Having just returned from WrestleMania 32, the current presidential campaign now makes complete sense to me. I was among 101,753 people in attendance at the Cowboys’ football stadium in Dallas, as well as millions of people in over 100 countries who watched the event on the WWE network. The similarities abound. It is not just that Donald Trump’s campaign manager was charged with battery (later dropped) or that a 13-participant political debate resembles a wrestling Battle Royal. But when Ted Cruz (or to use his wrestling name Lying Ted Cruz) keeps using the term “cage match,” I now have verification for my long-held theory that pro wrestling and politics are essentially the same business. Let’s start by examining the same three traits that are critical for success in each business.
Trait No. 1: The character, the gimmick, or the image
The first trait is that, in each business, the participant must develop a character, a gimmick, i.e. a story line, or in politics an image that the public believes. What character traits will capture the public’s attention at a given moment and resonate? In politics, a crooked Richard Nixon gave rise to an honest farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. A negative Jimmy Carter gave rise to an optimistic Ronald Regan, and so on. Carter, by the way, even faked the luggage gimmick and was handed an empty suit bag before he got off the plane as he purported to be a man of the people by carrying his own luggage. Come to think of it, that is not a bad metaphor for his presidency. George W. Bush campaigned as a “uniter” and promptly after being elected gave the country the most divisive presidency of modern times. His father developed a great image. He went from being a Greenwich, Connecticut, bona fide blue blood (as Ann Richards put it at one Democratic convention, “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth”) to a pork-rind-eating Texas oilman. President Barack Obama told us he was a community organizer, a man of the people by way of the Harvard Law Review, who turned out to be a pro golfer in training. He has played more rounds of golf than the last five presidents combined. To paraphrase Adam Sandler in the movie “The Wedding Singer,” “things you should have told me before we got married.”
Trait No. 2: The utilization of television and mass media
The second trait is that you must know how to use television to put your image or your character and gimmick over. Just as politicians try to develop their personas over time, so do wrestlers. And in each business, to survive, you must modify and change your image or your character to fit with changing public moods and changing events. The Rock became an overnight sensation in wrestling because of his unparalled ability to conduct a charismatic, tough and funny interview. (His sculpted body and telegenic looks didn’t hurt either). Donald Trump, of course, is the ultimate example of how television can be used to skyrocket a presidential candidacy. Poor Jeb Bush just couldn’t resonate on television; nor could Marco Rubio. The Clintons are yet another interesting example. Bill was a master of television who saved his first campaign with the “60 Minutes” interview about Gennifer Flowers. Hillary, however, demonstrates the problems television can present if you are of certain age and do not appear energetic. And President Richard Nixon lived by the television sword with his famous Checkers speech to save his vice presidency and died by the sword in the first televised presidential debates in 1960.
Trait No. 3: The ability to lie convincingly in front of the camera
In each business, you must be able to look into the television camera or speak to the media and lie convincingly. It reminds me of the old Samuel Goldwynism (for those of you of certain age he was the G in MGM and a classic Russian immigrant studio mogul who did not speak the King’s English)”: “Sincerity is a difficult emotion to fake.” Do we really believe Donald Trump will build a wall or kick 11 million immigrants out of the country? Do we really believe Vince McMahon will kick his daughter Stephanie and son-in-law Triple H out of their senior management and performance roles in the WWE if her prodigal brother Shane had prevailed at WrestleMania 32? I doubt it, particularly since the WWE is a billion-dollar publicly traded company which has not filed a form 8K indicating a potential change in control. Moreover, notwithstanding the horrific beating Shane took in WrestleMania32 from the Undertaker (he jumped over 20 feet from the top of the steel cage onto a table from which the Undertaker miraculously moved just after the jump), his father Vince on Monday night rewarded his heroic performance by letting him run Monday night RAW on a week-to-week basis starting this past Monday.
I admit it. Some years ago I came out of the closet: I have admitted publicly that I am a pro wrestling fan. Yes, I watch Monday Night Raw. And, yes, I have attended several WrestleManias in addition to the most recent one. And, yes, I have friends in the wrestling business. For years people have questioned my sanity and found a large disconnect with my wrestling interest and the fact that I am a political junkie who went to law school with the Clintons. My response is simple: Pro wrestling and politics essentially are the same business. This presidential election campaign finally has vindicated in living color that my prism is accurate. In addition to the three traits discussed above, each business utilizes on a regular basis some reoccurring tools to reconcile the irreconcilable; or to implement what psychoanalysts and magicians call “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Let’s examine some of the more significant ones.
How to establish the willing suspension of disbelief
1. They doctored the videos. What do you do in politics if you need to change a position or back off from a statement that you said at another time? Donald Trump’s Ku Klux Klan issue is a case in point. This type of situation happens in wrestling all of the time. The villain or “heal” denies he won an earlier match though interference by an ally at ringside, the use of a foreign object such as hidden brass knuckles, or a cheating move that all 20,000 people in an arena (and millions on television) witnessed except for the referee. In wrestling, as in politics, the first line of defense is to deny the event occurred. When proven through video that the event occurred or that the statement was made, in wrestling the villain says, “They doctored the video tapes.” The political equivalent is to say “I was quoted out of context” or “I misspoke,” i.e. Donald Trump’s Ku Klux Klan episode. Another example is Lying Ted Cruz’s statement that he is always consistent. And last week we had Bernie Sanders’ statement that Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be the president (later sort of retracted). And the beat goes — whether it is immigration, entitlements, health care or taxes.
