What Can We Learn About Politics From Pro Wrestling?

If there is one thing I share with President Trump it is that we are both fans of professional wrestling. Back when he was “just” a charismatic billionaire, Trump made numerous appearances with World Wrestling Entertainment. He hosted their fourth and fifth Wrestlemania events and appeared in a match in Wrestlemania 2007, where, in one of few memorable moments of the night, he shaved General Manager Vince McMahon’s head. He was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2013, and, returning the favour, made CEO Linda McMahon his head of Small Business Administration. This was somewhat ironic as the McMahon’s success was built on driving their smaller competitors out of business.

Can we learn about politics from pro wrestling? I am by no means the first to ask, and answer, this question. Others have discussed the importance of “mic work” in both fields, and the blurring of the line between what is real and fake. I would like to offer a more cynical perspective by comparing the business of wrestling to the business of politics.

1. Keeping it in the family.

The most important people in WWE are Vince McMahon, Linda McMahon, their daughter Stephanie McMahon and her husband Paul Levesque. Among the most important people in Trump’s inner circle are his sons, Donald and Eric, his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Family, the McMahons and the Trumps both believe, can be relied on more than colleagues and even more than friends. The McMahons and the Trumps have no qualms about firing, denouncing and demeaning old allies and associates but are extremely loyal to blood. The danger is of family members being foolish or corrupt and being difficult to dissociate oneself from. Trump might at least have wished he’d had more stern talking-tos with his sons, or that Ivanka had married someone else.

2. Keep the show on the road

WWE (once WWF) has faced scandals that would have killed off far bigger companies: sex scandals, steroid scandals, the untimely deaths of numerous employees and, in the most hideous example, the murder-suicide of a one-time champion. In each case, the company has ploughed on, making just enough changes to keep their show on the road. People have short memories. The news cycle spins. The scandal fades into irrelevance. The notorious “grab her by the pussy” tape would have killed off other presidential candidacies but Trump apologised and then carried on as normal. There was no introspection. There were no changes of tune. There were no further apologies. He carried on and won.

3. Know your audience

For decades WWF was fantastically successful at changing its product to attract new audiences. In the 1980s it offered extravagant images of American heroes besting foreign bad guys. In the 1990s, it drew cynical and bloodthirsy crowds with violent matches and irreverent storylines. In the 2000s it turned to children with a cleaner, more colourful brand. In the 2010s, however, it has lost its sense of who to market to, and how; stuck between appealing to its “hardcore” fans and struggling to attract a mainstream audience. Donald Trump was successful at forming a base of disaffected Republicans with his outspoken and iconoclastic ways. As president, however, he remains unpopular; satisfying his loud minority of loyal admirers while struggling to form policies that would earn him broad appeal.

4. Lie, shamelessly

The McMahons are famously dishonest. After Chris Benoit killed his wife, his son and himself they announced that his crimes had been unrelated to steroid use even as inquiries were ongoing. Trump is also a famous, shameless liar. Fourty eight percent of his contentious claims have been judged by Politifact to be false or very false. What the McMahons and the Trumps have learned is that even a lie which is exposed can be of use if the consequences of its exposure are outweighed by its initial advantages.

5. Get Personal

When WWF was in competition with Ted Turner’s WCW, Vince McMahon took great relish in playing dirty. Turner was parodied as the scheming “Billionaire Ted” along with his top star Hulk Hogan, sent up as “the Huckster”. Donald Trump loves getting personal. He has attacked “low energy” Jeb Bush, “Lyin’ Ted”, “Crooked Hillary” and “Little Rocket Man”, Kim Jong-un. A great advantage of this tactic is that it gives one’s supporters a clear embodiment of their outgroup, as well as unsettling one’s opponents. The problem with his mockery of Kim Jong-un is that what Trump’s supporters think of the dictator is irrelevant. Unsettling the man could also be disastrous. This is perhaps the most dangerous example of Trump’s apparent inability to grasp the difference between television and real life. While a wrestling match can end with bruises and concussions, nuclear brinkmanship could end with millions dead.

6. Marks and smart marks

In wrestling terminology, “marks” are people who take the product on its face, while “smart marks” are people who have learned about the business. “Marks”, in political terms, are people who use #maga or #resistance hashtags, and “smart marks” are people who agonise over the potential implications of a Trump tweet. In wrestling, smart marks can spend hours obsessing over tiny details of the business — rumours of a backstage conflict between wrestlers, for example, or the merits of the ending of a particular match — and lose whatever remains of their sense of perspective. In politics, too, we can obsess over ephemera, or get lost in theorising about internal affairs, and lose our sense of what is happening and what is important. In an age of 24 hour news and online media we must resist that kind of nerdiness. What is innocent entertainment for wrestling fans is timewasting obscurantism when applied to world events.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into professional wrestling. It might involve steroid-swollen men and women beating each other’s brains out in “matches” with predetermined outcomes but it is at least far less absurd and disgusting than politics.

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