Donald Trump was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2013. He’d been involved with professional wrestling for more than a quarter-century. At first his interest was on the business side, because so many of the events were held at his hotels. But then he got involved in the story lines, appearing in the ring as an actual character.
His greatest moment came in 2007 with the pay-per-view series called “Battle of the Billionaires,” when he verbally went up against the WWE’s chief executive, Vince McMahon. The feud started when Trump interrupted McMahon on Fan Appreciation Night and upstaged him by raining thousands of dollars in cash down on the crowd in the arena. It continued with a verbal barrage and proxy match, and ended with a triumphant Trump shaving McMahon’s head in the middle of the ring.
I mention this because the thing I’ve found most surprising in this presidential campaign is the way the nation’s crisis of political authority has produced a hunger for masculine spectacle.
This is an anxious and angry nation. Many people have lost faith in institutions and the nation’s leadership. Many feel powerless, in decline and adrift. Somewhere in his marketer’s brain Donald Trump intuited that manners are more important than laws and that if you want to assault the established powers you have to assault their manners first. His campaign has been one long exercise in taking the “low,” or proletarian, manners of professional wrestling and interjecting them into the “respectable” arena of presidential politics.
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By shifting the cultural language Trump initiated a new type of culture war, really a manners war. He seemed fresh, authentic and resonant to a lot of people who felt alienated from the way elites govern, talk and behave.
Professional wrestling generates intense interest and drama through relentless confrontation. Everybody knows it’s fake at some level, but it is perceived as fake and real at the same time (sort of like politics). The story lines are Manichaean – good takes on evil, winners take on failures. The audiences fiercely identify with different characters. What matters is not so much who wins or loses, or whether you are good or evil, but the aggressiveness by which you wage each mano-a-mano confrontation.
Trump brought this style onstage at the first Republican debate, and a thousand taboos were smashed all at once. In respectable politics, as in respectable society, there is a certain code of refinement. It is through this code that the educated class defines what’s proper and improper and imposes an invisible social power on society.
Trump smashed through that and created a riveting spectacle. He insulted people’s looks. He stereotyped vast groups of people – Mexicans and Muslims. He hinted at menstruation. He called members of the establishment morons, idiots and losers. He bragged and boasted without cessation.
Social inequality is always felt more acutely than economic inequality. Trump rose up on behalf of people who felt looked down upon, made them feel vindicated and represented and turned social conduct on its head. He led a one-man linguistic revolution.
The cultural element of this revolution was based on his complete rejection of the feminist transformation. Over the past few decades, at least in respectable society, there has been a shift in the way men and women are supposed to behave. Blatant machismo has been condemned and female empowerment celebrated.
But Trump was unabashedly masculine. His machismo is still the lingua franca of pro wrestling, cage fighting and some action movies.
His candidacy is an implied critique of the feminization of America – that the country has become too soft, too nice, too lacking in old-fashioned male authority. Trump responded with ridiculous aggression every time his authority was questioned. When John McCain attacked him, Trump responded, “He’s not a war hero.”
Every time Trump was challenged on anything, he was compelled by his code to double down the confrontation and fire back. He shoved aside his early competitor Jeb Bush, who was raised to be a gentleman, the embodiment of exactly that code Trump was upending.
When he was praised by one of the world’s most venomous thugs, Vladimir Putin, he had the canniness to embrace the praise and lavish it back – a response that would have violated every fiber of a respectable person’s body.
I still don’t think the spectacle is going to carry Trump to the White House or even the nomination. But I do think this has been a period in which many silent segments of society have found their voices, often in shocking and impolite ways.
The next president will have to respect these voices, understand their grievances and channel what is legitimate in their concerns in deferential ways, reminding everyone from all classes that we are one nation, one people, with one fate.