Trump and the Psychology of Pro Wrestling
Psychology research shows how Donald Trump uses wrestling tactics to get ahead
Posted May 19, 2017
By Marissa Alexa McCool
Nothing can compare to the moment just before you burst through the curtain. The spotlight is waiting for you, your theme song is blasting from the loudspeakers - the adrenaline takes over. When you step out into the arena, whether you’re a “face” (good guy) or a “heel” (bad guy), once the fans can see you, you’re no longer your everyday self. You are who you need to be to please or provoke all those cheering fans.
There’s a lot we can all learn from professional wrestling that might otherwise be very puzzling. Consider Donald Trump. A great many Americans, whether for or against him, are amazed by his behavior, which contrasts so dramatically with what we’ve ever seen before from a high-profile figure in political life. That’s because I used to be a professional wrestler.
Let me explain. I haven’t stepped into a professional wrestling ring since 2011, yet I still sometimes approach situations the way a professional wrestler would. I’ll use music to hype myself up for a final exam, or I’ll respond during a debate as if I were countering another wrestler’s promo. Eli Bosnick, the wonderfully creative comedian, actor and magician, has said many times that “everything is wrestling.” That’s certainly on-point for our current heel-in-chief, or bad-guy-in-chief, Donald J. Trump. For those of you who don’t know, The Donald is featured in the “celebrity” wing of the World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall-of-Fame!
In one of the more cringe-worthy storylines I can recall (and that’s saying a lot), Trump was challenged by Vince McMahon, the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), in a hair vs. hair match at the “WrestleMania 23” event. Mercifully, the two of them didn’t really wrestle. Instead, both Vince and Donald had champions who wrestled on their behalf. When it came to the day of the press conference though, Donald couldn’t bother to even get the name of his champion right (calling Bobby Lashley, Bobby “Lindsay” instead).
There were some striking highlights when Mr. Trump and Mr. McMahon sort-of-wrestled. One was the Stone Cold Stunner that Mr. Trump (yes, he and not his champion) took in the ring. The Stunner was named after “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, an actor and former wrestler who is a legend in professional wrestling. Even if you’ve never followed wrestling in your life, there’s a good chance you’ve heard or seen some allusion to it. The “Austin 3:16” shirts were ubiquitous in the late 90s, and so was the fame of his signature move. In fact, there are memes going around now of the President getting the “Stone Cold Stunner.”
Thinking back to the day when when Mr. Trump and Mr. McMahon sort-of-wrestled, it’s really striking that while Trump was supposed to be the face, and McMahon the heel; in reality Mr. McMahon and Trump-as-president have a lot in common. The Donald, like McMahon, is a heavy-handed authority figure - one who’s easy to hate, because he’s so good at poking us until we’re rabid. That’s right: as you might guess, Donald Trump would make a tremendous professional wrestling heel!
Being a heel is a natural fit to Donald Trump’s style: he can say whatever outrageous statement is on his mind, no need to worry about any consequence or response. He insists his presence be seen and honored, lashing out against anyone foolish enough to deny the radiant greatness of his existence. As a heel in wrestling, you have the freedom to let loose whatever fiery slur you feel in the moment. The secret to being a good wrestler is to have a character that’s immediately identifiable and relatable - an archetype, whether on the side of good or evil.
How many people can say they want to flip Donald Trump the bird now?
A heel, in the world of professional wrestling, has two missions: to make the fans boo them, and to provide a powerful foil for the face, so the face can demonstrate their sympathy-worthy character. Heels come in different flavors. Some are thin-skinned and reactive. Trump is one of the those, with the way critical tweets or news stories reliably inciting a ferocious reaction. When nothing specific is going on to cause drama, he’ll make it happen, and a heel is often relied upon to do that if the match loses the audience’s interest.
Imagine Trump as a wrestling character: firing off tweets at anyone who disagrees with him, using simple inflammatory language; appealing to certain demographics (or at least some people in those demographics) by disparaging others; and tearing down his opponents with little regard for the truth. Consider, for example, complaining about the Hamilton cast or “so-called judges” on Twitter. Trump’s intentional use of incendiary language grabs attention. When dismissing Sally Yates, the attorney general who refused to carry out the Muslim travel ban, his departure memo called her “very weak on security.” It gains a reaction, doesn’t it?
Just how much of Donald Trump is really a carefully contrived act, and how much of it is just spontaneously Donald, and probably we can never know for sure. Yet either way, the behavior follows the model of the wrestling heel pretty reliably.
Look, I get it; it’s appealing to have someone so direct, charismatic, and interesting. The best wrestling characters have been described as “their authentic selves but with the volume turned to 11.” The President of the United States is now courting people around the world to punch him in the face, and in the real world outside professional wrestling, that has much more dangerous consequences than a Stone Cold Stunner.
What we need now is a face. Perhaps Elizabeth Warren is the one who can be the Stone Cold to his Vince McMahon. Thanks to the words of Mitch McConnell while booting her from the Senate floor, “nevertheless, she persisted” has become a perfect wrestling catch phrase. The face could just as easily be a Republican, as Intentional Insights has pointed out, with the example of John McCain criticizing Trump’s efforts to stifle a free press.And if we’ve ever needed a reason to cheer for a face champion saving the day, it’s now.
But, to his credit, Donald Trump is the first President of the United States to have received a Stone Cold Stunner!
Marissa Alexa McCool is the author of The PC Lie: How American Voters Decided I Don’t Matter and False Start: A Novel. She is host of The Inciting Incident Podcast, author of the wrestling column In Laiman's Terms, her blog, and her Freelance Writing. She can be followed on Facebook, on Twitter at @RisMcCool, and at her website RisMcCool.com.