Heel-In-Chief: Donald Trump And The Psychology Of Pro Wrestling
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. Like an actor, you’ve become the character you are playing. You are who you need to be to please or provoke all those cheering fans.
There’s a lot we can all learn from how that works in professional wrestling; and it can help us understand what goes on other arenas, 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. But I’m neither amazed, nor baffed. 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. (What’s a promo?: a televised interview in which a wrestler’s on-screen personality is promoted to the fans). In a debate, I’ll be asking myself: “do I want to be a ‘face’ and acknowledge that some of the other side’s thinking has some point? Or do I want to be a ‘heel,’ and ‘smear on the mat’ everything about them and their ideas?”
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, 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, which supposedly means he’s actually been in the ring.
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. In contrast to what’s been happening in his presidency, in this event Donald was supposed to be the “face.” He was booked to care about what the fans think. 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. For those who don’t follow professional wrestling, did you want to know what a “Stone Cold Stunner” is? It’s a “a three-quarter facelock (reaching back and grabbing the head of an opponent, thus pulling the opponent’s jaw above the wrestler’s shoulder) before falling to a seated position and forcing the opponent’s jaw (but predominantly the opponent’s neck) to drop down on the shoulder of the attacking wrestler” (Wikipedia). Now you’re sorry you asked, aren’t you?
The Stone Cold Stunner is one of those things that’s “so-bad-it’s-good.” It 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 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. You are not only free to be dirty, lazy, cheap, and to yell at children: the role really pretty much requires it! You get to tear signs; put down the good guy wear a smug grin; and tell the female ring announcer where to shove it. 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.
Take Donald’s “adversary” when he sort-of-but-not-really-wrestled: Vincent K. McMahon. At his peak as a professional wrestler, McMahon was the top heel in the business, the authority figure who did all within his considerable power to disrupt the hard work and pride of the common man, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. This angle, one of the most tried and true in all of pro wrestling lore, worked because people could relate to having a boss that drove them so crazy, that there’s some part of them that would love to flip the boss the bird, and hit them with a Stone Cold Stunner.
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. Even recently, he’s gone on a tweeting spree to proclaim his office being hacked by the previous administration. Like a heel gone over the edge, he’s throwing anything against the wall to see if it sticks. 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.
The most effective heels are the ones who become visibly agitated when fans boo them. Why? Heels project an image of believing that they’re justified in what they’re doing. Because they’re doing wrong in the eyes of the audience, jeers from the fans visibly infuriate them. The heels who react to the sounds and chants from the crowd are much more fun to watch, because the fans like feeling that they’re an important part of the show. How often do you get to shout something at a performer and feel in your gut that they heard it? Pro wrestling is one of the few entertainment venues where that can happen.
For instance, Kurt Angle, a legitimate Olympic gold medalist, had a patriotic-sounding entrance theme. For a gag, Edge, Angle’s one-time wrestling nemesis, added the words “you suck” to to the theme. That got so much attention, and ended up being so ‘sticky’ that five years later, when WWE was trying to frame Kurt as a good guy, that they had to entirely cut that part of the song. The fans loved chanting it so much (with the two extra word included) that it became habitual, and definitely not a reaction to his current character. A thin-skinned heel, someone like Donald Trump, would resent something like this immensely, and very publicly.
However, not everyone likes to go along with the status quo. Not everyone wants to cheer for the good guys. Sometimes the bad guy is just so awesome that you find yourself liking them, despite yourself. The Rock is a great example of this.
The Rock, the professional wrestler once known as Rocky Maivia, was an All-American good guy character. But the fans rejected this angle so hard that they would chant at him “Die, Rocky! Die!” In the late 90s, when The Rock rose to fame, the notion of the anti-hero was a sexy trope for a lot of people. This included The Rock in WWE, the Boondock Saints, Randall in Clerks, Snake Pliskin, Daria, Beavis and Butthead, or any of the numerous other antihero-types in the 90s. It was far more attractive than the days of “eat your vitamins, say your prayers” of the 1980s with Hulk Hogan, and by the time John Cena’s marine/merchandise shill Fruity Pebbles personality came around, it pretty much had lost its mainstream luster. But back when The Rock became a huge jerk who said whatever was on his mind, people started to like him as a bad guy. He was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, only with a signature raised eyebrow.
The love for antiheroes aside, some people just prefer the heels. Heels are allowed to have more fun, and can even seem more authentic, since they aren’t perfect. The bad guys aren’t constrained by fans’ preconceptions of who they can reasonably attack, or what they can say. The best heels are masters of manipulating, verbally and physically thrashing the faces, and telling anyone “what’s on their mind.”
