AROUND THE HORN: Trump expertly executed the greatest professional wrestling storyline of all time

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By Mike Morsch, Executive editor
What we’ve just witnessed in the recent presidential election was a professional wrestling storyline played to perfection by Donald Trump.
Here’s how I know.
When I was a kid, I loved professional wrestling. That was back when there were regional promotions in different parts of the country, so the wrestlers that I saw in Peoria, Illinois, oftentimes weren’t the same wrestlers who worked in New York or Georgia or Texas or California.
The formula was simple: good vs. evil, or as it’s called in “rasslin’” vernacular, “babyface vs. heel.” The wrestlers themselves maintained something called “kayfabe” outside the ring, meaning they continued to portray the staged performances as “real.” In fact, the wrestlers themselves, with a few exceptions, were on the same side of giving a good performance – “putting each other over” – with the crowd.
It was – and still is to this day – theater that purposely tried to control and direct the emotions of the crowd for the business of making money. A means to an end. (If you want an example of a wrestling crowd’s emotions run amok over a staged performance, go to YouTube and type in “Ox Baker causes a riot in Cleveland 1960s” to see how “real” it can get.)
Since 1976, I’ve been attending the live wrestling shows in high school gymnasiums and arenas in such places like Peoria, Des Moines, Kansas City, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Honolulu.
And not only have I observed what was going on inside the ring, but also outside the ring and the reactions of those buying the tickets. It has been a fascinating display of the human condition.
Racism and nationalism were often part of the storyline, and both were exploited in the form of what are called “gimmicks” by the wrestlers. In the World War II aftermath of the 1950s and 1960s, a Canadian named Guy Larose changed his name to “Hans Schmidt” and wrestled as an “evil German” character. Just after the Iran hostage crisis ended in the early 1980s, an Iranian named Khosrow Vaziri played the dastardly “Iron Sheik,” who came to the ring with curly-toed boots and waving an Iranian flag.
In the mid-1990s, a character appeared in the World Wrestling Federation – now called World Wrestling Entertainment – named “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. His gimmick was that of a beer-drinking antihero, who regularly defied the establishment by flipping double middle fingers to the company boss Mr. McMahon, a character created by the company’s real owner, Vince McMahon.
The “Stone Cold” character was originally a heel. But somewhere along the way, rasslin’ audiences began to cheer his antihero schtick. McMahon, who had built a multimillion-dollar professional wrestling empire based mainly on knowing what his audiences wanted, flipped the “Stone Cold” character to a babyface. Austin didn’t have to change the antihero act, all McMahon had to do was change Austin’s adversaries to heels. And the audience loved “Stone Cold” even more as a redneck, take-no-guff babyface.
It was all about recognizing what the people wanted, and directing those emotions in a manner that made people want to pay to see the show. And it worked for McMahon. He’s a billionaire that knew how to take a tried and true formula and turn it to his advantage.
It was into that environment in 2007 that Donald Trump entered as part of the main event of Wrestlemania 23, McMahon’s annual professional wrestling extravaganza.
The storyline was a staged rivalry between McMahon and Trump, a “Battle of the Billionaires.” The angle began in January 2007 and played itself out through the first quarter of the year, with Trump and McMahon appearing on television every week to provoke and posture with each other. Trump played the “babyface” and McMahon played the “heel.” Trump’s real life nemesis, Rosie O’Donnell, also became part of the storyline at one point.
When it came time for Wrestlemania 23 in April, Trump and McMahon each picked a wrestler to represent them in the ring. And the special referee for the event was none other than “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, antihero to both McMahon and Trump.
Trump played his role in the WWE to perfection. But more importantly as it turned out, he learned a lot from his time in the world of professional wrestling – he learned how to control the crowd.
And that’s exactly what he did in 2015 when he entered the presidential race – control the crowd. He tested all his lines designed to evoke an emotional response – “build a wall,” “low energy Jeb” “make America great again” – during the primaries. If those lines got the desired response, he repeated them over and over and louder and louder. It didn’t matter if any of the phrases were true or not, only that they provoked a positive response.
When Trump blew through the primaries and got to the general election, he trotted out a few more lines, the most notable of which was “crooked Hillary.” He got the response he was looking for, so he kept saying it.
It was all staged and it was all planned. It was a page right out of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment playbook, a formula that McMahon had perfected for decades.
And nearly the entire legitimate media and 60 million people bought it, many of whom didn’t even know they were the stars of a professional wrestling storyline. The people paid with their votes to see the show.
I can’t say that I knew that Trump was going to be the next president. But I am on the record in a radio interview I did in August 2015 with a Peoria radio station that I thought his candidacy was a storyline that he had cooked up with McMahon in the lead-up to Wrestlemania 32 scheduled in April 2016.
As I watched the Trump candidacy unfold over the next 15 months right up to Election Day, I was always aware of what I was watching: the greatest professional wrestling storyline ever on the biggest stage in the world.
And it was played to absolute perfection by Donald Trump.
Mike Morsch is executive editor and digital news director of Packet Media LLC. He can be reached by email at [email protected].