31 Jan 2018

Did professional wrestling help Trump become president?

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:07 pm on 31 January 2018

Wrestling has been around for centuries, and the match fixing and staged fighting began in Roman times.

Sharon Mazer, an associate professor of theatre and performance studies at AUT, has written several books and articles about professional wrestling in the US.

Donald Trump shaving the head of Vince McMahon in WWF's Battle of the Billionaires in 2007

Donald Trump shaving the head of Vince McMahon in WWF's Battle of the Billionaires in 2007 Photo: You Tube

This week she spoke at a symposium on Popular Story Telling, hosted by AUT. Her theme is 'Populist performance research: from Professional Wrestling to Donald Trump'.

She argues that it was Trump's role in the Battle of the Billionaires WWF match, back in 2007 that helped propel him to win the 2016 US election.

In order to whip a wrestling audience into a frenzy there needs to be a double performance, says Mazer.

“Just as with the State of the Union right now, we get told what we see as much as we are actually looking. So what you have are commentators like Mean Gene or Gorilla Monsoon, we have them telling us what we’re seeing and then we’re seeing as well.

“The entire audience, all the spectators, are creating that performance in collusion. They’re agreeing to cheer, they’re agreeing to boo, and they’re moving within negotiating that performance in a very live way.”

At the Battle of the Billionaires WWF match the press had dubbed Trump “the bad guy” because he was widely disliked. However, contrary to the press, Trump came out as the crowd favourite through clever manipulation by his competitor, Vince McMahon.

“He [McMahon] worked the audience up into a lather, insulted them, played the elite card, and did all of the things that Trump was accusing Hilary Clinton of only seven or eight years later. So to assume that because we don’t like Trump or because we’re sceptical of Trump that he must have been a heel, a bad guy, in 2007, leads us down a bad path.

“When you look at Trump with the spectators, what you see is that they love him. He is their hero. He’s a populist. He’s the rich man of the people who showers money on them. What could be more heroic than that?”

If you take the 80,000 people who were in the arena in 2007, add the millions who were watching at home, you get wrestling fans turning into voters, says Mazer.

“These people were conditioned through the construction of the event to cheer for Donald Trump and then they were asked who they want for President and…duh!”

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)