A UFC takeover: Donald Trump's dreams of a migrant fighting league are no joke

"Trump is actively mobilizing the UFC fan base to support his second attempt to dismantle our democratic system"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 26, 2024 5:42AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Migrants walk on the US side of the border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, California on June 5, 2024, after walking crossing from Mexico. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Migrants walk on the US side of the border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, California on June 5, 2024, after walking crossing from Mexico. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is a master propagandist. He is also a juggernaut who will not willingly stop in his quest to be America’s first dictator. Following his historic felony conviction, Trump has only escalated his vile behavior. Last weekend, Donald Trump gave a series of especially sinister speeches. Not content with the Big Lie and his usual demagoguery, the ex-president added a new dimension to his obsessions with violence and suffering when he suggested that non-white migrants and refugees should be put in a special mixed martial arts league for his and his MAGA supporters entertainment:

I said, 'Dana [referring to Dana White, CEO of UFC], I have an idea. Why don't you set up a migrant league of fighters and have your regular league of fighters. And then you have the champion of your league – these are the greatest fighters in the world – fight the champion of the migrants. I think the migrants’ guy might win, that’s how tough they are.

Trump added that “migrants” are “nasty, mean" and "tough people.”

During a speech to the right-wing “Christian” Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference on Saturday, Trump made the same suggestion. Watching human beings brutalize each other inside of a cage is of course a very “Christian” thing to do.

Trump’s suggestion that there should be a migrant fighting league is dehumanizing and part of a much larger pattern of racism, white supremacy, and nativism against Black and brown people. Channeling Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump has repeatedly described non-white migrants and refugees as “vermin” and “poison” in the blood of the nation. A migrant fight club is the logical next step in such beliefs.

Trump’s enablers and propagandists responded to criticism of his statements about a migrant fighting league with their standard claim that he was just kidding. When asked, Dana White told reporters, "It was a joke. I saw everybody going crazy online. But yeah, he did say it.”

Of course, based on Trump’s long history of racism and bigoted behavior, this is not true. Moreover, the use of humor and diminutives are a way of legitimizing and normalizing eliminationism and other massive violence against groups deemed to be the Other.

"Trump is actively mobilizing the UFC fan base to support his second attempt to dismantle our democratic system."

Right-wing White Christians are among Trump’s most loyal and enthusiastic supporters because they view him as a weapon to create an American theocracy where they would have special and superior rights over other people. Trump has repeatedly claimed that he is a messiah and martyr who was chosen by “God” to lead the MAGA movement and to “make America great again” in a holy war against “evil” President Biden, the Democrats, and other elements of “the Left.” By definition, such claims are blasphemous and heretical. In keeping with that propaganda strategy, Trump told the attendees at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference that he could take off his shirt and show them all of the injuries that he has suffered from his imagined enemies.

"I have wounds all over my body.  I took this shirt off, you'd see a beautiful, beautiful person but you'd see wounds all over me. I've taken a lot of wounds. More than I suspect any president ever."

Trump is, again, claiming that he is some type of Jesus Christ-like figure who is being tortured for the salvation of his MAGA cultists and others who follow him.

Trump’s fantasies about a migrant fighting league are not random or happenstance. They are part of a larger propaganda and communications-branding strategy. Donald Trump has modeled himself after a professional wrestling heel and understands how the spectacle of mixed martial arts and other combat sports as a space for a particular type of “traditional” (toxic) masculinity and its emphasis on so-called self-reliance, “rugged individualism”, entrepreneurship, violence, resentment towards “the elites” and “political correctness” is a way for him to gain supporters for his MAGA personality cult and right-wing authoritarian populist movement.

