On Sunday, the President of the United States tweeted, well, just look at it.
For those not up on their WWE history, the underlying GIF comes from the Battle of the Billionaires at WrestleMania 23. Vince McMahon and Donald Trump concluded their months-long feud with a hair vs. hair match, as one would get to shave the other bald if his chosen wrestler lost the match. Trump delivered that clothesline to fend off McMahon’s various interference attempts, his representative Bobby Lashley prevailed over Umaga with an assist from special guest referee and wrestling legend Stone Cold Steve Austin, Trump and Austin shaved McMahon bald, and then Trump took what is by far the worst Stone Cold Stunner in history. (His only real competitor is his head of the Small Business Administration.) Before we go any further, we might as well enjoy that together.
We’ll leave the propriety of the president tweeting out a dank meme he found on Reddit about him clotheslining CNN for others to consider, as the answer seems obvious enough: yeah, Trump probably shouldn’t be doing that, but then that can be said with equal accuracy about everything else he’s done over the past seven decades. So with it taken as read that this very modern-day presidential shitposting is the latest evidence that Trump truly has no sense of decency, sir, let’s instead use this as an opportunity to better understand the man’s thinking. Pro wrestling is, at its heart, about storytelling, so what story is the president trying to tell us here? Trump is a WWE Hall of Famer, so I think we can pretty safely assume he understands the finer points of wrestling psychology.
Before we consider the fictional, in-universe story being told here—the kayfabe story, to use wrestling parlance—we first have to acknowledge that that fiction exists in the first place. To criticize CNN as fake news, Trump tweeted a gif of him beating up the network in a fake fight. One could take this as the latest proof of Trump’s ideological incoherence and hypocrisy, but, just for fun, let’s give him some credit here. After all, the man beneath that CNN graphic is Vince McMahon, a fellow billionaire corporate titan who Trump pretended to fight because the two saw mutual financial benefit in manufacturing a rivalry for the public’s entertainment. (They were right, by the way, as that WrestleMania had the second highest pay-per-view buyrate in WWE history.)
So are Trump and CNN really foes who will stop at nothing to vanquish each other, or are they just the perfect foils, fighting each other forever because there’s just so damn much money to be made from keeping that conflict going? CNN was a big driver of the billions of dollars of free campaign advertising Trump got in 2016, while his presidency has given the network a massive ratings boost. One or both of them might genuinely believe they are mortal enemies, and it’s not as though Trump can be trusted to keep truth and fiction separate. In that original gif, those were very real punches he was raining down on Vince McMahon, and those two presumably like each other just fine. Plenty of wrestlers have had legitimate bad blood underpinning their most iconic feuds, and plenty like to work stiff, mixing in real punches and strikes alongside the more staged moves. None of this need alter the essential unreality of the conflict.
Then there’s the matter of who determines the outcome of a given match. In wrestling, this all-important person is known as the booker. In the WWE, the person with all final say on booking decisions is the man in that gif taking Trump’s clothesline, Vince McMahon. And while McMahon has long had his booking blind spots—more on that in a moment—he has always been commendably willing to put himself in the most vulnerable, embarrassing, or straight-up dangerous positions if letting a guy beat the crap out of him would be best for business. Wrestling often gets incoherent and unsatisfying when specific wrestlers get too much control over their own booking, prioritizing their own prized spot in the company over telling the best stories or giving the fans what they want.
One of the most notorious offenders on this score was Hulk Hogan, who, like Trump, has a history of having scandalous tapes leaked, fighting the media, turning speeches into impromptu ads for his trashy products, sporting deeply improbable hair, and frequently favoring underhanded tactics even while theoretically presenting himself as a hero. If electing Trump president isn’t quite the equivalent of making him America’s head booker—he only wishes the White House gave him the kind of dictatorial control McMahon has over the WWE—it’s at least a match for the creative control clause Hogan used to shape storylines, matches, and championship reigns to his liking during his time at WWE’s 1990s rival WCW. Hogan wasn’t solely responsible for the ignominious collapse of WCW in 2001, but then Trump wouldn’t be solely responsible for the same happening to the United States, not as long as Congressional Republicans still exist. And anyone who has watched a late-period episode of WCW’s Monday Nitro got an early taste of the kind of gross, nonsensical funhouse mirror of America Trump’s presidency has unleashed.