2. Special stipulations. Many title matches in wrestling come with “special stipulations.” This concept allows a result to happen or not happen without seemingly compromising the essence of a wrestler’s gimmick and what he or she stands for. He or she can win or not, depending on the story line, and continue either as the champion. I won because of special stipulations or lost, but I remain a championship contender, because of special stipulations. For example, a champion can wrestle with the special stipulation that the match is not a title bout. Similarly, a championship belt cannot typically change hands through a disqualification: The champion must be pinned, unless of course there is a special stipulation that the match is a “no holds barred” match (sometimes referred to as a Texas death match) in which any type of loss, be it a count out or a disqualification, count for purposes of losing the championship belt.
In politics, special stipulations arise with almost every campaign promise. Bernie Sanders will provide everyone with free health care, free college, free food and housing, and free day care. How do we pay for it? Simple: Just tax those Wall Street Robber Barons. There is only one problem: The math does not come close to adding up. John Kasich says we can have it all if just follow the Ohio model (unless we read the fine print). Ted Cruz says we don’t need it all: We can just have a relatively low flat tax and eliminate half a dozen major federal agencies. But the real special stipulations come with the social and religious issues. Who knows how many ways politicians can fudge their abortion positions. And of course there is religion. Every presidential candidate is religious and totes a Bible until he or she is elected. Let’s see, it’s Sunday and I am at Camp David. Should I go to church or play golf? Or if I am at the White House and could go to church across the street at St. John’s, I had better not attend lest I create a ruckus and disturb the congregants.
And let us not forget foreign policy. The new new thing, which like all new new things is old, is a protective trade policy. After all, don’t we all want to maximize U.S. high-paying jobs? If only the world were so simple. And of course we always have the Russians. Who is tough enough to be commander in chief? Donald Trump at least has the originality to say he can get along with the Russians and cut “fantastic” deals. And he also is the first U.S. presidential candidate to effectively be endorsed by a Russian head of state. He and Vladimir Putin are tough guys, men’s men, who can make deals. If only the Donald were not a teetotaler, they could have been such great buddies. And of course, there is Israel. Who can be the strongest pro-Israel candidate? Trump initially proposed special stipulations that a great negotiator never reveals his position before the negotiation. Then, just prior to the Florida primary where the Jewish vote is critical, he stated that no one is more pro-Israel than he. Instead of Jerusalem, I am surprised none of the candidates has proposed moving the capital of Israel to Washington. The irony is that the only Jewish candidate, Sanders, does nothing to promote pro-Israeli views.
3. The Championship Committee. There is a venerable professional wrestling concept known as The Championship Committee. Its membership is secret, its determinations are binding and final, and there is no appeal from a decision of the mythical committee. The committee can overturn matches, revoke titleholders, and sanction just about any type of match for a title. In wrestling, the WWE has created an actual committee literally called The Authority consisting of Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, and Triple H, who is Stephanie’s husband and Vince’s son-in-law. This device has been used by the Congress and the president, as was the case several years ago in addressing Social Security benefits and financing. A committee is established which is delegated the authority to resolve an issue. The Championship Committee is not to be confused with an advisory committee, which did not work to end the Iraq war. These committees only work in politics if they have the authority to make decisions as the Championship Committee has in wrestling. Our country in fact would be better served if the politics of the country were not so divisive and we could again resort to these committees.
The Championship Committee concept may well be tested at or prior to the Republican convention. Low and behold we now have the concept of the “unbound” delegate. Several hundred Republican delegates apparently are free to disregard their state’s caucus or primary results. Will a secretive group of Republican elders find a way to get Ted Cruz the nomination? Might they change the party rules prior to the convention with some special stipulations that facilitate a Cruz nomination? As in wrestling, you must watch every week to keep up with the story line. And might Trump, if denied the nomination, start his own party? This would emulate one of wrestling greatest story lines when some years ago a group of wrestlers purported to start their own league within a league known as the NWO — the New World Order.
4. How does the match end? Here is where the fiction ends and the truth emerges. I don’t have a clue what will happen in the fall election. To quote Yogi Berra, “Predictions are hard to make, particularly about the future.” The events that will determine the next president probably have not yet occurred. Now more than ever the conventional wisdom is likely to be wrong. The good news is that the news is reported, whether on CNN or Fox, by beautiful anchor women and an endless supply of beautiful analysts who seem to come out of nowhere every two weeks. Once again politics has borrowed a page from wrestling. Vince McMahon long ago abandoned the female wrestlers like the 40-year champion The Fabulous Moolah (not the name on her birth certificate) who looked like a female version of a Sherman tank. For years Vince has reverse engineered and picked beautiful models whom he taught to wrestle. They are now known as the Divas of wrestling. They even have their own show. I believe CNN and FOX are using the same modeling agency to find their beautiful women. In fact, CNN and Fox probably are hiring Vince’s rejects for their news teams. Although I do not have a clue how the election will turn out, I would point out that Donald J. Trump is the only presidential candidate who is in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Alan J. Wilensky served as Deputy and Acting Assistant Secretary For Tax Policy
for the U.S. Treasury Department in 1992-93. He is now a practicing lawyer and financial adviser in Minneapolis.
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