On this, communications scholar Reece Peck explains in a particularly insightful new essay at The Hill how:

Donald Trump’s first public appearance after his recent felony conviction wasn’t a campaign rally or political fundraiser. It was an Ultimate Fighting Championship event. Earlier this month, the raucous, mostly male crowd gave the former president a hero’s welcome as he walked into the arena to the song “American Bad Ass” by Kid Rock. Then, they took up an anti-Biden chant. The choice of venue won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to conservative masculinity lately. For Trump, a professional fight is a political space, and his appearance there is a strategic choice….

As a scholar who studies conservative media, I see the manosphere and its mainstream relatives as part of a new conservative culture war. Right-wing influencers are once again using social issues to distract working-class people from their economic struggles, just as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and other Fox News pundits did in the early 2000s with issues like gay marriage and the “War on Christmas.”

These efforts succeed because they speak to real feelings of hopelessness about the future, lack of opportunity, and alienation and loneliness that are common today, particularly among young men. Drawing on a well-worn conservative playbook, the manosphere culture war redirects blame away from economic elites and heightened inequality to feminism and “woke” culture.

Via email, I asked Peck for his thoughts about Trump’s desire to watch a migrant fight club and how that is connected to the country’s democracy crisis and ascendant neofascism:

Before I discuss the politics of the UFC, I want to say that I have been a lifelong fan since UFC 1, its first pay-per-view event in 1993. I was a standout wrestler in my Utah high school, and I still practice jiujitsu as an aging professor. In short, I am no stranger to the UFC and to the broader culture of mixed martial arts. But, much like my horror in watching how the Bush administration weaponized country music—a genre I love and grew up on—to support the Iraq invasion in 2003, it is even more disturbing to see how Trump is actively mobilizing the UFC fan base to support his second attempt to dismantle our democratic system. 

In the 1968 presidential election, the notorious segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace used the audience data of country music radio stations to plan the locations of his political rallies. Trump is doing something similar with the UFC. He is actively trying to convert a young, multiethnic (mostly male) audience of fight fans into a potentially powerful political constituency. Trump has attended numerous UFC pay view events in just the last year. This seems unprecedented. I can’t recall another candidate in recent political history who has attended this many major sports events in the heart of a presidential election, surely not combat sporting events.

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Reece offered these insights about UFC and its role in the right-wing political project:

One could say the UFC has exuded a conservative sensibility since its inception with its long ties to military recruitment and advertising and with its ring girls and Hooters sponsorship. But this conservative sensibility was also complicated by the sport’s global appeal and by the ethnic and international diversity of its fighters. Additionally, with Ronda Rousey’s rise to become the face of UFC in the early 2010s, the sport became an unlikely platform for women athletes, particularly those from the LGBTQ community, and for a while, the UFC’s branding even leaned into these seemingly progressive traits. But Dana White's appearance at the 2016 Republican National Convention changed everything. By doing this, White directly injected the UFC brand into the world of electoral politics.

Reece adds, “This was the juncture when the UFC’s political identity shifted from a subtle, implicit association with political conservatism to more of an overt partisan one. Prior to the 2016 election, White actually disciplined fighters for talking about politics and for using gay and trans slurs (e.g., Nate Diaz, Matt Mitrione). Post-2016, he, in contrast, encouraged them to make conservative politics a full part of their fighter brands and public personas, most dramatically exemplified by fighters like the anti-“woke” crusader Sean Strickland and the MAGA hat-wearing Colby Covington.”

Journalist and author Irv Muchnick explained to me via email how Trump’s migrant fighting league represents another connection between the convicted felon and hostile foreign actors:

The ties of Trump to the world of combat sports encompass both the real and the fake flavors. He's a crony of UFC's CEO Dana White, and of WWE's disgraced czar, Vince McMahon. The two companies now comprise the TKO Group under Endeavor Group Holdings, which is run by former Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, brother of former Chicago mayor and Bill Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel.

Mixed martial arts ties were part of the very first reports of Russian back channels in the Trump White House through fixer lawyer Michael Cohen and short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn. The vessel was U.S. immigrant and former Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko, the only prominent Ukrainian figure known to have backed Trump's 2016 presidential candidacy. The arrangements went all the way back to Trump's fling at promoting legendary fighter Fedor Emelianenko in 2008-09. Emelianenko's manager talked about this relationship on RT, the Putin-puppet network that had Flynn on the payroll.

