The Art of the Heel

For God and country, wrestling and Donald Trump explained, finally

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I am a bad man. For a while, I was rooting for Donald Trump, vociferously, and without apology. How could I help myself? I have always been hardwired to root for the heels.

The “heel,” in the argot of professional wrestling is, simply, the villain. The role of a heel is to get “heat,” which means spurring the crowd to obstreperous hatred, and generally involves cheating and pretty much any other manner of socially unacceptable behavior that will get the job done. The best heels, however, do not depend solely on “cheap heat,” such as insulting the crowd, often with racist or sexist taunts. There must be some art to it. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”

I got my start in the wrestling racket editing a popular newsstand wrestling magazine in the 1980s, fertile ground for a film-school dropout. Since then I’ve spent a career musing on the metaphysics of the sport, parlaying professional wrestling into a metaphor for my dysfunctional family, and even briefly working as a wrestler in Alsace, France, an assignment cut short when I took a time-keeper’s bell to the face. And I’ve always worked as a heel—I beat my Pollyanna, fan-pandering boss in a much-publicized Loser Leaves Town match to get the gig as editor of that magazine. It’s a lot more fun than working babyface, what we call the good guys who take few risks, desperately trying to be loved by everyone. Heels are the charismatic, rule-breaking non-conformists, and are invariably more complex and funnier than the good guys.

When Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency began finding some purchase on a disenchanted populace, stories romanticizing his connection to professional wrestling—his in-ring appearances, WrestleMania events promoted by his failed Atlantic City casino, his long-time friendship with World Wrestling Entertainment impresario Vince McMahon—began peppering the smarty-pants press like the pox, mistaking the unhinged culture of wrestling as some sort of Rosetta Stone. To name but a few: “Heel in Chief: Donald Trump Learned His Political Moves from the WWE” (Slate); “WWE Fan Donald Trump Has Never Tapped Out of Pro Wrestling” (NBCnews.com); “Donald Trump and the WWE: How the Road to the White House Began at ‘WrestleMania’” (Rolling Stone); “Trump’s obsession with WrestleMania and fake drama” (Politico); and my favorite, because it went the furthest in outing its own smarmy elitism, “Is Everything Wrestling?” (New York Times Magazine).

In that tilted tract, trend-spotting Times writer Jeremy Gordon not only made the over-cooked middlebrow mistake of claiming that wrestling is “half Shakespeare”—I assure you, there is no Shakespeare in wrestling, there is hardly even any wrestling in wrestling—but also managed to gratuitously insult any wrestling fan who somehow may have stumbled onto his story, presumably in their doctor’s office or the waiting room of the local prison. “Wrestling may never be cool, but it is, at the very least, no longer seen as the exclusive province of the unwashed hoi polloi,” Gordon opined, proffering the exact strain of culturally smug claptrap that makes blue-collar America hate the New York Times. It was bullying and knowingly superior, punching down when Gordon and his team of editors should have had the stones to go toe-to-toe with the purported topic, and without calling wrestling fans dirty.

In fact, professional wrestling has always been cool: Cool enough for Bruce Springsteen, the Cramps, and REM to sing about, cool enough for LL Cool J, Eminem, and Killer Mike to rap about, cool enough for Bob Dylan to write about, mythologizing the impact Gorgeous George had on him as a youth in Minnesota.

In the early days of television, Gorgeous George, the first wrestler to use a “swish” gimmick, was one of the most famous men in America. He was a genuine heel, prancing around in capes and furs with a valet spraying him with perfume from an air bulb atomizer: “Suddenly, the doors burst open and in came Gorgeous George himself,” Dylan wrote in his book Chronicles, Volume One. “He roared in like the storm . . . in all his magnificent glory with all the lightning and vitality you’d expect . . . He looked at me, eyes flashing with moonshine . . . A mighty spirit. People said that he was as great as his race.” Other great American artists who have fallen under the sway of Gorgeous George include James Brown, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Muhammad Ali, and Liberace.

