(TRIGGER WARNING: This article will involve illegal wrestling moves that bring unprecedented shame to the Squared Circle. Also I’m going to rag a bit on The Undertaker, whose Safe Space is a dumb coffin.)
Like you, I’m beyond done talking about Donald Trump. It’s not just that he’s a miserable, tedious, dispiriting subject to write about. It’s that, once the novelty of his nonstop tantrums and accidental self-incriminations wears off, he’s just so goddamn boring.
Kids, put down your Poke Mango machines. We need to talk. Two items on the agenda.
1) A few years ago your father and I joined other parents in a vigilante lynch mob and murdered a suspected pedophile in your school’s boiler room
2) Throughout the 80’s and roughly half of the 90’s, a person could make a good living in this country as a themed stand-up prop comic. We’re sorry.
Until recently, Trump’s entire public persona has been the sort of gimmicky, one-note novelty act that survivors of the 80’s grimly tolerated. Gallagher smashed watermelons onstage. Yakov Smirnoff prophetically warned us that President elects you. Carrot Top is the vengeance of God made flesh. Donald Trump was the Best Winner Ever with the interior design sensibilities of Uday Hussein.
That’s it. He was literally Vincent Adultman, just Doing Businesses and buying toilet paper printed to look like $100 bills for his Transactions.
He never bothered to flesh out his character because 1) hahahahaha, yeah, good luck pal, and 2) like the (not underage so it’s totally okay) beauty queens he walked in on while they were undressing, the less he spoke, the better he looked.
Prior to The Apprentice, Trump was sort of a proto-Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian figure, the bratty offspring of some rich asshole that became famous despite having no centralized body of work to use as a reference point. They’re not actors or comedians or politicians, they’re just….there, creatures summoned and materialized by our collective subconscious, incorporeal entities consisting of pure marketing.
Being a Jungian archetype was a huge asset for Trump. Not only did not having his own show prevent him from outing himself as a whiny useless idiot, it kept the message vague, unidirectional, and simple: “Trump=winner (fancy)”.
As Trump himself would later say, in a moment of clarity as chilling as it is rare, “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience.”
But while all the other annoying novelty acts either faded into obscurity or showed up on Celebrity Apprentice, Trump’s brand managed to cling to life just long enough to be resuscitated by The Apprentice. Like a 10,000 year-old mosquito perfectly preserved in amber, or Brendan Frasier in Encino Man, or Brendan Frasier in Blast From The Past, Trump’s outdated, one-dimensional shtick from a bygone era synergized surprisingly well with the hollowness of reality TV culture.
At the time, a person could be forgiven for buying into the idea that while Trump was clearly arrogant and liked to exaggerate, he probably was, at the very least, a competent businessman. It’s not much of a stretch to believe a successful Manhattan real estate developer would be an annoying loudmouth.
In hindsight, however, it’s pretty clear the real unsung heroes of the apocalypse were Mark Burnett and his editing team. They, not Trump himself, are the ones who crafted and solidified his modern image.
To this day, I hold The The Apprentice as a world-historical masterclass on the power of good editing. Triumph of the Will has nothing on the poor fuckers who were given hours of unedited Donald Trump monologues and told to make him appear competent. They did their jobs so well they accidentally set in motion the downfall of Western civilization, so kudos to you guys.
We all know what happened next.
The myth that Trump is a — and I cannot put enough sarcastic air quotes around these words — ”MASTER SHOWMAN” was fabricated by the media to shield us from the cosmic horror accompanying the realization that our species can be accidentally conquered by its most useless member.
You can’t blame them, really. Our options were:
A) Live with the reality that a bewildered honking goose man became the most powerful being in the known universe by mistake
B) Throw up in your mouth a little and praise Donald Trump for qualities you know he doesn’t have
That said, anyone calling Trump a MASTER SHOWMAN ought to be summoned to The Hauge and forced to give specific examples of things Trump himself did that were unquestionably brilliant.
What great feats of MASTER SHOWMANNING has Trump accomplished that even his foes will reflect on years later with grudging admiration, like when Scipio Africanus found himself behind Hannibal in the checkout lane at Lowe’s and tried to avoid eye contact by theatrically rummaging through the 5-Hour Energies?
Trump’s always looked stiff and awkward whenever he has to do anything except praise himself, and even then, he delivers his lines like an athlete that’s been taken hostage by ISIS and forced to read dialogue for the the Simpsons episode they wrote. Put him in a movie as himself and he’ll still appear vaguely uncomfortable, like he’s filming a sex scene with Tommy Wiseau. And do I really need to get into his Many People Are Saying Low Ratings Not Very Good Or Beautiful SNL Total Disaster?
