THE FIRST time Lexington thought of Donald Trump at WrestleMania this week was when, to the fading strains of “America the Beautiful”, a helicopter flyover churned the night sky over the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Was the president about to make a surprise reappearance at the annual WWE sports-entertainment extravaganza to which he owes so much of his political method? The second time, well into the seven-hour grapplefest, was as the veteran star-wrestler “Triple H” was ripping out his grudge-rival’s nose-rings with a pair of pliers.
That was not only a reflection on how Mr Trump treats his cabinet. Paul Levesque, as Triple H was originally known, these days spends most of his time as a senior executive in the billion-dollar WWE business, having married into the McMahon clan that owns it. In reality-bending WWE style, he first married and divorced Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE founder Vince, fictitiously. This was part of a story-line in which she and her brother Shane, both WWE executives who appear in WWE productions as villainous executives and wrestlers, tried to steal their parents’ business. Triple H then actually married and had three children with her.
Those developments are now part of his wrestling character. As Triple H was mock-torturing his rival Batista this week, a WWE commentator—broadcasting live to 180 countries and one of America’s biggest television audiences—said mock-fearfully: “That’s my boss…” This disorienting mix of business, dynasty and entertainment—scrambling performance and reality, ham interests and financial ones—is the defining characteristic of professional wrestling and of its chief emulator, the president.
Mr Trump is another sometime WWE performer with close ties to the McMahons. A longtime fixture at WrestleMania, he launched a semi-scripted assault on Vince McMahon at the 2007 version. Having been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, he returned the favour by appointing Vince’s wife Linda to his cabinet, as head of the Small Business Administration. She will soon leave it to run a pro-Trump Super PAC. Yet such personal links do not begin to do justice to Mr Trump’s stylistic debt to spoof wrestling.
To appreciate that, consider why it has proved so alluring. It is not because fans think the fights are real, exactly. Testifying before the New Jersey Senate in 1989—when the McMahons were trying to evade regulations on competitive sport—Mrs McMahon admitted they were fake. After this unprecedented flouting of “kayfabe”, as wrestlers call their scripted reality, some said the industry was finished. That it has instead grown hugely is chiefly owing to the power of escapism. The 80,000 WWE fans at the MetLife, typically young men with defiant slogans such as “I’m not dead yet muthafucker!” on their T-shirts, are the heroes of their own imaginations. Many carried chunky replicas of WWE (fake) championship belts. “It’s like Santa Claus, not real, but that’s not the point,” said Jason, a banker from Manhattan with a $300 belt over his shoulder.
WWE has also found new ways, in its scripting and use of digital media, to buttress the fantasy. Most important, it constantly shifts between different registers of make-believe, from real to credible to absurd. Thus, for example, its use of executives as characters. Similarly, its stars appear in and out of character on social media. In a pre-WrestleMania rant Ronda Rousey, a former mixed martial arts champion, slammed WWE as “not real” and vowed henceforth to do “whatever the hell I want”. Such tricks create sufficient doubt about what is real for WWE fans to keep living their dream.
A blurring of the age-old distinction between “faces and heels” also supports this shift towards realism: Triple H, once a heel, is now considered a good guy. So does the frenetic way WWE scriptwriters distract their audience with new talking-points: while it was legal for Triple H to take a sledge hammer to Batista, did it make sense, given his (actual) torn pectoral muscle, tactically?
Mr Trump’s success lies in applying WWE principles where the line between performance and reality is even finer. In “The Apprentice” he played a successful businessman. In politics he saw that the contest of ideas its participants claimed to be engaged in was really a partisan slugfest almost as contrived and absurd as the WWE. He therefore offered a more ghoulishly watchable version of what voters were already getting. Why choose Jeb Bush trying to be a pantomime bad-ass when you could have the real thing?
The president also employs the WWE’s new stagecraft. Mixing family, business and politics infuriates sticklers for the law, but makes his fans think he is somehow more real—or “authentic”—than his rivals. He is also a master of shifting between degrees of make-believe. “I’m not supposed to say this,” he interjects into his speeches, “but what the hell?” And then there are his constantly distracting micro-dramas, breathlessly echoed by a commentariat every bit as emotionally invested in the drama as the press gallery at WrestleMania, which often erupted into spontaneous gasps or applause. How much of Mr Trump’s behaviour is concocted is debatable; private Trump is also pretty pantomime. But that uncertainly merely adds, WWE style, to the reality-tumbling effect.
Mr Trump’s ham performance has been endangered by its own success—represented by two years of unified Republican government. A WWE performer without an adversary would be a pitiful spectacle. It is therefore testament to the president’s genius that he was able to fill the void, not with policies, obviously, but rather a parade of new enemies: immigrant children, black football players, the late John McCain. Yet with the Democrats soon to choose a new champion, his performance may be about to get easier.
His opponents should be advised by this. The WWE’s popularity suggests their main hope, that voters will tire of Mr Trump’s grim clowning, may be wishful. More specifically, they should recognise that no professional politician can beat him in a grudge match. They would do better, where possible, to ignore him.