The moment Fox News' Republican debate began on Thursday night, it felt like a professional wrestling show. The crowd was amped, emitting full-blown sports woos. The first question was perfectly crafted for Donald Trump. Moderator Bret Baier asked the candidates if anyone would raise their hand if they would not pledge to support the GOP nominee, whoever it may be, and not run as an independent candidate. The debate audience was like, Ooooh shit just got real. Trump raised his hand. Huge boos.
"Experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton," Baier said, incredulous. "You can’t say tonight that you can make that pledge?" He could not. "I am discussing it with everybody, but I’m, you know, talking about a lot of leverage." Rand Paul cut in to say Trump "buys and sells politicians of all stripes," and Trump shrugged, as if to say, true enough. "Well, I’ve given him plenty of money."
Donald Trump is a heel. Not in the generic insult sense, but in the very specific World Wrestling Entertainment sense. In pro wrestling, which shares certain cultural sensibilities with the Republican Party, the heel is the bad guy—a rude, nasty cheater—who the good guy fights. The good guy is called the face. That was the Republican Party’s problem on the debate stage: It has a heel but no face.
There are definitions of heel all over the web, but the most lovingly crafted appears to be on Wikipedia. It’s also a perfect description of the Trump phenomenon: “heels are often portrayed as behaving in an immoral manner by breaking rules… Others… exhibit unlikeable, appalling and deliberately offensive and demoralizing personality traits such as arrogance, cowardice, or contempt for the audience.” Further, “If a given heel is cheered over the face, a promoter may opt to turn that heel to face…” That’s right, there’s even a role in this analogy for Roger Ailes.
Since Trump's presidential announcement in June, journalists and pundits have puzzled over who could possibly support Trump. He made fun of a war hero for getting captured in Vietnam. He brags about exploiting bankruptcy law. While every other candidate plays up his or her humble roots, Trump says that he is "very rich" and his foes are "stupid." A political campaign is usually about sucking up to audiences large and small, and yet he's succeeding with the brand "jerk."
Professional wrestling is a soap opera. Oftentimes, two men stand in a ring, and and the face explains why his whole life led up to this moment—I am here to tell all of you, TONIGHT! Right here in CLEVELAND, OHIOOOO, what I'm all about, which is good stuff and hard work! And then the heel is like, I am here to tell you why I will stop that—for terrible reasons! Here's a World Wrestling Entertainment announcer's analysis of the dark world inside a heel's head in a 2010 match: "Imagine what must be done to elicit a concession, to make another man say, ‘I quit. You’re better than me’—to crush another man’s resolve, to impose your will—that is what Batista is obsessed with, especially within John Cena." (Cena is a wholesome boy in cargo shorts, most recently seen in Trainwreck. Batista had turned heel near the end of his career.) Then, as everyone knows, the conflict is resolved with real acrobatics choreographed into fake fights.
The independent candidacy question followed this fairly neatly. The Fox News ref asked Trump, You wouldn't do a terrible thing, would you? And Trump said he would. Even though experts say it would be very, very bad? Yes, even then. His poor, hardworking, worked-his-way-to-the-top-the-hardish-way opponent exclaimed, Can't you all see he is actually doing an even worse thing already? It's true, Trump shrugged, I am a very bad man.
With Trump's second question, he ran with this role. A transcript of the exchange is incomplete without a detailed description of the audience’s reaction.
Megyn Kelly: You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’ …
Kelly: ... ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ …
Trump: Only Rosie O’Donnell.
Kelly: No it wasn’t.
Crowd: [Really huge woo!!]
Kelly: Your Twitter account… [pauses with a smirk of acknowledgment that she is in a sea of booers]
Crowd: [Oh my god we are loving this!]
Kelly: For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.
Trump: Yeah, yeah. I’m sure it was.
Kelly: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice that it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees…
Crowd: [Sex was mentioned! Tiny squeal!]
Kelly: Does that sound to you like a man who has the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how would you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?
Trump: The big problem this country has is being politically correct.
Crowd: [Hell yeah! WOOO!]
Trump: I’ve been challenged by so many people and frankly I don’t have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. ...
And honestly, Megyn if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you although I could probably not be based on the way you have treated me, but I wouldn't do that.
It was incredible. As television, that is. As a debate on the important issues of our time, of course, it was a disaster. Oral sex has not been so critical to the nation’s political discourse since the late '90s. But in one way, the debate lacked some dramatic tension. There was no handsome young face to battle with Trump. No one stood out as a brave and earnest good guy. Marco Rubio might be the obvious pick for that role, but something about his voice makes him sound like he's about to cry.
One reason Trump is so good as a heel might be that he has practice. Before Trump got serious about politics, he appeared in a couple of WWE events, including Wrestlemania 23 in 2007. On an earlier episode of WWE Raw, Trump challenged WWE owner Vince McMahon to wrestle, and when McMahon refused, they agreed to have peasants wrestle for them. It was called "The Battle of the Billionaires." The winner got to shave the loser’s head.
Not only was Trump's character the same, but his lines were the same. “You're a rich guy. I’m a richer guy,” Trump tells McMahon. He looks approvingly to a heckler, just as he does to voters now: “You're right—he is scared.” He announces, “Today I had a story in a big newspaper say I was the greatest—but you know what, they said I wore a hairpiece. I do not wear a hairpiece.”
Though Trump is a natural heel, he won. McMahon is just the bigger jerk. Trump mugged for the camera, but his joy seemed real. Just like in the debate.