomplish this, he ditched television or broadsheet newspaper interviews as a way to get his message across and instead used social media. The result? People liked it, even when they didn’t. They tuned in more.
It’s still unclear if Trump was fully prepared for his 2016 victory. In one of the foundational articles of what is fast becoming the discipline of Trumpology, Sharon Mazer had this to say:
Since the fight is fixed, winning and losing are, in effect, beside the point. Success is marked by the degree of heat generated. Wrestlers who stir the crowds get booked; they get choice spots on the card, are featured on television and in other media, and are called ‘superstars.’
Even now, it’s not far-fetched to speculate that Trump was following this script. That is, the presidency didn’t matter to him as an objective in its own right: the point was only ever to stir up the crowd, which could be done just as easily by losing as by winning. Should this be the case, the corollary question therefore applies: did his second impeachment change the calculus in any way? Best guess, probably not. For a start, it hasn’t succeeded, leastwise from the Democrats’ point of view. From Trump’s perspective, it might actually have been useful, because – as he sees it – there is no endgame here. His foray into politics is a perpetual game, one that the Democrats have falsely calculated they could bring to a close on their own terms. By prolonging the endless twists and turns of Trump’s narrative, they have served only to make US politics look emptier without him.
There’s a long road between now and ElectoMania XXIV (or the 2024 US presidential election, if you insist on being old-fashioned about it). But already it’s clear that Joe Biden is going to have to simultaneously prove that he isn’t Donald Trump and that he’s not a walkover president. A recent article in The Economist makes this point clear:
[Barack Obama’s second term] was marked by a reluctance to exercise power. He set red lines for Xi Jinping in the South China sea but did nothing when the Chinese president crossed them. He urged ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea while it built nuclear weapons. At least Mr Trump’s team, for all its chaos, understood power.
Indeed. But I’m not much worried about Biden – it’s every public official and aspiring politician I’m worried about. For while Trump himself has left the arena, he has undoubtedly made his mark. Put another way: the fact of his departure should in no way be taken as signalling the end of his WrestleMania style of politics. That ruckus on Capitol Hill made some of his hangers-on think twice, but they soon came round. Besides, don’t forget that a bit of villainy has always been necessary to the formula. As Mike Edison writes:
It’s a truism of the sport that the heels sell tickets. Without the Iron Sheik, Roddy Piper, or a raft of other talented villains, the Hulkamania formula was worth nothing. The heel makes the face. Without a good villain, all you’ve got is a public service announcement.
Now, it will be objected that Trump’s voters saw him as the face, not a heel, and that no heel can ever be elected to the presidency. To which I say, maybe, maybe not, but so what? It isn’t necessary for Trump to make a comeback in order for his imprint to remain on politics. Besides, one of the most obvious qualities of WWE is that wrestling matches usually take place outside the ring just as much as inside it. At some point, that is, a wrestler will fall out or be thrown out. His opponent follows, which is when things get ‘low down dirty.’
That describes how Trump behaved after it was clear that Biden had won the election. Having been thrown out of office, that is, Trump resorted to low blows. The Democrats were right to cry foul. But whereas their suspicions ‘played well’ in the dry world of jurisprudence, to Trump – and, crucially, to his followers – law codes matter about as much as a referee does in an average WWE match. Yes, there’s an undeniable presence there, but one that is honoured in the breach rather than the observance.
For Americans to recover a sense of proper citizenship, US politics will have to educate them out of one set of expectations and into another. That’s a tall order – one that depends in large measure on how politicians conduct themselves over the next four years.