The mainstream press will come and go, but wrestling fans will always be here. Wrestling fans will probably inherit the Earth. Elsewhere, Dylan warned “don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Wasn’t anyone listening? Thanks to the New York Times and the rest of these johnny-come-lately ham’n’eggers, Trump could run against the media, and win.

Ecce Hogan

Once upon a time, I came a few stars and stripes away from getting my ass kicked at Madison Square Garden by twenty or so beer-drunk American “patriots.” I had been rooting for the Iron Sheik, who was battling that lumbering, flag-waving doofus, Hulk Hogan, a man who held the championship on and off for years, but never really learned how to wrestle.

No one ever got more heat than the Iron Sheik, who put himself over[1] when he landed in the Georgia territory at the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, waving an Iranian flag and announcing that the Iron Sheik—in real life an actual former bodyguard for the Shah of Iran—took no prisoners. “America,” he spat, “HOCK-TOOEY!” coughing up a genuine Iranian loogie to show his disdain. A star was born.

You might ask yourself what sort of American would root for a guy on the side of the terrorists, but babyface Hogan committed a worse crime: much like Donald Trump, he was a mark for his own gimmick.[2] Notorious heel Roddy Piper once told me, “Hogan wears his spandex when he mows his lawn. That’s the kind of jerk he is.”

For Hogan, his deficits never seemed to slow him down. He had a lousy reputation in the locker room—he was mean to young talent and dismissive of pretty much everyone else, was notorious for not defending his championship frequently enough and of having an anemic vocabulary of moves limited to egging on the crowd to get a pop[3] before ending the match with his infamous “leg drop from nowhere.”

Notorious heel Roddy Piper once told me, “Hogan wears his spandex when he mows his lawn. That’s the kind of jerk he is.”

But what he was great at was television. He knew how to cut a dynamite promo. (“This Saturday, in Madison Square Garden, Hulkamania will be runnin’ wild!!”) He rallied his base. His endless proselytizing to little kids about saying their prayers and eating their vitamins certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, but for a generation of wrestling fans looking for a hero who had his own bendy action figure, Hulk Hogan defined the era.

Hogan was once famously asked by another wrestler who he thought the best worker[4] was—a real needle to a guy who had few advanced skills—and Hogan snapped “the best worker is the one that draws the most,” meaning himself. Boom! Didn’t matter if he didn’t know an arm bar from a candy bar; he was box office.

What Hogan never got, though, was that he was nothing without a good villain. It’s a truism of the sport that the heels sell tickets. Without the Iron Sheik, Roddy Piper, or a raft of other talented villains, the Hulkamania formula was worth nothing. The heel makes the face. Without a good villain, all you’ve got is a public service announcement.

Unlike in politics, to be a heel in wrestling means to be willing to be hated by everyone. There is no electoral college in wrestling. And therein lies the beating heart of Donald Trump’s all-consuming internal conflict. His biggest fear is not going over as a babyface. But he is a natural heel. In the wrestling ring that is his mind, he is an American hero, but the only reason he ever went over is because he played a decent villain, gleefully firing people on a reality television show. It’s an existential crisis that even the plastic fantastic miasma of professional wrestling can’t resolve: you cannot be a heel and be loved at the same time.

As a heel, Trump (like my friend the Iron Sheik), has a legit backstory. He has no scruples, all the way down, reveling in ripping off the marks who paid for his shell game of a college, and stiffing decent, hard-working Americans he hired for contract labor. He gets off on firing people, even when it’s only on a scripted reality show. He is a toxic narcissist who began his candidacy bragging about the size of his cock, and his presidency by whining that the media had lied about the lackluster attendance at his inauguration. He is a ruthless liar and cheat, a serial adulterer, groper, a racist, and flimflam man running a family of con artists and grifters. Trump’s offspring are talentless, mean-spirited, and entitled. And that goes for his daughter Ivanka as well, who’s managed to get a decent pop flogging her own gimmick, namely pretending that she actually cares about other human beings.

