This paragraph, from The New York Times, might at first shock you:
“In several phone calls last weekend from the presidential suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Mr. Trump shared an idea he was considering: When he left the hospital, he wanted to appear frail at first when people saw him, according to people with knowledge of the conversations. But underneath his button-down dress shirt, he would wear a Superman T-shirt, which he would reveal as a symbol of strength when he ripped open the top layer. He ultimately did not go ahead with the stunt.”
The President of the United States openly considered tearing open his dress shirt to reveal a “Superman” T-shirt underneath? Because it would prove to people he was invincible after being hospitalized for Covid-19? Or something?
It seems outlandish until you consider how much of Trump’s sensibility about our current cultural moment (and his entire presidency) is formed by his experience in reality TV. And,while Trump’s time as the name and face of “The Apprentice” is often cited for his approach to politics, it’s actually another form of reality TV where the President has dabbled that provides more insight into this “Superman” move: Professional wrestling.
Remember that Trump in the late 2000s became part of a running storyline with World Wrestling Entertainment founder Vince McMahon – the two are personal friends – that was cast as a “Battle of the Billionaires.” The idea was that Trump was so rich that he could show up the notoriously insecure and touchy McMahon.
“Red-faced that a rival would steal the spotlight from him, Mr. McMahon challenged Trump to a ‘Battle of the Billionaires’; at WrestleMania 23 with the stipulation that the loser of the bout would have his head shaved bald.
“A record number of viewers tuned in to watch The Donald back Bobby Lashley to victory over Mr. McMahon’s Umaga and subsequently shave the WWE Chairman’s signature mane in the center of the ring.”
For those who don’t follow pro wrestling closely – and I am one of those people who follow it very closely – pro wrestling is a) staged and b) functions as a mirror of who we are (and where are) as a society. And very rarely in a positive way.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War. And so McMahon came up with Nikolai Volkoff, a “Russian” wrestler – in real life he was Croatian – who would march to the ring holding a Russian flag and demand that he be allowed to sing the Russian national anthem before every match. His wrestling partner? None other than the “Iron Sheik,” a creation of McMahon’s following the 1983 Iranian hostage crisis. The “Sheik” would carry an Iranian flag to the ring and betray America during his in-ring promos.
That duo was opposed by Hulk Hogan, the America-loving superstar who was draped in the flag and was accompanied to the ring by his theme song: “I am a real American.”
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the WWE debuted a wrestler named Muhammad Hassan – real name Marc Copani – whose backstory was that he was sick of the anti-Islam stereotypes he was subject to. He would pray to Allah in the ring.
The answer to the likes of Hassan? None other than John Cena, a blue collar hero sporting jean shorts and spouting slogans like “100% American Made Muscle” and ‘Hustle. Loyalty. Respect.”
What McMahon perfected – and Trump learned – over the decades was that over-the-top symbolism playing into peoples’ hopes – and fears – works. The Iron Sheik was bad because he carried an Iranian flag. Hulk Hogan was good because he had an American flag. (Sidebar: Terry Bollea – aka Hulk Hogan – was slightly less than the all-American boy the WWE spent millions portraying him as.)
These tropes – good vs. evil, weak vs. strong – were, of course, oversimplified at best and xenophobic at worst. But the lesson Trump took from his dabbling in the world of pro wrestling is that the average Joe loved the idea of rooting for a hero and booing a heel.
And the more easily the audience could identify the good guy – and the bad guy – the better. Simple worked. People didn’t want to think too much. They just wanted to know who to root for and who to root against.
What better way to identify yourself as the good guy, the guy who deserves the cheers, than to rip open your dress shirt and show the “S” on your chest?
So, yeah, of course Trump wanted to do it. He learned just how well that sort of empty symbolism worked during his time in the squared circle a decade ago.