But this isn’t just about how the combatants relate to each other or with management. There’s also the matter of how Trump’s wrestling gif connects with the audience. Here we come to the most basic element of wrestling psychology, that of the face and the heel—the good guy and the bad guy, the hero and the villain. As wrestling promoters have long observed, fans will pay big money to see the beloved face win the big one, but they will pay even more to see the detested heel get the shit kicked out of him.
The eventual payoff to a wrestling storyline is for the face to emerge victorious and beat the heel, but that moment means so much more if the heel has first picked up a string of victories over the hero and other faces. Each win angers the fans still more and makes them more desperate to see someone finally take down the dastardly villain. Heels exist to lose, but only eventually. While it feels safe to say CNN isn’t the conquering face who is going to be the one to bring Trump down, is the network a lower-tier heel meant to establish Trump’s status as the new face champion, or is it one of the underdog faces whose defeat will make Trump’s eventual loss at the hands of a more worthy challenger more meaningful?
In the original Battle of the Billionaires, Trump was the face going up against Mr. McMahon, who, in his earlier battles with Steve Austin had established himself as the greatest heel in wrestling history, the ultimate embodiment of working-class resentment against the rich asshole bosses. Against such a foe, Trump could cast himself as the “good” plutocrat, the rebel outsider who was already too rich to be corrupted by McMahon’s wealth and so could cast himself as a hero to the WWE. Trump has carried aspects of that persona over into his campaign and now his presidency, but he also kicked off his campaign by claiming most Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers and has spent months trying to implement a ban on Muslims entering the country. Trump made himself the biggest babyface to his conservative and far-right supporters by making himself the biggest heel to damn near everyone else.
Dual characterizations have become increasingly common, going at least as far back as when Canadian wrestling legend Bret “The Hitman” Hart was the biggest face in his home country even while playing a heel in the United States. Few modern wrestlers can command unanimous reactions from the crowd, with WWE running into particular trouble lately with its hand-picked next big face, Roman Reigns, who is despised and greeted with deafening boos from hardcore fans even while kids and more casual viewers tend to cheer him. (Admittedly, if we’re going to compare one candidate from the 2016 election with Reigns, the anointed champion pushed hard by management but met with resentment from the base… yeah, it’s probably not Trump, and not just because the overlap between leftist Twitter and wrestling Twitter is nearly one-to-one.)
While WWE has tried to spin the mixed reactions Reigns gets as a good thing—“Whatever you feel about him, you feel it strongly!” is the basic argument—that tends to collapse when an actual match happens, and psychology dictates the crowd should want one person to win and one person to lose. At best, only half the audience is ever satisfied with the outcome, leaving the rest an increasing mix of angry and despondent that they wasted their time watching a fake fight in which they always sort of knew they weren’t going to get what they wanted. Trump’s Twitter rampages—to say nothing of his, you know, actual policies—can be similarly exhausting.
Tweeting out a wrestling gif of him raining supposedly fake but, in fact, very real punches down on Vince McMahon-as-CNN might be the latest attempt to reengage through sheer gall, a move to make a broken strategy work by trolling everyone so hard until they can’t help but react again—like, say, the WWE having Reigns retire its greatest legend, the Undertaker, in the former’s third straight WrestleMania main event—but it’s all so much banal absurdity after a while. I tried to figure out what story Trump is telling us, but it really is nothing but shock value. I’m not mad because Trump disrespected the office of the presidency, as that’s an institution that can only benefit from a greater culture of skepticism and irreverence. Nah, I’m mad because Trump has disrespected the true American artform that is professional wrestling, and this will not stand. But then again, pro wrestling disrespects itself on a regular basis. I mean, have you seen the original Battle of the Billionaires?