Donald Trump: Wrestling heel, babyface, anti-hero?
That Donald Trump is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame has been well-documented by political commentators who see a connection between Trump’s style of political communication and the soap opera storylines that dominate the pro wrestling world.
What has been missing in the analyses to that effect is the interplay in the soap opera that is pro rasslin’ between the forces of good and evil.
Which leads to the question: what is Trump trying to be? The heel or the babyface?
In the traditional sense, one couldn’t be both, but the lines have blurred in recent years as the creative teams who build characters behind the scenes have created a sort of anti-hero, along the lines of a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who rose to fame in WWE in the late 1990s as the yin to the yang of the evil Mr. McMahon, aka Vince McMahon, the real-life WWE owner.
“Stone Cold” threatened to walk a mudhole in Mr. McMahon’s ass and walk it dry and greeted McMahon’s henchmen with the double-bird salute, and fans couldn’t seem to get enough of it.
An in-ring injury forced Austin into retirement in 2003, and WWE found its next anti-hero a few years later in the form of C.M. Punk, who wasn’t verbally crude in the manner of “Stone Cold,” but more mocking in his manner, complaining about WWE’s focus being more on selling ice-cream bars than wrestling.
Punk, unlike Austin, apparently lived his anti-hero status, famously quitting the company at the height of his popularity in 2014, for a career in UFC that doesn’t appear to be panning out, to say the least.
It’s notable that the shelf lives of both Austin and Punk as anti-heroes was rather brief in both instances, perhaps suggesting the limitations inherent with the character, most significantly that the anti-hero needs the establishment figure as foil to keep the storyline going.
Which brings us back to Trump: is he the politics world equivalent of a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or C.M. Punk who is flailing right now for lack of a dance partner?
The demonization of the news media that he ironically needs to keep spelling his name right makes sense in this context. Trump, after all, is the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, and thus hardly anything resembling the anti-hero who bulldozed his way up the card from Republican primaries outsider to long-shot presidential contender to upset winner in the main event.
If anything, Trump without a foil is the evil Mr. McMahon, right? And not even Mr. McMahon thinks of himself as being, well, Mr. McMahon.
In wrestling, the heels have more fun, by far. They get to say all the mean things that we all think out loud, tell off fellow wrestlers, thumb their noses at the fans, their juice being the boos raining down from the rafters, the need for a security escort to get out of the arena as the payoff for a job well-done.
Deep down, though, as much fun as it is to be the heel, wrestlers, like the rest of us, want to be the babyface, beloved by all, cheered by the kids, admired by the dads, desired by the moms, the hero who vanquishes the bad guy at the end of the day to restore things to their rightful place.
Trump isn’t so much “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, in this context, as he is current WWE performer Roman Reigns, who has been handpicked by McMahon to be his next top babyface, in the tradition of squeaky-clean John Cena and even the 1980s version of Hulk Hogan, of “say your prayers and take your vitamins” shtick.
Unfortunately for Reigns, McMahon and WWE, fans have rebelled against being told who to root for, and despite the booking for the Reigns character consistently selling him as the hero, he is met night after night with the manner of loud, lusty boos that approach the level of “lock her up!” chants at a Trump 2016 campaign rally in intensity.
McMahon’s miscalculation, like Trump’s, is that people will just come around because they’re told to just come around. In the WWE Universe, you’re supposed to get the signal that this is the good guy and root for him because he’s the good guy; in the Trump Universe, he’s the president, and you’re supposed to get in line behind him and support him because he’s the president.
In wrestling, that logic worked when there were clear lines between what made a babyface and what made a heel, but those lines were blurred 20 years ago; in politics, the logic worked when the losing side accepted their role as the loyal opposition, but that ended in the 1990s with efforts by Republicans to delegitimize Bill Clinton, and continued with the birther movement that aimed to kneecap Barack Obama later on.
Like it or not, then, Trump, in his own mind a modern-day Hogan, preening for adoring crowds to the tune of Hogan’s “Real American” theme song, is no more than Reigns, still preening in blissful ignorance as fans shower him with soda cups and popcorn boxes.
Warning to the world, by the way: the solution in pro wrestling to a guy that can’t get over with fans as a babyface is to turn him full-out heel, the thinking being, if they’re booing anyway, let’s give them something to boo about.
Yeah, let that one sink in.
Column by Chris Graham
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