Sunday, November 22, 2015

Donald Trump's Presidential "Heel Turn"

Ladies and gentlemen, the 45th President of the United States.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign makes perfect sense once it is understood to be the political equivalent of what is called a “heel turn” in professional wrestling. 

In 2007, before becoming a “reality TV” star in his own right, Trump was cast by World Wrestling Entertainment for a major role in an extended storyline that culminated in Wrestlemania 23. The climax of that pay-per-view event was a proxy battle between wrestlers representing Trump and WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. The victor would shave the loser’s head in the center ring. 

A standard-issue bout of scripted, artfully choreographed mayhem ensued, during which Trump executed a cheap-shot, blind-side tackle of McMahon. After Trump’s surrogate emerged victorious, he gleefully inflicted a humiliating tonsure on his rival – the only authentic injury inflicted during the entire affair. 

Every pro wrestling persona embodies a marketable “angle.” The WWE character called Donald Trump © was a narcissistic billionaire blowhard who was supposedly tough enough to do what was necessary to bring down the “establishment.” Although he was clearly the fan favorite, Trump didn’t choose to be a “face” – that is, a good guy –because “heels” are always more popular.
Eight years later, Trump has resurrected his WWE character for use in the Republican presidential primaries, which are every bit as farcical as– albeit immeasurably more harmful than -- the steroid-saturated soap opera called pro “wrestling.”

The most coveted quality in a pro wrestling performer is “heat” – the ability to attract attention, whether in the form of adulation or vilification. In wrestling, polarization is the easiest way to generate heat. The same is true in politics, which generally is an exercise in mobilizing hatreds. 

Wrestling arenas are regularly filled with thousands of people who have paid substantial amounts to join in the collective execration of the designated “heel.” Similar dynamics exist in political rallies, but there is one important difference: The target of focused hostility will be somebody other than the figure on stage. Occasionally a heckler in the crowd will emerge and provide the audience with a more immediate hate target. This appears to be what happened at Trump’s rally in Birmingham on November 21.

Local agitator Mercutio Southall, Jr., began chanting “Black lives matter!” during Trump’s speech, inciting a scuffle and disrupting the event. According to the account of a Washington Post reporter on the scene, one of the Trump supporters in attendance “punched and attempted to choke” Southall, while a female supporter – to her credit – pleaded: “Don’t choke him!”

After he became aware of the disruption, Trump exclaimed, “Get him the hell out of here, will you please?” He then launched into a soliloquy – at once self-pitying and self-aggrandizing – complaining about how the media would depict the event, and inviting applause for handling a heckler more assertively than Bernie Sanders did when Black Lives Matter protesters simply commandeered the microphone during a campaign event in Seattle

The punches reported by the Washington Post correspondent weren’t visible in the available video of the incident, and if any blows landed they probably had as much impact as the typical “stage punch” one sees at a professional “wrestling” event. Like a “jobber” hired to perform alongside a “pushed” or featured wrestling star, Southall did his best to “sell” the fight. Trump’s reaction to the news that Southall had been “roughed up” was not to point out that the evidence supporting that claim was ambiguous, but to suggest that a beating would have been warranted. 

“Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump told Fox News, reveling in his role as a “heel.” His next words underscore the fact that he is engaged in a performance, rather than a conventional political campaign: “I have a lot of fans, and they were not happy about it [Southall’s interruption]. And this was a very obnoxious guy who was a trouble-maker who was looking to make trouble.” (Emphasis added.)

Trump has “fans,” not “constituents” or “supporters.” Conflict being the key to building a fan base, I found myself entertaining the cynical thought that Trump might have hired Southall to stage the disruption as a way to build “heat.” This wouldn’t be necessary, given Trump’s natural gift for polarization – and the growing ease he displays in his chosen role as an American avatar of Benito Mussolini.

Donald Trump’s official campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” His unofficial motto should be: “We have no choice” – a claim he uses to punctuate calls for various abridgments of liberty, such as the creation of a military “deportation force”; expanded surveillance of mosques, and –where he deems necessary – the forcible closure of those deemed to be objectionablewatchlists, databases, and special identification protocols targeting Muslims; and the restoration of torture as an interrogation method

“We have to be strong,” Trump grunted during a November 22 interview when asked about waterboarding by the precious little fellow named George Stephanopolous. “You know, they don’t use waterboarding over there, they use chopping off people’s heads, they use drowning people. I would bring it back. I think waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they do.”

In theory, a U.S. president is restrained by the limits on power supposedly contained within the U.S. Constitution. Trump has never provided any evidence that he has read the document, let alone that he understands its provisions and takes them seriously. In fact, the only element of the Constitution for which he has expressed unqualified approval is the “takings clause” of the Fifth Amendment, which authorizes the government to seize property through “eminent domain” – a process through which Trump, the crony capitalist par excellence, has enriched himself considerably. 

On the available evidence, Trump’s view of presidential powers doesn’t differ in substance from that of Barack Obama, whom he has consistently criticized for being “weak” and timid in the exercise of those powers. 

Trump’s Republican “fans” consist, for the most part, of people who see Obama as a dictator – but who devoutly wish for Trump to inherit the distended powers of the office Obama now occupies, and exercise them more assertively. They aren’t interested in a leader who would apply sound principles in defense of individual liberty and private property; they lust and ache to be ruled by someone they consider a suitable symbol of American “greatness.”

In his relentlessly self-preoccupied and borderline-aphasic speeches and media appearances, Trump displays a rhetorical style not terribly different from that of a skilled professional wrestler “working the mic.” He dilates upon his accomplishments, most of which are dubious at best, boasts of his standing in the polls, commends his “fans” for the wisdom they display in supporting him, and spends a great deal of time discussing obscure and petty personal affronts. He will engage in pure, malicious invention, as in his bizarre and completely dishonest claim to have witnessed “thousands and thousands of people cheering” – Muslims, to be sure – on 9/11 as the World Trade Center collapsed.

One thing Trump has never done, and most likely will never do, is describe how he would reduce the power, size, cost, and invasiveness of government. Rather than curtailing the ever-metastasizing police state, he would appoint "the best people" to supervise it. His self-described mission, we must never forget, is to restore the government’s “greatness,” not to bring about individual liberty. He seems to believe that this would apparently be done through the simple act of electing him president – and a remarkable number of Republicans agree. Trump offers them nothing but an opportunity for the vicarious exercise of power -- and for such people this is enough.

In “The Revolt of the Masses,” which was published in 1930 – a  time when Mussolini was still in favor with the bien-pensants -- Jose Ortega y Gassett observed that through Fascism “there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions.” That human "type" isn't limited to one end of the statist political spectrum: It is plentifully represented among supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as Donald Trump.

Mass movements of that kind aren’t organized around principles or ideals, but rather propelled by what Ortega y Gassett called “appetites in words,” particularly the basest appetite, which is a desire for power over others. As a professional wrestling performer, Donald Trump offered his “fans” a relatively harmless way to indulge that appetite vicariously. The same cannot be said of his cynical heel turn as a presidential candidate.

This week's Freedom Zealot Podcast examines Trump's "We Have No Choice" agenda, and some possible approaches to dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis:

Dum spiro, pugno!