For Trump, it's a wrestling match

Story highlights

  • David Gergen: Trump's rivals are prepping for a boxing match, but he's playing a different game
  • Trump has a long history of close ties to professional wrestling, Gergen says

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Candidates and the media alike are billing Wednesday night's GOP debate on CNN as round two of America's premier boxing match. Everyone is asking which candidate will land the hardest punch. But there is one man on stage who won't be boxing -- and that's because Donald Trump is playing a different sport.

David Gergen
For weeks now, the political commentariat has filled the airwaves with analogies of the GOP contest to a boxing ring. Carly Fiorina, it is said, cleverly threw the best jabs in the first debate; Scott Walker is flailing; Jeb Bush is sluggish; Trump likes to be hit first because he is a superb counter-puncher, etc., etc. That's the dominant narrative.
Yet the more one watches and wonders why all the blows directed at Trump haven't taken him down, the more it becomes apparent he is playing a different game, one he knows better than any of his rivals, and is keeping them flummoxed: not boxing but pro wrestling.
Go back and look at this video from CNN a few weeks ago about Trump's deep attachment to wrestling. What it reveals is how Trump has been schooled for years in the antics of the World Wrestling Entertainment. There he became a master at trash talk, smack downs and sheer television entertainment. To the frustration of his opponents and many voters, he is scoring heavily with all of those techniques today.
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Trump's engagement with professional wrestling stretches back to 1988 when he persuaded the wrestling organization to bring its big, brassy show, WrestleMania IV, to his Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Seeing a winner, Trump installed more seats and brought the show back the next year. Some 20,000 attended. (Doesn't that sound just like Trump's Texas show this past week?)
The most memorable moment from Trump's pro wrestling days came in 2007 when he and the CEO of WWE, Vince McMahon, agreed they would have proxies wrestle each other and that the loser would have his head shaved. They called it the "Battle of Billionaires," and 1.2 million pay-per-view fans shelled out $44.95 apiece for a chance to watch. Trump's surrogate won the wager, creating one of the classic photos in pro wrestling with Trump shaving McMahon's head.
Donald Trump wins a "Battle of Billionaires" bet and shaves WWE CEO Vince McMahon's head in 2007.
The Donald, cagier than his critics think, has brought the "rules" of professional wrestling into the boxing ring, and so far, they have served him well. In a smart piece this week in ThinkProgress, Judd Legum exhumes an essay from the 1950s by French philosopher Roland Barthes to explain why.
Boxing, wrote Barthe, is a "Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. ... A boxing match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator." One can bet on a boxing match because it works to a logical conclusion. As would-be boxers, political candidates play by the rules of the sport and construct strategies that will logically lead to a nomination.
By contrast, pro wrestling fans understand they are watching a contest that is usually fixed, so that more than anything, they want to be entertained. They are not interested in logical conclusions or in points scored but in the passions of the show as "good" wrestlers fight against "evil" ones. As Barthes wrote, "(W)restling is a sum of spectacles."
For a pro wrestler, Legum adds, "(E)nergy is everything. A wrestling fan is less interested in what is happening -- or the coherence of how one event leads to the next -- than in the fact that something is happening."
That's what Trump is providing his fans: a series of spectacles that show plenty of passion and are almost irresistible on television. He lambastes Ben Carson and Bush for being low on energy. As his rivals measure up their next jab, "Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair."
Far more than other candidates, Trump also understands how political spectacle works and is not embarrassed to be called an entertainer. In the book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman wrote that American culture is now in the age of Las Vegas, "its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl." Trump gets that and capitalizes on it.
When they climb into the ring Wednesday night, the other candidates will obviously be primed with their punches and counterpunches. Commentators will be marking their scorecards blow by blow. We will all pay special attention to how well four rivals -- Carson, Bush, Fiorina and John Kasich -- score against Trump.
But if his rivals want to bring down Trump, they ought to be thinking more about their boxing moves: They need to come ready for tag-team wrestling, too. No one is likely to knock him out alone. Why not try together to pin him down for a 10 count?