Beyond being a “joke” as his defenders claim, Trump’s desires for a migrant fight club serve a much larger political project to normalize fascism and authoritarianism in America and the type of inhumanity his dictatorial regime will unleash and empower.

I asked social critic and cultural theorist Peter McLaren for his thoughts about these much larger dynamics and implications. He explained to me via email:

When Trump expresses a desire to watch migrants crossing the border to be forced to fight each other inside the MMA octagon and then have their champion face off against a hardened professional UFC fighter just to satiate the blood lust of Trump and his millions of UFC fans — then this serves as an official license for other fight fans to follow Trump’s example and desire the same. But it’s Trump’s enablers who reinforce Trump’s culture of cruelty.  During a Sunday edition of Fox & Friends, Rachel Campos-Duffy and her co-host expressed supreme delight at Trump's idea of forming a fighting league for migrants, insisting that Trump's proposal was a "brilliant" idea for his campaign.

While Trump’s disaffected followers are only too happy to join him in creating an Ultimate Fighting Championship culture based on taunts and personal attacks, often related to race and religion, and the thrill of crushing social justice warriors and ‘woke’ liberal elites, they are foot stomping on America’s long-admired empathy for immigrants and vulnerable populations. The UFC has evolved to where the term ‘savage’ and other exaggerated and domineeringly masculine adjectives are frequently used to complement fighters after they have knocked their opponents unconscious.

Young men who are cultivating their identities in such an environment are not doing society, or the martial arts community for that matter, any good. Trump supporters might be titillated by the gladiatorial atmosphere of the Roman arena, when gladiators were forced to fight each other to the death, and find it supremely amusing to imagine migrants—already labelled as rapists, murderers and vermin, as inmates escaped from insane asylums south of US-Mexico border who are poisoning the blood of the country — beat each other into oblivion.  But they need to understand that this says more about them than the migrants whom they relish in their derision.

McLaren explains the power of Trump as a master propagandist and how he gives permission for inhumane behavior by his MAGA political cultists and other followers:

When Trump suggests that undocumented immigrants are only good for providing amusement for real “legacy” Americans, he is not merely issuing an incendiary remark; as former president of the United States, his comments carry the potency of a demonic spell cast upon countless individuals who have risked life and limb to provide a better future for themselves and their families. We should not compare Trump’s comments to your drunken uncle embarrassing himself at Sunday dinner. This is a highly calculated strategy.  This is part of Trump’s ideological juggernaut and is what makes him the most self-assured and seemingly invincible candidate in the chronicles of American politics. It’s important to recognize how Trump’s demonizing of migrants has a ‘carry over effect’, fueling some of Trump’s most incendiary positions, contributing to the replication of specific associations—excitable affiliations—that young people are learning to make for all “outsiders” and “unwanted others.” Trump’s slanderous comments serve as elements of cultural transmission that will eventually settle into the sedimentary layers of America’s historical memory. In this sense Trump’s remarks are pedagogical. They are teaching young Americans whom to jeer and hate. They are also teaching us about ourselves.

Donald Trump, like the other fascist and fake populist demagogues who are imperiling democracy around the world, is an expert at manipulating human emotions. The American mainstream media and political class have largely been unable to stop such forces because they are fixed on normal politics and institutions, and have a vision of political reality that no longer holds true. Trump’s dreams of a migrant fighting league are one more example of how he knows what his followers want and how to titillate the darkest and most cruel parts of their minds and souls. By comparison, the mainstream news media and political class insist on focusing on polls, votes, the debates, and the horserace when Trump and the other neofascists and enemies of democracies are winning hearts and minds. On Election Day in November, the future of the country will be largely decided by whose message is more persuasive and compelling.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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