Stop Being Marks: How Wrestling Fans - and Americans - Should Think About Donald Trump

Photo courtesy WWE.
Over the past week, four friends have asked me the same question: "Hey, did you know that Donald Trump has appeared in the WWE?" And of course I have. And my general reaction has been a partially world-weary nod and perhaps a sigh -- a wordless response that projects my slight embarrassment at being "the wrestling guy" among my friends, my shame in the fact that I can offer up a brief history of Trump's history with pro wrestling without too much difficulty, and the legitimate shame that I often feel when I'm confronting a very problematic storyline or figure from wrestling's past. And given the fact that I'm an intellectual who leans very far to the political left, the fact that Donald Trump has played a fairly significant role in professional wrestling history is a rather difficult pill to swallow.

In spite of my desire to not have to think about Donald Trump, I am rather surprised by one aspect of his candidacy (aside from the fact it's happening). For all the media attention Trump has gotten - and sweet baby goat he gets a lot - one of the few areas of his public life that has gotten relatively little scrutiny is his relationship with the WWE. During the first few months of Trump's campaign, there were - based on my research - a fair number of think pieces in places like Salon and National Review which examined his campaign through the lens of professional wrestling. And others - such as NPR - have noted similarities between Trump supporters and pro wrestling fans. To be fair, there is plenty of other material for the media and political observers to dissect in regards to Trump, ranging from his bankruptcies, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and almost countless other controversies.

Recently, especially during his first debate with Hillary Clinton and after revelations that he reported losing near a billion dollars in 1995, social media has accused Trump of being a confidence artist (or con artist, con man, swindler, etc.). As someone who is interested in politics, confidence schemes and professional wrestling, I could not help but start to see connections

Since Rick_City and I are operating a wrestling blog, it seems appropriate to examine Trump through the lens of professional wrestling. And this post has taken on a number of forms: I originally wanted to compare Trump's candidacy to a professional wrestling heel, which then morphed into an overview of his relationship with the WWE. But as you will see, the more I've thought about Trump and wrestling, the more I've seen some important parallels to the cultural history of the confidence artist, professional wrestling, and mythology. And what I've concluded is that we, as wrestling fans, need to not only acknowledge that the WWE has contributed to Trump's persona, but we also need to think about wrestling's connection to the con and how we should remember that when thinking about candidate Trump.

One quick caveat: in my regular life, I write about drama and portrayals of the confidence artist  - broadly defined as anyone who enacts in a scam, game, swindle or trick by gaining the confidence of a mark - in American culture (in fact, one of the reasons for the dearth of a post from me in awhile has been because of me editing a manuscript). So my apologies if this gets a bit academic in nature.

The confidence artist has been a popular subject in American culture since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Initially, the con artist was portrayed by writers as something of a complicated figure - a character that could be used to illustrate the failings of society and also resolve those anxieties for the reader. A figure like Tom Sawyer - who is able to manipulate his friends into doing his work for him - shows how easily people can be fooled, but also gives readers a safe, humorous space to address such issues.At the same time, the con man became something of a heroic figure for many Americans. With its ability to move between social spheres and outwit people, the con man character aligned with the traits that many readers believed made Americans unique.

While nineteenth-century readers typically viewed the con artist as heroic, their counterparts in the twentieth were exposed to a different con artist. In the literature written in the post-World War I era, the con artist was more dangerous, less heroic, and at times more tragic. Jay Gatsby - whose books were in perfect condition and never read - put on massive heirs for any lofty ideals, but for the pursuit of wealth and Daisy; also, spoiler alert, he dies tragically in the end. A more contemporary example of this type of confidence artist is Don Draper on Mad Men. While Draper's adoption of a new persona is portrayed by the series as understandable and, at times, comic and heroic, he ultimately is more of a tragic figure who often threatens the stability of his work and family.

Moreover, this complex view of the cultural confidence artist is complicated by real confidence schemes. Even conducting a cursory scan of American history, one can see a line of financial panics and economic downturns, medical scams, real estate busts, and any number of cons that have had severe impacts on investors and American society on the whole. In this context, real con artists - medicine show doctors, Ponzi-scheme operators, Nigerian princes, even the 1919 White Sox - have been routinely condemned by commentators and Americans at large for their actions.

However, there are a few exceptions to this. For instance, in the nineteenth century, Americans followed the exploits of the Robber Barons like we follow sports teams, often reveling in one businessman's ability to outwit or outspend his rival. Additionally, one can easily make the case that the world of professional wrestling is one of the more successful confidence schemes. Born out of the carnival and sideshow circuit in the early twentieth century, professional wrestling - at whatever point it became a staged sport rather than legitimate one - presented itself as "real" competition. To maintain this illusion, promotions and wrestlers adhered to the code "kayfabe," wherein every aspect of the performance was presented as authentic. Moreover, wrestlers and promoters embraced certain terminology from con artists, especially the term "marks" to describe their audience. While many fans were very aware of the artifice they were watching in the ring, professional wrestling still operated under the mentality that to be successful, you had to create belief in the audience (and then get their money).