There’s only one medium where Trump seems to feel at home, one that he and his supporters share a natural affinity towards: pro-wrestling. It’s such an natural, peanut-butter-and-chocolate union that many commentators have used the President’s background in professional wrestling — which is a factually accurate noun clause, so great work there, Reality — as a stock epithet for his proudly lowbrow, bombastic nature.
But it’s not just a funny coincidence or a superficial analogy that begins and ends with their mutual appeal to, ahem, “blue collar rural voters of European ancestry with strong ingroup affinity and fewer than four years of college”. It goes beyond that, into deeply revealing, almost poetic insight into what makes Trumpism such an effective communication strategy.
I’m not here to bag on wrestling. When I was a little kid, I used to watch 90's-era WWF with my grandpa. We both loved the bright, colorful characters, the simplicity of the Good Guy/Bad Guy stories. I’d even buy the action figures and have him tell me which ones were Good Guys and which were Bad so I’d know how to play with them properly. God forbid I use my imagination, you know?
Then one day — I remember myself as being very young, though Google says this probably happened much later — I saw Trump’s WWE debut, all massive LED dollar signs and fake money fluttering down from the rafters as he sauntered towards the ring, where he loudly argued with Vince McMahon over who had more money in front of a stadium of poor white trash, and all I could think was “Is this the only thing he ever talks about? Doesn’t he have any other hobbies?”
Even as a child I found it kind of weird that Trump didn’t seem to have an “Off” switch. I could imagine other wrestlers, Hell, even Vince McMahon going home and having dinner like a normal person. Trump came across like a anus-faced weirdo that would surround his bed with framed pictures of Ben Franklin yelling “ CHA-CHING!” or “THAT’S A LOTTA CHEDDA!”
This is probably the earliest memory I have of finding Donald Trump annoying.
Around the same time, for reasons I would never understand until years later, I also found myself vaguely irritated by The Undertaker, arguably the most successful athlete in WWE history, for a very similar reason.
Like Trump, he had an equally lazy, self-centered gimmick that spoke to hardcore WWE fans: He was invincible and always won. Like a bad improv partner, or the kid at recess you hated playing with, all he’d do was negate your premise and declare victory. The other guy could come up with a really clever ring persona, throwing his heart and soul into his performance, and Taker would just stand there and declare none of your moves worked because his magic shields were up. Then he’d knock you over and win.
Every. Fucking. Time.
Take a moment to consider how many other aspiring amateur wrestlers, while coming up with their character, briefly flirted with that very idea, an invincible guy that wins all the time (they could call him THE MACHINE!), before scrapping it for being selfish and obvious.
Whereas most novelty performers have enough self-awareness to not take themselves too seriously, Trump, always one for confusing self-consciousness with self-awareness, was only faintly aware that humans are supposed to have additional qualities beyond what you see on TV. He wasn’t the first person to contemplate making “BEST WINNER EVER” their public fursona. He was just the first person to fail to understand the basic problem with it.
It’s a narrative so simple a Trump voter could understand it.
Now look, I know the whole “professional wrestling is for dumbass hillbillies” stereotype is unfair and condescending, especially since hipsters decided to gradually morph into rednecks and elevate the WWE into some kind of ironic kitsch thing, like those mason jars of overpriced moonshine you can buy at upscale liquor stores, but counterpoint: come the fuck on. Look at the crowds. You know their target demographic.
Sure, you may enjoy it ironically by embracing the sheer goofiness of it all, and to be fair, a lot of it clearly rules, but you’re kidding yourself if you think those stadiums of white people whose idea of “dressing up” means wearing the tank tops with the extra-massive droopy armpit holes are there for the camp.
Both sides are there for the same reason: It’s gloriously stupid. The difference is only one side seems in on the joke. For millions of fans, this is their Better Call Saul. It’s pitched directly at their level. If you told me 68% of Trump voters also think Samurai Cop is unironically a cinematic masterpiece, I would tell the Universe that I accept it’s apology.
If you think I’m being condescending or hyperbolic, you clearly haven’t spoken to enough Trump voters. A lot of high-roading liberals have taken it as an article of faith that they can understand the nature of Trumpism from a distance quite well, thank you, and nothing is to be gained from directly engaging them.