People like particular individual heels for various other reasons, too. Sometimes it’s a more personal attachment to the person playing the character. For instance, professional wrestler CM Punk benefitted from that in the latter part of his WWE run. At other times, they just provide a more compelling character than the face they’re wrestling with. For a non-wrestling example, take Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. The joker is mesmerizing: so intelligent, so skilled, and so dastardly that he outshines the hero, who appears dull and predictable in comparison. A heel who is too good at their job can do the same thing in professional wrestling: spouting off any chance they get, calling out anyone who disagrees with their actions, and giving the finger to their enemies.
Could there be a more fitting metaphor for our current political situation? 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. Remember when Trump used Twitter to blast the union organizer who criticized the deal Trump supposedly made with the Carrier company to save jobs.
If a heel notices that they’re getting too many cheers, they’ll opt for something known as “cheap heat.” They might decide to cheat unabashedly, by poking a wrestler in the eye or going for the cowardly low blow. “Oh, that dirty SOB, he deserves what’s coming to him!” But when you take that attitude in real life, it creates a lot more controversy. 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?
The mission of a wrestling match is for characters to garner reactions from their audience. Such reactions hinge more on the heel than on the face, because it is so much harder to make someone like you than it is to make them hate you. The heel has the easier job in making the audience hate them, but they both have to work toward getting the face “over.”
Trump uses cheap heat all the time. Saying that John McCain is not a real war hero, for example (“I like the guys who don’t get captured”). Or complaining that Nordstrom is “unfair” because they decided to remove Ivanka Trump’s line of designer clothing, for instance. The matter of Nordstrom and Ivanka has no bearing on national policy or the job of the Presidency, but it’s a cheap way to fire people up. It’s the Twitter equivalent of using a steel chair when the ref’s back is turned. Nordstrom becomes a face for sticking up to the heel, and the heel has to put their full force into undermining the face.
One of the easiest ways I learned to get cheap heat as a wrestler was to find out what the fans wanted to see, and then not give it to them. Location is a simple one. If you’re in Boston, praise the Yankees. If you’re in Philly, talk about the Penguins. Or just pretend to be from Canada. In most small towns, it’s easy to get cheap heat by just being “not American.”
Donald Trump also seems to be quite aware of that mentality. “Make America Great Again” would’ve made a great wrestling T-shirt. Trump is excellent at getting heat from liberals,and thus gaining support from conservatives. Truly effective characters in wrestling, and anywhere else for that matter, are skilled at appealing to your emotions. After all, it’s much easier than appealing to rationality. Moreover, emotions are much more powerful drivers of decision-making and behavior than reason and logic. If you get emotionally invested in the character, it’s becomes that much harder to persuade you away from your position.
Given this context, we can see plenty of evidence that this whole “Donald Trump: POTUS” thing is an act. He tweets, speaks, attacks, and gets offended like a pro-wrestling heel. He appeals to powerful emotions such as fear and anger. If he said aloud to an audience what he tweeted, he’d be getting an “a-hole!” chant from the majority of the crowd. And that would be a good thing, because heel authority characters are a tried and true method of building the heroes up to save the day, overcome the odds, and eventually defy even the best efforts of the most conniving outside influences.
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.
If only Trump had run for President of WWE instead of the President of the United States, we might all feel a lot better about the world and its future right now. Being the President of the United States might be a good heel role for Lex Luthor or Vince McMahon, as well as Trump. Unfortunately, decisions to behave as a heel have real-life consequences that don’t exist in the world of professional wrestling. Stone Cold could flip off Vince McMahon and hit him with the Stunner, and the fans loved it. But flipping the finger to the leader of foreign leader, especially if it’s a close long-standing ally (perhaps Australia), say by hanging up on them, has the potential to burn bridges that really matter. As much as America loves to tote its own exceptionalism, in the modern world allies are very necessary.
In professional wrestling, everything happened within a small, compact, world that’s basically fairly predictable: a manager, a booker, a promoter, a writing team, and hundreds of behind-the-scenes workers all come together to create the weird world of professional wrestling. But Trump’s Presidential heel act is happening the real world. No one’s managing from outside. That has consequences, and they can be ugly.
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.” That may be an entertaining cult of personality, but generally when someone is an arrogant heel, they get their faces punched eventually. 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. It’s a matter of life-and-death, literally — for instance, the union boss who our heel-in-chief blasted on Twitter is now getting death threats, and Megyn Kelly, the reporter, did too after Trump blasted her.
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. For those of us who see Donald Trump as the heel he is, we’ve never been in more need of a People’s Champion to stand up for what’s right. In professional wrestling, the payoff to every great angle involving a heel always ends with the heel getting what’s coming to them. 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!
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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism — for more information or to hire him, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com.
He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals, so as to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the History of Behavioral Science and the Decision Sciences Collaborative. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues, such as Time, The Conversation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as affiliates of ABC and Fox, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, and elsewhere.
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