It has been fascinating watching the recent Presidential selection cycle in the USA.
On arrival, I started asking people who they were looking for as a Presidential candidate – and a surprising number of people I spoke to said, “anyone but Hillary” and Donald Trump was the person they would like to vote for. Several are serious, successful, thoughtful people whom I respect the opinions of – so it isn’t just the disenfranchised.
As a European coming to America, I was genuinely ambivalent about Trump. His candidature did not seem serious, despite the number of people who felt he was a legitimate political figure. Like many, I saw him as a celebrity critique insurgent, like Russell Brand in the last UK election; a man with support, who lacked credibility other than to inspire the disaffected and marginalised in society. His campaign made no sense. “I’m richer than these guys so I am right and they are wrong. These guys are hopeless, ugly and stupid. I will beat them to a pulp.” His policies were, “I am a tough guy and I will stop the bad guys who are foreigners, weak liberal elites, the establishment who are keeping “us” down.”
I didn’t get it.
Surely Presidential candidates are the peak of American society, experienced leaders with decades of public service serving as VP like Nixon (and Senator of California) and George H W Bush (who also headed the CIA). We want to elect the best among us, like Truman and Wilson, educated men with a firm moral compass needed to make the hardest and most difficult decisions. Or we want the most congenial leaders, like Reagan, Roosevelt and Clinton who use charm and personality to bring people together. We want military heroes like Kennedy and Eisenhower, (among many) both of whom had demonstrated leadership in the battlefield. Even when we need the dirty stuff done, Presidents like LBJ have a firm grasp of the real world having been a teacher and public servant.
Donald Trump is none of these and unlike any other candidate.
As a student of the post-war American Presidency, I looked back at similar campaigns and the closest candidate is Barry Goldwater in the 1964 campaign. Goldwater was a southern businessman and politician, and perhaps the godfather of the southern conservative movement, of which Ted Cruz is now the flag bearer of. His policies are not so similar to Trump, but his positions were just as polarising. His bullying criticism of the Republican elites and hounding of Nelson Rockefeller, the grandest of grandees, has some similarities, but Trump is no Goldwater.
Goldwater, for all his opinions was a committed public servant, a thinker and had great rectitude. And, as we know, Goldwater lost the 1964 election by a landslide against LBJ.
And then it hit me today. Donald Trump is not following a traditional political strategy at all, he is NOT Goldwater, or anyone else. His campaign is a wrestling narrative and November the 8th is Wrestlemania. He is playing the playbook of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a 1990s character from the WWE.
Wrestling as Life
Back in the 1980s and 90s I was a wrestling fan. Each “character” represented a segment of American life.
Hulk Hogan was the bronzed all American super-hero. Roddy Piper and Jim Duggan, the American everyman, Sgt Slaughter the turncoat, Andre the Giant, The Iron Sheikh, Nikoli Volkoff, the foreign bad guys (who became good guys depending on prevailing US Foreign Policy!).
However, something strange happened in the late 1990s. A wrestler, a bad guy, Steve Austin, after winning a match against former “hero” Jake “The Snake” Roberts (below) came up with a persona where he took on the good guys and denigrated their personas.
Because of his character’s “personality”, nobody owned him, he said what he wanted and drank beer after a fight against the rules. The ruder and more obnoxious he became, the more people loved him.
As his popularity grew, the WWE created more “establishment” figures to try and stop him, to the point where the WWE created a long running feud – as part of the storyline – with the owner of the WWE Vince McMahon. The narrative was that the WWE as a company wanted to stop Austin, but buoyed by his grassroots support, Austin became more and more popular and won the day.
Steve Austin remains one the most iconic wrestlers in history. There were many better technical wrestlers, many more articulate and charismatic speakers, but few who managed to win as much popularity and adulation.
Austin not only earned top billing, but changed the medium of wrestling away from the black and white narrative of good guy-bad guy, but shifted the entire wrestling business to a new phase known as “Attitude.”
After injury, Steve Austin’s appearances became less frequent, but Donald Trump, a long term supporter of WWE started to appear as a guest and latterly as a character, involving himself into storylines, ultimately becoming one of Steve Austin’s victims in the Wrestling ring.
It is clear to me, that Trump has copied Steve Austin’s strategy.
Like Steve Austin, he has ridiculed his opponents in the crudest and most obvious ways to make them become irrelevant and small compared to him. With Cruz and Rubio, expect the same standard stereotyping as seen previously, and against Hillary Clinton a new wave of sexism and misogyny not seen in public debate for decades.
And like Steve Austin, he has changed the Republican Party through insurgency; the traditional rules of politics do not apply. The voters are his and not the Party’s.
So stop talking about historical precedent or anything else that has gone before. The fight for the Republican Nomination – and indeed the Presidency – has roots in WWE and not historical political strategies.
Opponents better hit first, and hit hard, as taking from Steve Austin’s signature move, it only takes a second before they are hit by the Donald Trump Stunner – and there is no getting up when knocked down.
OL March 2016