During Donald Trump’s rise, many writers, grasping at how to put him in context, reached throughout the universe of metaphors and analogies. Some landed on “he’s like a pro wrestling character.” This made a lot of sense—he was hyper-combative and over-the-top cartoonish, a caricature of a wealthy white man.
But what sort of wrestling figure? Some said he was like a heel, which is how wrestling defines a villain. “For heels in the ring,” wrote Van Newkirk in 2016, “crassness is the norm, 7th-grade put-downs carry the weight of Socrates, violence is always the answer, women are hypersexualized and insulted, all publicity is good publicity, personas are created and shed as often as costumes, racial stereotypes are often played for laughs or fear.” That sounds like Trump all right.
But that’s also a vision of Trump from the progressive side—sure, his folks love his ability to ruin a liberal’s day, but they don’t see him as a villain. To them he’s a hero. And because I was never a pro wrestling fan I didn’t know which wrestler he was until I saw ESPN’s fantastic new 30 for 30 on Ric Flair, the “Nature Boy.” As soon as I was introduced to Flair, I knew that I was looking at nothing less than a man who was one of Trump’s cultural fathers.
Flair is widely considered the best wrestler ever—he was a star in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. He was a champion many times over (exactly how many is in dispute, but Flair says he’s a 21-time champion). In his heyday he had long golden blond hair that flowed past his shoulders like he was Farrah Fawcett, a coif that screams white status to some people; and if that didn’t get the message across Flair would put on these epic pre-fight interviews where he’d show up in a suit and tie and sunglasses or a robe with massive feathers and then go off bragging about how rich he was. He loved to say he was a “Rolex-wearin’, pinky ring wearin’, limousine-riding, jet plane-flying, kiss stealin’, wheelin’-dealin’, son of a gun.”
He bragged about the price of his alligator shoes—“My shoes cost more than your house,” he told one opponent—and about how many women he slept with and how easily he could get beautiful women—with a snap of his fingers, he said. He got four or five a day, he said. And he yelled all this at the people in a way that made it clear that underneath the silk tie and the gator shoes, he was still very much working-class white. Its essence poured out of him. And that made him aspirational to so many working-class white men as he showed them they could make it to the top without having to change. They could dominate money, men, and women while still being themselves. And the power of Flair included his reputation as the dirtiest player in the sport—proof that the rules did not apply to him, proof of his power over the game.
This is the essence of Trump to his admirers. And look, to truly understand him, you have to stop thinking about the real Trump who’s failing miserably and embrace the fictional Trump that his supporters see—a man who’s fighting valiantly and succeeding massively. For example, Trump may have been born into the 1 percent, but everything about him seems like white trash in a fine but baggy suit, and thus his supporters think of him as one of them rather than as a longtime part of the wealthy elite, and they think of him as self-made even though his father gave him millions and easy entree into a lucrative career.
With both Trump and Flair, there’s a working-class white aura that pours out from beneath the sartorial splendor and the golden locks sprouting out from the head. All of it adds up to him being that white working-class champion. His success in acquiring money, defeating men, and dominating women proves his alpha status. With women it’s not just about his all-but-mute ex-model wife, it’s also about those women he “allegedly” harassed. He’s too big to have to play by the rules. He’s so big he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and he gets away with it. To them, the biggest rule breaker who gets away with it is truly the biggest winner. And all of that is hyper-empowering to the working-class white male. Trump, like Flair, is a walking avatar of white male empowerment. Both of them got to the highest level of society and showed the world their riches while retaining their working-class core. And if he did it, so can you.
Of course the story of Flair is about more than money, bragging, and women. It’s also about sexual assault and a bizarre penchant for showing himself to people. It’s also about fighting and for years and years Flair had beautiful fights because, they say, he knew how to be a great partner. Yes, pro wrestling is athletic. But it’s theater, and the two wrestlers need to know how to act, and really, to dance together. Flair, according to his peers, was a generous partner who let others appear to be winning and moved smoothly from move to move by communicating with his ring partners. This is a message Trump clearly missed getting. It’s like he watched the wild press conferences and skipped the fights. If he knew how to be a generous partner, how to work with people, then he could be more effective and powerful. Thankfully, for the good of the country, he’s unable to do that.
At the core of Flair’s success was his ability to work with people. And at the core of Trump’s ongoing failure is an unwillingness to cooperate. They’re both white heroes but where Ric succeeded partly because he respected people back, Trump loves only Trump. Maybe that’s why there’s so little to love.