“Trumpmania” was not running wild during the Iowa caucuses. He finished second behind Ted Cruz. Donald Trump, the man who always wins and never loses suffered a powerful body blow in a political fight that many observers believed he was predestined to win.
The question now becomes, how will Donald Trump respond in next week’s New Hampshire presidential primary?
Donald Trump is a political performance artist. His oeuvre draws inspiration from several backgrounds simultaneously.
Donald Trump is a con artist and a Mark Twain-like confidence man who makes ridiculous promises that his desperate followers trick themselves into believing. Donald Trump is also a magician who uses rhetorical evasion, doublespeak and sleight of hand to work his public and the news media.
But most important, Donald Trump is a student of professional wrestling. As I pointed out in an earlier essay here at Salon, he is one of the greatest villains (or in the parlance of professional wrestling a “heel”) in American public life.
(To my surprise, even the New York Times’ resident conservative David Brooks has accepted the veracity of my Donald Trump as professional wrestler framework.)
Trump’s connections with professional wrestling are much deeper than a friendship and association with the company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment and its owner (and fellow billionaire) Vince McMahon.
As I suggested back in August:
Of course, most Americans are probably now most likely to associate Trump with his maddening and ridiculous, yet unexpectedly ascendant, campaign for president. And yet, believe it or not, his time spent in the world of professional wrestling is invaluable for understanding the path he has cut through the GOP primary field — because the playbook employed by Trump over the past several months bears an uncanny resemblance to the storytelling and character-building stratagem of professional wrestling. One could even be forgiven for concluding that Trump is directly calling on his knowledge and love of the performance art to create one of the most captivating — and entertaining — political stories of recent vintage.
Professional wrestling is a spectacular type of storytelling that draws on classic narrative forms to emotionally engage the audience with the physical feats that occur inside the ring. At both its best and worst, professional wrestling is exaggerated, ridiculous, over the top and outsized. In fulfilling that role, the best professional wrestlers take an aspect of their own personality and “turn the volume all the way up.” In all, they are actors who sacrifice their bodies for the pleasures of the audience in a simulated contest of physical skill.
Of course, Donald Trump is not taking “bumps,” i.e., actually fighting with his political rivals inside a wrestling ring. But, he is engaged in political combat.
As such, the typologies of the professional wrestling heel inform Donald Trump’s political shtick.
The professional wrestling heel/villain comes in several forms. Some heels are bullies who mock, humiliate, intimidate, demean and make fun of their rivals and the fans who cheer the hero (or “face”). Heels can be very unattractive and brutish physically. Other professional wrestling villains such as the legendary Ric Flair, Ted DiBiase, or Nick Bockwinkel modeled themselves after millionaires, Hollywood celebrities, or high-class socialites who have nothing but disdain for the “common man.” And almost all heels lie, cheat, break the rules, or use other duplicitous means to win their matches.
The professional wrestling heel does not want the empathy of the fans. He or she draws power from their boos and condemnation as the professional wrestling face eventually gets revenge and gives the villain their much deserved comeuppance.
When Trump rails against “political correctness,” talks about the “silent majority,” calls women names, demeans and belittles non-whites, gins up violence against protesters at his rallies, and mocks his fellow Republican contenders as “low energy,” “weak” or as liars, he is using the tricks of the professional wrestling heel. As ultimately, it is the disapproval of liberals, progressives, and many in the conservative establishment that makes Trump popular among his backers.
After his defeat in Iowa, it appears that Donald Trump forgot the basic rules he learned from professional wrestling. In a speech conceding the competition in Iowa to Ted Cruz, Trump made the following comments:
"When we started this journey, there were 17 candidates. I was told by everybody, 'Do not go to Iowa. You couldn't finish in the top 10.' They said, 'Don't do it.' I said, 'I have to do it,'" Trump told his supporters. "We finished second, and I want to tell you something, I'm just honored. I'm really honored. And I want to congratulate Ted, and I want to congratulate all of the incredible candidates, including Mike Huckabee, who has become a really good friend of mine."
Trump was humbled. He was soft-spoken. The self-described “high energy” candidate lacked vigor. Trump, the larger than life figure, was brought down to low Earth orbit.
A successful professional wrestling heel does not allow himself to be humanized and made relatable to the public.
When a professional wrestling heel makes such a choice, it is a signal that they will at some point in the near future transition to becoming a hero for the fans.
(As an example, the recently deceased Archie “the Mongolian Stomper” Goldie gave one of the most compelling and disturbing interviews in professional wrestling history, when he, one of the greatest “character villains” of all time, spoke in a low and very direct tone to the camera about how his “son” was viciously attacked and that he would do anything to get revenge on the offenders. In that moment, one of the scariest and most believable “heels” became instantly human to the fans of Canada’s Stampede Wrestling promotion.)
This is exactly the opposite approach that Donald Trump should have taken after his loss in Iowa.
As New Hampshire approaches, Donald Trump should study professional wrestling greats like “Classy” Freddie Blassie, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Ed “the Sheik” Farhat, “Captain” Lou Albano, and of course, Paul Heyman. Trump should complain about he was “screwed” out of victory in Iowa, claim that he actually won the caucuses, and further demean and attack his political rivals--as well as the news media--with even more energy, rancor and vitriol than before. Ultimately, Donald Trump, as the temporarily wounded heel, should become even more noxious, dangerous and hostile than before Iowa, because in the narrative logic of professional wrestling, his foes have provoked him into the vicious thrashing they will soon be receiving.
Trump’s proto-fascist, authoritarian-inclined, aggrieved and angry white working-class voters would be driven to a political orgasm by such a performance.
Donald Trump faces a great dilemma if he does not win the New Hampshire primary. The man who supposedly never loses cannot continue to make claims of greatness by perpetually finishing in second or third place. Again, the lessons of professional wrestling could potentially provide Donald Trump with a means of escape.
Heels hate to lose. The sheer force of their ego and narcissism will not allow a great professional wrestling villain to be brought down by defeat. Like the professional wrestling heels he draws inspiration from, Donald Trump could simply declare himself the real victor and “champion” of the 2016 GOP race. Trump will quit his campaign. He will lie, bragging that he gave voice to the “silent majority,” made American history, and radically changed the Republican Party for the better. Donald Trump, the self-anointed champion, will then play the role of the king maker, giving his blessings to whatever candidates and issues that he deems worthy…all the while working the right-wing media circuit as he continues to separate right-wing suckers from their money.
Such a tactic is cowardly, smart and the ultimate professional wrestling heel move. It is also a perfect fit for Donald Trump’s proto-fascism and cult of political personality.