On Sunday morning, President Donald Trump shared a blurry, 30-second video of himself giving a clothesline to a wrestler with the CNN logo superimposed over his head. The clip — created by a far-right Redditor with an unsavory history — came from Trump’s headlining appearance at WrestleMania 23, which took place in 2007. With the video, Trump added two hashtags: #FraudNewsCNN and #FNN. That the President of the United States shared a lo-fi meme where he “beats up” a mainstream media outlet was both shocking and not all that surprising — for wrestling fans especially. In fact, a look at Trump’s history in pro wrestling is almost a perfect explainer for how he’s carried himself in the nation’s highest office.
Trump’s relationship to pro wrestling dates dates back to 1988, when the then-casino magnate sponsored the then-WWF’s fourth annual WrestleMania. “I just wanted a piece of it,” Trump said on the WWE-produced documentary, The True Story of WrestleMania. “Everybody in the country wanted this event, and we were able to get it.”
The event was billed as being broadcast live from the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City; in reality, it took place in the Atlantic City Convention Hall, but it’s common in wrestling to embellish facts, because it is real fake news. Fearing that Trump’s crowd of casino gamblers wouldn’t be interested in wrestling, Trump and the WWF hosted a weekend’s worth of events like 5K runs and autograph signings.
The event was a big enough success that the whole thing happened again for WrestleMania V. As for the actual shows, well: WrestleMania IV featured a boring tournament where the same 14 guys wrestled over and over, and WrestleMania V — rated the “Worst Major Wrestling Event” by the respected Wrestling Observer — only seemed to give a damn about Hulk Hogan versus Randy Savage. But that’s show biz: Hype first, sell tickets second, entertain maybe later.
Trump and the WWF parted ways after 1990, which coincidentally was the year Trump’s casino revenues began to decline (Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 1991, after a year in operation). After struggling through bankruptcy and being reborn via reality TV, Trump returned to the WWF, now WWE, to actually get into the ring.
In 2007, the WWE had begun a new era. Hulk Hogan was long gone, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock were the stuff of legends. John Cena was the main star, and Vince McMahon, the eccentric owner of the WWE, sought to seize some spotlight by putting himself in the main event. While Cena and Shawn Michaels would wrestle a five-star classic in the final match, the bout that had the biggest promotion was McMahon versus Trump, with the loser being subject to the humiliation of having their hair shaved in the middle of the ring.
Novelty matches is Pro Wrestling 101. Trump and McMahon’s “Battle of the Billionaires” was designed to spark some interest from people who don’t normally care about wrestling, nothing more, and neither “billionaire” would actually fight. Instead, Trump and McMahon both behaved like Leonardo DiCaprio enjoying Mandingo fighting in Django Unchained, as they hired two specimens to wrestle on their behalf. Vince McMahon chose Umaga, a far-outdated Samoan stereotype played by Edward Fatu. Trump’s guy was Bobby Lashley, an ex-U.S. Army Captain-turned-martial artist who continues to wrestle today.
While boasting about one’s talents is par for the course in pro wrestling, they also give outsiders the bulk of the spotlight. When visited by people like Trump, Snooki, Mike Tyson, Hugh Jackman, and the slew of other celebrities who have appeared in pro wrestling, the WWE lets them shine. That’s why McMahon, the ruthless businessman who transformed a theatrical circus attraction into a multi-million dollar empire, allowed himself to get fake-beat by Trump and have his head shaved on pay-per-view. It was all a show: Let the big guy get beat up a little, let the crowd relish in the fantasy and spectacle.
In 2009, for some reason, Trump appeared on the WWE again. In what was a weird storyline that lasted all of two weeks, Trump “bought” the WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night RAW, and aired it “commercial-free” for three hours on the USA Network. “That’s right, no commercials!” Trump hastily beamed during the announcement. Meanwhile, there were buckets of KFC on the commentator’s table while gigantic graphics for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen appeared during matches.
There are other times Trump has appeared in the WWE — one time, a caricature of himself wrestled Rosie O’Donnell — but you get the gist. By 2013, the WWE deemed him worthy of entering their Hall of Fame, in a ceremony that took place on the evening before WrestleMania 29. The location of the event: MetLife Stadium, an hour drive from Atlantic City.
It’s not new to point out that Trump’s political career mirrors his time in wrestling. Salon, NPR, The Independent, and more have all done the heavy lifting in that regard. But it’s one thing to run a campaign in which he billed himself as an outsider taking on the hostile establishment. Now that he’s president, sharing videos of himself beating a caricature of the press makes one wonder where the fantasy begins and ends.
In 2004, Trump appeared at WrestleMania XX. During a brief segment, former Minnesota Governor and wrestling legend Jesse Ventura “interviewed” Trump. Watching it today induces chills: Ventura asks for Trump’s “support” for his return to politics, which Trump grants. That’s when Ventura boasts: “You know what? I think that we may need a wrestler in the White House in 2008!” Looks like Trump agreed.