At this point in the Trump era, it’s hard to imagine the president outdoing himself on Twitter, where he recently boasted that his “use of social media is not Presidential - it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” But on Sunday—in his latest volley against the news media—he may have done it, posting a crudely edited video in which he clotheslined a figure whose face was covered by a superimposed CNN logo, and then pummeled it senseless.
The video, a version of a GIF made by a Reddit user called HanAssholeSolo, used footage from Donald Trump’s appearance in the “Battle of the Billionaires” at the 2007 edition of WrestleMania, in which Trump and World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon had surrogate wrestlers do their fighting for them. After a few slow-motion replays, the video posted by Trump ends with a logo that reads “Fraud News Network,” Trump’s latest epithet for the cable channel. The reaction to the president of the United States tweeting a mocked-up pro-wrestling video was predictable: Like the 80,103 fans at Ford Field in Detroit the night of that WrestleMania, the internet erupted into raucous cheers and boos. It is now his most retweeted tweet ever.
Trump has had a long and fruitful relationship with McMahon and the WWE, hosting two WrestleManias; appearing in other wrestling programs; and appointing Linda McMahon, a WWE executive and Vince McMahon’s wife, to head his Small Business Administration. That history provides a useful lens for understanding the Trump candidacy and presidency. Since announcing his presidential run in 2015, Trump has behaved in a way remarkably similar to a wrestling bad guy, or “heel,” saying and doing outrageous, rule-breaking things and getting a reaction, or “heat,” in the process. Through that prism, there was nothing shocking about Trump’s tweet of the CNN clothesline—it broke the rules, and it got a reaction, including from many journalists who argued it was a dangerous escalation of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric about journalists.
But the tweet also represented something new: It was the first time that Trump has nodded to pro wrestling and its relationship to his political persona. As ever, there is a pro wrestling analogue for this behavior. Trump broke “kayfabe.”
In the world of wrestling, the portrayal of staged events as real—the suspension of disbelief that is central to the proceedings—is known as kayfabe. For decades, maintaining kayfabe was de rigueur: “babyfaces” (or “faces”) and heels didn’t ride together or associate in public, and reporters got slapped for suggesting that wrestling was fake. The line between kayfabe and reality began to blur during pro wrestling’s popularity boom during the late ’90s, and these days—thanks to the omnipresence of social media, the sunshine of the internet, and the WWE’s forays into reality TV—kayfabe is effectively dead.
Breaking kayfabe was perhaps the last wrestling mainstay—short of preplanned physical violence—that Trump hadn’t yet mimicked. In 2017, fans of pro wrestling balance their enjoyment of the on-screen product—which often resemble soap operas with fighting—with knowledge of backstage realities gleaned from insider websites and podcasts. Followers have always known that wrestling was staged and scripted, but contemplating real-life, backstage drama as a part of fandom is a relatively new development. Thanks to the leak-prone White House, with its rival factions and hapless blunders, Americans were already doing that with the Trump administration. But Trump himself never broke character.
Whether they’ve known it or not, many pundits have analyzed Trump via the rules of political kayfabe—as if the heelish persona that Trump has adopted could not possibly be constructed to win votes or stoke TV ratings. Meanwhile Trump has never winked at the camera or broken the fourth wall, as if to say, “You know this is fake, right?” He’s observed kayfabe.
None of this to say that Trump’s self-presentation—or “gimmick,” in pro wrestling parlance—is entirely a put-on. In wrestling, the conventional wisdom is that many gimmicks take a wrestler’s actual personality and turn it to 11. The character of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the beer-swilling, bird-flipping Texas redneck who dominated wrestling during its turn-of-the-millennium boom, is a slightly more intense version of Austin in real life. Whether Trump has truly meant every offensive thing he has said, his policies stand to harm many Americans and others who live here; his rhetoric has fueled an uptick in incidents of hate; and in the wake of the wrestling tweet and CNN’s reporting on it, some CNN staffers have weathered death threats. Trump’s heel persona doesn’t excuse his rhetoric or explain away its consequences. But it does help us understand him.
While they’re not explicitly following wrestling’s playbook, Trump and his advisers do seem understand the value of crafting a heel persona and engaging in feuds like a heel wrestler. Just days before the WWE tweet, Trump renewed his feud with Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, with Trump sending a bizarre series of tweets that branded Brzezinski as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and Scarborough as “Psycho Joe” (he’d later tweak those monikers to “Crazy Joe Scarborough” and “dumb as a rock Mika”) and alleged that Brzezinski was bleeding from a bad facelift. As with every one of the president’s previous, self-created tempests, the response was shock and outrage.
According to the Washington Post, “Some White House advisers said they were frustrated that the Brzezinski feud ... overtook the president’s fight with CNN, which seemed in their eyes to have clearer villains and heroes.” Trump and his team know what wrestling promoters have known for years: that easy-to-follow narratives with clear heels and faces get heat, sell tickets, and make money. As newsworthy and shocking as Trump’s treatment of the Morning Joe hosts was, perhaps his team saw more heat in attacking a news network that has been a frequent foil.
While in wrestling the heel serves to make the face look good, acting like one doesn’t mean you necessarily lose the feud. Just ask Trump’s long-vanquished opponents in the GOP primary, or Hillary Clinton. And CNN isn’t—in wrestling terms—a pure, white-meat babyface, especially after the resignation of three employees over a retracted story about a Trump confidant’s alleged Russia ties (which Trumpland easily spun into an admission of media bias). It’s highly unlikely that CNN or Morning Joe will be the babyfaces that vanquish the heel, providing the comeuppance that is the culmination of any good wrestling feud. Besides, a heel can become so beloved that he becomes a fan favorite; it’s what “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—who refereed that “Battle of the Billionaires” match—did on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling history.
Whether Trump is a heel or face, and whether he means to, it seems clear he still thinks the wrestling-style PR tactics work for him. He can even do so while breaking kayfabe—acknowledging that he’s at least partially in it for the heat. And his political enemies, not to mention the journalists who cover him, could learn a lot from the rules of his game.
For Democrats, that might mean more effectively matching Trump’s rhetorical aggression and fighting fire with fire, instead of going high when he goes low. As he challenged Nancy Pelosi for minority leader last November, Rep. Tim Ryan promised a “Youngstown street fight” in response to Trump’s agenda; Democrats decided to stick with Pelosi and a more muted, focus-grouped approach to messaging. But even staid Democrats seem to be learning: Tom Perez promised to “hit [Trump] between the eyes with a 2-by-4 and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama” and was elected to the chair of the Democratic National Committee. This approach can come off as insufficiently imitative if done poorly (see Sen. Marco Rubio during the primary), but if it hits Trump in one of the many areas about which he is self-conscious, it could expose his blustery shenanigans for what they are to his followers.
Or failing that, they could remind Trump that his wrestling career didn’t end with that clothesline. After Trump took down McMahon at WrestleMania, the spectacle climaxed when he took a Stone Cold Stunner from Steve Austin—a moment that might be even more meme-worthy.