The worst part is that Trump wants to be liked by the very people who hate him the most. He spent his life desperately trying to win the approval of the New York Times. The torture must be unbearable—which is perhaps why he is constantly acting out. As Dr. Johnson once said, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” That Dr. Johnson, he knew heat.

The Fog of Kayfabe

Professional wrestling is much like what Thomas Aquinas said about faith: if you get it, no explanation is necessary, and if you don’t, no explanation will do. Jimmy Breslin wrote in his book How the Good Guys Finally Won that “Secular writers made a mess of most of the reports on the demise of Richard Nixon. For it takes a belief in, and some comprehension of, Original Sin before you can see enough of Richard Nixon to both remove him and then ask that he be attacked no more . . . a belief in Original Sin is constant acknowledgement of the dark side of man.” Faith, wrestling, Donald Trump, it’s all in there. You just need know where to look.

Invariably, what comes up in the facile comparisons of professional wrestling with Donald Trump’s carnivalesque rise to power is talk of “kayfabe,” as essential to the primacy of the wrestling formula as Original Sin is to the Catholic Church. “Kayfabe” is old wrestling argot of mysterious etymology, generally defined as “maintaining the illusion that everything you are seeing is real.” But unlike the catechism, kayfabe isn’t dogma. It’s more Talmudic, such as it is—a living, breathing body of law and scholarship that may be bent by the adepts of the temple as times change and circumstance demands.

Politics traffics in kayfabe as well, but the contract between audience and performer is much different. Wrestling fans, like Star Wars fans, like fans of Hamlet and King Lear, know it is a show. They want to buy in, they want to play along. Political kayfabe trades more on what are commonly known as lies, which have little place in wrestling, since the whole thing is put-on. Classic Republican kayfabe includes gimmicks like “compassionate conservatism” and legislative doublespeak like the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Once upon a time, in wrestling, kayfabe was about protecting the business outside the ring. Good guys and bad guys kept up appearances, no drinking together at the hotel bar, certainly no smoking pot together on the New Jersey Turnpike.[5] But over time, the marks have become more sophisticated. Wrestling, which may still be a sport in God’s eyes—it is, after all, the only sport mentioned in the Bible[6]—is not in man’s, not after Vince McMahon broke kayfabe long enough to admit that it was all a “work”[7] so he could effectively skirt being regulated by athletic authorities, a thorn in his paw for far too long. Add to that the marketplace of ideas known as the internet, where fans traffic in insider information, and what you get are “smart marks” (or “smarks”) for whom being a know-it-all adds to the kayfabe of their own personal worth as a fan. But none of that makes a difference, because the true definition of a mark is anyone who thinks there is something more important than selling tickets. Art is nice, but someone’s got to pay for it.

And so kayfabe is malleable. It is part of the utopia of pro wrestling, a universe whose internal logic is fluid and perfect in every way. Witness the convenient unconsciousness of a wrestler, supine on the floor for five minutes with no medical attention required, while his opponent sets up a big move—a leap from the top rope, ripping television monitors from the announcer’s table to use as high-comic weapons, any number of choreographies falling just shy of the complexity needed to launch a space shuttle—with the downed wrestler regaining consciousness just in time to thwart what would have been the coup de grace. Audience properly titillated, the match goes on. Ditto, the referee is accidentally knocked out cold (known in the racket as a “ref bump”), while any manner of rule-breaking runs unchecked—and wakes up just in time to award the match to the cheating party.

Wrestling is flawless by design—if a storyline isn’t over with the fans, kill it. Never mention it again. If a gimmick isn’t working, change it. If your talent isn’t going over as a face, do a heel turn. Wrestling writes its own laws and its only concern is its subjects—the fans who watch on TV and buy tickets at the box office.