Understanding Trumpism is a lot like understanding any other dark aspect of human nature: You’ll never truly understand it until you experience its visceral horror up close. Facts are necessary but not sufficient.
You can watch all the soul-crushing Al Jazeera documentaries in the world and convince yourself you’re sufficiently jaded and cynical, but until you’ve experienced it yourself, you’re relying on your imagination as much as anyone else, still subconsciously imposing your own values and expectations upon people who emphatically do not share them.
Over the past four years, I’ve talked to hundreds of these people online, and from this I have learned one thing: They’re worse than you think. In every way. They’re easily the most homogenized political group I’ve ever encountered, and their anti-intellectualism isn’t incidental, it’s the bedrock of their identity.
In both style and content, they were all completely identical. They shared the same grammatical mistakes, the same sentence structure, the same childlike simplicity in their logic, the same willingness to abandon their entire belief system on a sentence-by-sentence basis, the same love of hollow slogans and catchphrases.
Not once did I encounter one that wasn’t a walking cliché. Not once was I surprised by their thoughtfulness or compassion. Not once did I have an actual human conversation that bettered me as a person.
Zero substance. Zero nuance. Nothing but stimulus and response.
Try having a thoughtful conversation with one. I dare you. Or better yet, I’ll save you the time and tell you how it will play out: They’ll say something really stupid that’s easily refuted. You burn out a quick 2–3 paragraph reply explaining what’s wrong with what they just said. Without fail, they will complain about how much reading that is, say they won’t read your “rant” because it would take forever, then declare victory because they think it took you hours to write that.
You call them an idiot, they prove you wrong by bragging about their learning disability. That’s how it goes.
The right-wing media understands this intimately. The more sophisticated outlets can calibrate their propaganda with mathematical precision, as if they’re using adaptive AI programs licensed from Google’s data analytics software to churn out scripts designed to appeal to their audience of geriatric swamp monsters and racist Pillsbury Doughboys.
[NOTE TO SELF: FIND IMAGE OF THE PILLSBURY DOUGHBOY WITH A SWASTKA TATTOO AND A LITTLE WORD BALLOON SAYING “IT’S NOT NECESSARILY A SYMBOL OF HATE, IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTEXT”]
That, my friend, is the total extent to which Trump is a MASTER SHOWMAN: He’s not a visionary. He’s not a hard worker. He’s just a moron who speaks fluent Moron.
He’s no smarter than his followers. They just happen to share his blind worship of the abstract concept of “success.” It doesn’t matter that he was born into wealth and had everything in life handed to him. The details are irrelevant. It’s not about how he achieved success or what that success entails. All that matters is he’s Rich Winner. He’s Big Daddy Trump. The Alpha.
Good Guy. Bad Guy. Face. Heel. Winner. Loser. White. Black. Red. Blue.
So when Trump spouts off the same inane racist, paranoid shit as his followers, they see it as validation, proof that their beliefs are shared by the greatest Winner who ever lived. Any personal insecurities they have about their social status or lack of education suddenly become irrelevant to their beliefs. After all, a rich guy said it.
This creates a symbiotic relationship wherein the more authority Trump voters attribute to him, the more their worldview is validated. In return, he gets the nonstop orgy of mindless praise he’s craved his entire life.
Unfortunately, things that work well in crafting a professional wrestling persona don’t necessarily translate into shaping the foreign and domestic policy of the most powerful empire in human history.
Trump isn’t a MASTER SHOWMAN. He isn’t a master anything. Unless the question is “What’s Jeffrey Epstein like in person?”, he doesn’t know a single thing you don’t. He didn’t spend years artfully manipulating right-wing media or the Republican party so that his audience would be primed for his message. All he did was show up, repeatedly hit a string of trigger words, receive applause, salivate like Pavlov’s dogs, and repeat the process every time he feels empty inside.
Yet still here we are, at the end of all things, as 2020 gasps its miserable last breaths and the Ray Jay Johnson administration salts the earth so that nothing may ever grow in its absence. Against all odds, America and its institutions have survived, if barely intact.
Trump may be on his way out, but the weaknesses in our moral and intellectual character cannot be unseen. It wasn’t just that a madman seized control of our country and convinced tens of millions of Americans to blindly wander into an insurrectionist death cult willing to torch this country to the ground on a whim.
It’s that it was so easy.
(On the plus side, I managed to make it to the end of this piece without once calling Trump a “master baiter,” so it looks like we’re all growing as people.)