The crowd wasn’t on Donald Trump’s side at the second GOP debate last night, but that didn’t hurt him much. In a way, it might have helped, because Donald Trump is the heel of the Republican race. It’s his job to get booed.
As I noted after the first debate, professional wrestling explains Trump’s appeal. In pro wrestling, the bad guys are called heels, and they are vain and arrogant and mean. They hit below the belt, and they are not nice to the kids. (The good guys are called faces, and they have heart.) Heels are even broken down into subcategories, including “superiority” characters (“I am very smart”) and rich characters (“I am very rich”). The wrestler Damien Sandow had a move called “The Elbow of Disdain”; contempt is Trump’s resting face. Trump’s self-promotion sounds eerily like interviews from the late '80s with the wrestler Ted DiBiase—known as The Million Dollar Man: “My wealth runs deeper than just dollars. Because I’m RICH in ring prowess, FLUSH with technical skill, and extremely WELL OFF when it comes to wrestling ability!" DiBiase almost perfectly anticipated Trump’s bragging that he knows politicians can be bought, because he bought so many of them. “What it all comes down to is THIS: Money isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, and everyone—EVERYONE—has a price for the Million Dollar Man. Buahahaha!”
The problem for Trump is that, eventually, the heel has to lose. The other Republican candidates mostly avoided fighting with Trump during the Fox News debate in August, but last night, they had canned attacks ready for him. Just like in America's serious presidential debates, World Wrestling Entertainment has a storied tradition of showing one guy's face on screen while the other guy makes fun of him. (At right, see how Trump out-simmers even the Million Dollar Man.) Here’s a 1991 interview between DiBiase and Rowdy Roddy Piper: “So you’re the millionaire, huh? Kinda an ugly sucker aren’t ya?” Piper says. “The bottom line is you got a whole buncha money and you got no friends!” DiBiase emotes barely controlled rage for the camera, just like Trump.
Last night's most pithy burn came from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who said, “We don't need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now.” A pun and a zing at Obama and Trump, all in one! Jeb Bush had the makings of an effective counter-attack to Trump’s line about buying politicians. But he didn't quite pull it off. "The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something—that was generous and gave me money—was Donald Trump,” Bush said, explaining that Trump wanted casinos in Florida, and donated to Bush, but Bush opposed them. Trump flatly denied it. The transcript is revealing:
Trump: I didn't...
Bush: Yes you did.
Trump: Totally false.
Bush: You wanted it and you didn't get it because I was opposed to ...
Trump: I would have gotten it.
Bush: … casino gambling before...
Trump: I promise I would have gotten it.
Bush: ... during and after. And that's not—I'm not going to be bought by anybody.
Trump: I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.
Trump is an incredible performer, and knows how to mug for the camera. But if you look at the debate transcript—in this moment and other confrontations—Trump’s skill is even more obvious. Trump not only rebuts Jeb’s argument, he does it in 11 words that are perfectly on-brand: “I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.” Never mind that, as Bloomberg Politics reports, Trump did want the casinos, and did donate to Bush, and Bush rejected them. Heels lie and cheat. Sometimes they trick the refs.
Though Trump has not (yet!) given his moves a flamboyant name, he has honed them to an impressive precision. His insults are almost always just a few words long. Take, for example, this early exchange with Rand Paul:
Paul: I think really there's a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I'm very concerned about him—having him in charge of the nuclear weapons, because I think his response, his—his visceral response to attack people on their appearance—short, tall, fat, ugly—my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?
Trump: I never attacked him on his looks, and believe me, there's plenty of subject matter right there.
The Kentucky senator was the butt of another zinger. When Trump was dodging a question about his potential military advisers by saying he was the only one there who didn't support the Iraq War, Paul tried to cut in. Trump shut him down: “If you don't mind, Rand—you know, you are on last—you do have your 1 percent.” To Jeb on foreign policy: “Your brother's administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster, those last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn't have been elected.” He noted Carly Fiorina oversaw the merger of HP and Compaq, and that it was terrible for her company: “So I only say this: She can't run any of my companies.” Trump plowed over moderator Hugh Hewitt, forcing him to say, "Oh, you're the best interview in America." On Fox News after the debate, a delighted Megyn Kelly laughed that Hewitt had been practically batting his eyelashes at Trump. (Aren't I the best interview? "You are! You are!")
After Fiorina and Trump tussled over their not-quite-perfect business records, Chris Christie had the makings of a good burn: Would you two shut up about your careers? But he wrapped it up in an insincere-sounding sympathy for the working man:
Christie: While I'm as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly's career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn't have a job, who can't fund his child's education, I've got to tell you the truth. They could care less about your careers, they care about theirs.
You can tell the governor of New Jersey really practiced that last line. It’s pretty good, but the pronoun doesn’t match the previous sentence, which to me is a tell that it wasn't spontaneous—that Christie planned to say this thing, and was taking the opportunity. He repeated it a few moments later.
But Jeb Bush made the gravest error in fighting with Trump. In an awkward, staged confrontation, moderator Dana Bash quoted Trump saying of Jeb, "If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico." She asked Bush, "Did Mr. Trump go too far in invoking your wife?" Jeb said that he did, and then, catastrophically, demanded the heel apologize. Trump said she was a lovely woman, which obviously got under Bush's skin. "Why don't you apologize to her right now." "No, I won't do that, because I've said nothing wrong."
Heels don't apologize for being heels. It would have been great if Bush and Trump were both employed by the WWE. There would be a nice little script to build Trump’s character—he’s so mean he won’t even be nice to the poor innocent wife! But it was real life, and Jeb looked foolish. Why would he expect Trump to apologize? Once Trump refused, Jeb was powerless to do anything about it. As he did so many times during the debate, he looked helpless. Imagine how this would look in a pro-wresting ring: Hey Mr. Heel, won't you please be nice to me for once?
In wrestling, when the face uses the heel's tactics against him, it doesn't always go well. In a 1991 match between Piper and DiBiase, DiBiase repeatedly attacks Piper's injured knee. Just when you think Piper might lose, he finds strength and courage to fight back. But he goes too far, hits the ref with a crutch, and is disqualified. DiBiase runs off with his tail between his legs, and the announcers say, "It was a moral victory all the same." But it's better to win outright through cunning and wit and superior skill.
Carly Fiorina, for instance, got the best of Trump by refusing to engage him, in this case for attacking her looks. "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," Fiorina said. She should have gone just one step further: act like she was totally bored by Trump's antics.
CNN shamelssly promised "fireworks" in this debate, and Trump got the most airtime by far. But being a heel is not a great long-term job prospect. Aging wrestlers are often turned heel in the twilight of their careers. In real life, it's not that people will necessarily get tired of the thrill of watching Trump say taboo things. It's that he must keep topping himself—offer a bigger shock each time. There are signs this is already a problem in a New York Times analysis of the debate: "as became clear within minutes, there would be no new Mr. Trump taking the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday night." Eventually even fans will build up a tolerance to his shamelessness.