Here’s some good kayfabe gone wrong: in 2009, as part of a storyline, the WWE issued a press release announcing that Donald Trump bought “Monday Night Raw,” the flagship television program of the WWE, and it caused the real life price of WWE stock to drop 7 percent. As is typical of the fluidity of professional wrestling, the angle was quickly aborted and McMahon “bought” the company back the next week (for twice what Trump had paid, natch), and everyone over at Dow Jones was able to rest easy.

Clearly, this was a kayfabe maneuver beyond Donald Trump’s infamously challenged grasp. Obviously, along the way someone told him it was all a put-on. He’s even been inducted into the WWE Wrestling Hall of Fame—a laurel he cited proudly in his 2015 campaign insta-book Crippled America—itself a bit of kayfabe, because there is no actual Hall of Fame. And yet, after watching a storyline in which his friend Vince McMahon was whacked in a revenge scenario when his limousine blew up at the end of an episode of the WWE weekly television show, RAW (in another rare confluence of wrestling bumping up against reality, the angle was aborted the next week when there was a real-life murder by a real-life wrestler), Trump called the wrestler Triple H (son-in-law to current head of the federal Small Business Administration, Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda McMahon) and asked if Vince was O.K. Uncharacteristically, Triple H broke kayfabe and blurted to radio hosts Opie and Anthony, “Trump called and was like, ‘Did something happen to Vince?’” The New York Daily News went with the headline “Triple H said Donald Trump couldn’t tell if a WWE skit was fake.”

There was an all-female Battle Royale a few years back, won by a male wrestler who was pretending to be his own sister. The announcers played along: “That’s the ugliest woman I have ever seen!” “She sure looks like her brother!” “I think her beard may be heavier!” It reminds me of Trump calling reporters and pretending to be his own publicist: “Hello, my name is John Barron, and I want to tell you how great a lover Donald Trump is . . .” It was just so silly it was hardly worth grappling with—and you know what the fellow said about the futility of wrestling with pigs: you just get dirty, and besides, the pig loves it.

Clash of the Fauntleroys

In pro-wrestling circles, Trump’s “Rich Jerk” gimmick is nothing new. The master of the shtick was the Million Dollar Man, the ultimate moneyed heel. He once offered a child $500 if he could bounce a basketball fifteen times in a row, just to kick the ball out from under him on the fourteenth bounce. He was lucky to get out of the arena alive. The “Nature Boy” Ric Flair once caused a near-riot in North Carolina by screaming “my shoes cost more than your house!” Donald Trump’s good pal Vince McMahon, also worked a “You’re fired!” angle, canning employees who did not literally bend over and kiss his ass. That bit ended with the tables turned and Vince’s head more or less stuffed up the ass of a four-hundred pound Samoan babyface named Rikishi, proving that he is willing to do pretty much anything to sell tickets.

Ironically—or something like it, because there is no irony in wrestling—Vince McMahon would eventually get in the ring with Donald Trump in a “Battle of the Billionaires.” It was a Hair vs. Hair match, with Trump booked as the babyface (actually they both hired other wrestlers to fight for them, as billionaires do.) It culminated with Trump shaving Vince’s head, with foam and follicles flying everywhere, a humiliation unimaginable in the corridors of big business, no matter how big a spike it could deliver to the bottom line. Vince didn’t care if it meant doing a job[8] for a tool like Donald Trump, because when there is nothing more important than selling tickets, dignity is usually the first thing to go.

“Fucking Disgusting”

At the outset, there was no reason not to think that Trump’s campaign was anything but an angle being worked—one that was somehow going to result in a new branding scheme, a book advance, a TV show, whatever. Likewise, there was no reason not to root for him, because there didn’t appear to be any possible way in which he was ever going to win. He held none of the subversive elegance that makes a truly great heel—none of the creepy eroticism of Javier Bardem in the James Bond movie Skyfall, or the tortured id of Heath Ledger as the Joker. He wasn’t as funny as the Iron Sheik, as flamboyant as Gorgeous George, or as smart as Roddy Piper. Even with the spray-tanned orange face, fright-wig, and dangling red tie, he couldn’t pull off a convincing evil clown.