Photo via Google Image Search (and I can't stand either one of these men).
In many respects, the then-WWF and Donald Trump were made for each other. Both Vince McMahon and Donald Trump preach the ideal of "winners versus losers" in their rhetoric, they both are media savvy, and they both have, at best, a highly problematic relationship with women. They were also both reaching their cultural apexes in the mid-to-late 1980s when Trump and the WWF agreed to hold WrestleMania IV and V in Atlantic City in Boardwalk Hall (referred to as Trump Plaza in the broadcasts).

The main event of WrestleMania V was a match-up between Macho Man Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan (note: Randy Savage was absolutely right in this feud and Hogan is an assface). But in one of the more bizarre promos, Hulk Hogan goes out of his way to promote Donald Trump's (apparent) concern for the well-being of the citizens of Atlantic City:

I think that perhaps Hogan was attempting to parallel Macho Man with Trump at some point in this promo (based off connecting the real estate tycoon with the Million Dollar Man), but then Hogan shifts to this weird mythologizing of Trump as some sort of benevolent figure who is concerned about the potential for earthquakes with the clash of the Mega Powers.

Mythologizing in professional wrestling is nothing new of course: in his seminal essay on professional wrestling, Ronald Barthes argues that wrestling presents grand mythologies to its audience through recognizable signs, such as the heel and the face, and that the audience understands the cultural significance of these ideas. The mention of Trump in Hogan's promo - while short - connects to the larger myth or narrative that the WWE was attempting to present to its viewers: the powerful Hogan - in this case the face - connects his own desires for justice in his battle with Savage with confidence in his followers and to the concern of a "billionaire" who is worried about the little people.

This portrayal of Trump in the 1980s partially aligns with the Trump of the 2000s during the build-up to the infamous "Battle of Billionaires." Rather than rehash this storyline, check out Aaron Oster's overview of it in Rolling StoneDonald Trump and the WWE

There are within that narrative, two key moments I want to highlight: first, is the actual Battle of Billionaires itself. And no, I won't talk about the shaving of Vince McMahon's head or the fact that Trump could not take a Stone Cold Stunner. Instead, it's the fact that the match between Trump and McMahon was fought by proxy by two African American wrestlers. If you do not read that as a metaphor for race relations in American history, I'm not sure I can  help you (I could seriously write 3,000 words on that segment alone).

Second, is the money drop segment. In short, as Vince McMahon berates the fans, Trump appears on the giant in-arena television and decides to "give the fans what they want" and thousand of fake and real dollar bills drop from the ceiling of the arena. Oster sees this as a preview of Trump's campaign with his promise to "make wrestling great again," but I would also read this moment as the WWE mythologizing the notion of the benevolent Captain of Industry who happily engages in philanthropy; it's also not off-base to see this segment as something of a visual representation of literal trickle-down economics.

To summarize to this point: in each of his major appearances, the WWE has presented this image of Donald Trump as an intelligent, cut-throat businessman, but also, at times, as a man who is concerned with the welfare of the common person. And given what we do know  (or in the case of his personal finances, don't know) about Trump's business dealings, bankruptcies, treatment of workers, women, and African Americans, this presentation becomes a de facto confidence scheme.

Again, this is the norm in professional wrestling where "reality" exists with a winking nod to the audience: the vast majority of wrestling fans understand that what we are watching is a performance wherein professionals are selling attacks and narratives to us. In this sense, "John Cena" or "Seth Rollins" is akin to Tom Sawyer or Don Draper. They are characters who present grander narratives about American society to us and permit us some space to consider - in the case of Rollins and Cena - our notions of hero or villain or - in the case of Sawyer and Draper - our own gullibility or the prevalence of swindling in business or our own personal lives.

Yet the con of wrestling often overshadows the reality of the business; unlike the fictional swindles of Mark Twain, Poe, or the Marx Brothers, there are very real and very dangerous consequences for wrestlers for engaging in their particular con. Pull back the curtain of pro wrestling and there is a long and tragic history of professional wrestlers dying young from drug and alcohol abuse, suffering from crippling injures and head trauma, or struggling to make ends meet. In addition, there are near countless stories from ex-pro wrestlers decrying the lack of concern from management about injuries or equal pay. Despite its status as entertainment, pro wrestling reminds that there is a difference between fictional confidence schemes and legitimate ones: real ones can damage people.

In the past year, many writers have seen the parallels between Donald Trump who is running for president and the "Donald Trump" who has appeared on The Apprentice and Wrestlemania. But in a larger sense, I believe what we are seeing with his campaign is the blurring of the lines between fictional con artist and real one. In the realm of professional wrestling, Donald Trump could play an odd combination of heel and face, a billionaire who was able to outsmart another billionaire and shower his audience with money. As a fictional confidence artist, that's entertaining and may reinforce what many of us believe about the super-rich: that they can be petty and cruel figures who are more Mr. Burns than they are Bill Gates.

Yet the real confidence artist that appears to be Donald Trump reminds us that actual confidence schemes can be dangerous and destructive to both people and institutions. And he has left a track record of very real confidence schemes that have destroyed the finances and careers of many. And what wrestling fans - and voters - should remember is that there are times when you should consider the implications of our entertainment: wrestling fans should consider the real problems with the WWe and voters should not embrace the illusion of one con man.

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