If Trump ever wanted lessons on how to be a more polished villain, he certainly had experts on hand. Michael Cohen, special counsel at The Trump Organization, blasted the Daily Beast, who had dug up accusations that Trump had raped his first wife Ivana. “You cannot rape your spouse. And there’s very clear case law,” he lied to the reporter, and then turned on the gas: “I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know . . . I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me? You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up . . . for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet . . . you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.”

Now that is how you cut a promo.

Better yet is Trump’s bestie, Russian President Vladmir Putin, who stole New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring in true thug style. Telling the story of his 2005 trip to Moscow to the New York Post must have really stung Kraft: “I took out the ring and showed it to [Putin], and he put it on and he goes, ‘I can kill someone with this ring.’ I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.” Soon after he got a call from someone in the Bush White House telling him, “It would really be in the best interest of U.S.-Soviet relations if you meant to give the ring as a present.” Never mind that the Soviet Union wasn’t really a thing anymore. Kraft responded that he really would like his ring back. “There was a pause on the other end of the line, and the voice repeated, ‘It would really be in the best interest if you meant to give the ring as a present.’”

Trump couldn’t get anywhere near skills like these—like the chump Hogan, he’s confused bathos with pathos, but doesn’t truly understand either one.

Fear and Loathing

Hunter Thompson once told me that he intended to vote for Ronald Reagan, because if America wanted a nightmare, he wanted to help. Thompson hated the good guys as much as I did, and basked in the heat. He was always a bit of a heel, and in on the joke: He once recalled in Rolling Stone, “I was a sports columnist for one paper in the morning, sports editor for another in the afternoon, and at night I worked for a pro wrestling promoter, writing incredibly twisted ‘press releases’ that I would plant, the next day, in both papers.” I loved the heat I got from my do-gooding, easily needled friends as Trump began his unlikely odyssey by eliminating the scion Jeb Bush, finishing off an American dynasty that even its own weathered marks had to admit brought little to the table but war and confusion.

More horrifying than Trump the man was the Republican party, which kept backing him so blithely, so indifferently, that he could physically mock a disabled reporter in front of a crowd and still be on track to win. I couldn’t understand why even his most ardent supporters didn’t leave him in droves. Surely, that was “bad heat”—the kind even heels don’t want because it means the marks legitimately do not like the person playing the role. Even as an ardent connoisseur of cartoon villainry, I was appalled. But I kept clicking and clicking. And, admit it: you did, too. Then suddenly, the fog of kayfabe was lifted, and somehow Trump was the last man standing. He was going to star in the main event.

Blowing Up the Territory

Trump’s biggest break came from the Democratic party. Booking[9] Hillary Clinton as the good guy in this match was a colossal error, especially when the most improbable thing in all of politics was waiting in the wings: a legit babyface.

Bernie Sanders came off like Paddington Bear next to Hillary Clinton. Bernie was a nice old Jewish man from Vermont who legitimately meant well, and he got a real pop from his fans. He drew like crazy. Hell, even I sent him money, the first time I have ever contributed to a political campaign—every time he got on TV and started shooting about marijuana smokers going to jail while Wall Street hoodlums were walking, I Paypaled him five bucks. I had waited my whole life to hear a politician cut a promo like that—I think he eventually ended up with a Jackson from me, straight from my personal pot budget.

Booking Hillary Clinton as the good guy in this match was a colossal error, especially when the most improbable thing in all of politics was waiting in the wings: a legit babyface.

As a face, Clinton just had too much baggage, a lot of it achingly familiar: A partner known for predatory sexual behavior, wicked family ties to big business, an entitled daughter, a family charity fund loaded with foreign money, lies, flip flops. . . . What was good for the goose might have been tolerable for the gander, but all she really got was a cheap pop, and if she had any moral high ground at all, she lost it when former Democratic operative Donna Brazile, while working for CNN, leaked potential questions to the Clinton campaign before a debate with Sanders. That was cheating, behavior clearly unbecoming to a babyface. But more important was that she failed to deliver on the only thing that matters: she didn’t draw. For a while it looked like there might be a “Dusty finish,” a gimmick ending (named for Dusty Rhodes, the legendary wrestler and booker who invented it) in which one wrestler is declared the winner, only to have the decision reversed on a technicality—for instance, interference from Russian hackers. This was a finish guaranteed to drive crowds insane, but Hillary couldn’t put it over.

So who’s the best worker? If we are using the Hulk Hogan index, it is indisputably Donald Trump. He won the election. He’s the president.

But when it all comes tumbling down, be ready for a fresh wave of Trump-brand kayfabe—transparently flawed in both conception and execution, except that he actually believes it. He’ll ride off in his helicopter claiming that Washington was too dirty to clean up, that he tried but he couldn’t drain the swamp, that they wouldn’t accept the One Honest Man. He’ll blame obstructionist Democrats for staging a witch hunt, and the Republicans for not having the guts to back him. In wrestling parlance this is called “blowing up the territory.”

Pundits will argue: How much of it was real, how much reality show? How much was a put-on, how much of it was a guy legit skating at the edges of madness and dementia? Was it a work, a shoot, or a worked shoot? The only thing we can be sure of is that the secular writers will get it wrong. And, existentially, at least, Trump will still wear spandex when he mows the lawn. He can’t help himself, that’s just the kind of jerk he is.

[1]To be “over” means being accepted by the crowd, either as a heel or a babyface. To “go over” means winning a match. To “put someone over” means letting them win, often someone who needs a “push,” or otherwise needs to be sold to the audience.

2. Generally speaking, a “gimmick” is a wrestler’s in-ring persona. A “mark” is a gullible wrestling fan, the kind of person who thinks they can win playing a game at a carnival.

[2]Generally speaking, a “gimmick” is a wrestler’s in-ring persona. A “mark” is a gullible wrestling fan, the kind of person who thinks they can win playing a game at a carnival.

[3]A “pop” is a lively response for a babyface. The opposite of heat.

[4]Worker: How wrestlers refer to each other in the business, “the business” being what workers call the sport of wrestling.

[5]The Iron Sheik and his then sworn enemy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan (gimmick: “mentally challenged hillbilly waving a 2 x 4 and American flag”) were pulled over together on the way to the next show and subsequently arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine. Not good for business. Afterward, Vince McMahon gave a locker-room lecture, screaming “the days of a six-pack and a blow job are over!” and insisting on absolute need for kayfabe. Both Duggan or the Sheik lost whatever stroke they had—after the bust Duggan worked very few main events, and the Sheik began his descent from arch heel to crack head, to nostalgia act, and, as is the last refuge of a scoundrel, a prolific, lunatic Twitter ranter. (Typical tweets: “I wake up I want to do 2 thing. Eat shish kebob and beat the fuck out of hulk hogan”; “IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO SAY GO FUCK YOURSELF #WednesdayWisdom.”)

[6]Genesis 30:8 (KJV): “And Rachel said, ‘“With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed . . . ’” Also Genesis 32:24: “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”

[7]A work, as in “working an angle.” In other words, pure kayfabe. The opposite of a work is “a shoot,” meaning “straight shooting,” or “legit.” It hardly ever exists, and even when you think you are seeing someone “shooting”—say, punching a fellow worker for real, in a genuine fit of rage—in a kayfabe world, how can you be sure it isn’t a “worked shoot?”

[8]Doing a job—putting over another wrestler (or a celebrity, as the case may be) by letting him win.

[9]“Booking” in wrestling terms means arranging the matches, calling the shots, deciding the finishes. If the NFL used this method of running their events there would never be another disappointing Super Bowl.

Mike Edison is the former editor and publisher of High Times magazine and the author of numerous books, including I Have Fun Everywhere I Go and You Are A Complete Disappointment.

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