Donald Trump is an entertainer. He is also a racist. These two facts are usually viewed as reflecting distinct and isolated facets of Trump’s personality. But we need to see them as intertwined. It’s the only way to make sense of the traveling racial-incitement show that is Trump’s campaign—and of how it’s taken him so far.
The whole “Make America Great Again” extravaganza is rooted in Trump’s persona as an entertainer, and his long immersion in spectacle—from beauty pageants to boxing, from reality television to professional wrestling. Trump is the latest in a long line of carnival barkers, sports impresarios, and insult comics who have exploited America’s racial anxieties to build large audiences in the service of a quick buck. He’s brought the mores of the taboo-pushing performer and the boxing hype-man into the political arena in ways that Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Schwarzenegger never dreamed of. In the process, he’s cannily exploited the license given to entertainers to talk about race in offensive ways, benefiting from the forgiveness that’s extended more readily to clowns than to politicians.
In 2005, while serving as host of The Apprentice, Trump offered NBC a novel idea for re-energizing a program he felt was losing its zip: a season in which the competing teams would be divided along racial lines, black against white. “It would be nine blacks against nine whites, all highly educated, very smart, strong, beautiful,” he later explained to Howard Stern. The white team would be all-blond, but the black team would be an “assortment” of light- and dark-skinned African Americans. Even Stern was taken aback. “Wouldn’t that set off a racial war?” he asked.
The question was apt, because Trump’s idea harkened back to a form of entertainment that incited violent confrontations between black and white Americans. By the late nineteenth century, race-based entertainment, from blackface minstrelsy to ethnic joke books, had long been a profitable mainstay of American popular culture. Boxing promoters, looking to get in on the action, orchestrated matches that pitted different ethnic groups against each other: Irish pugilists against Italians, Germans against Greeks. But the most incendiary and money-making matches were between blacks and whites.
In 1908, when Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion, it triggered mass culture shock in white America—and ushered in a golden opportunity for publicists, newspaper publishers, and proto-Trumpian hype-men. The cry went out for a “great white hope” to re-establish white supremacy in what was then America’s most popular sport. Novelist Jack London, writing in the New York Herald, famously appealed to former champion Jim “Jeff” Jeffries to rise to the challenge: “Jeff, it’s up to you.” When Jeffries answered the call, the buildup to the bout was everything Trump wanted for The Apprentice: Race War, and what he has finally achieved in his campaign for president: a racially charged drama that caught the national imagination, even at the risk of inciting violence.
When the match came off in 1910, Jeff let the white man down. Because the fight had been publicized as a life-or-death matter for the white race, Johnson’s victory led to a national outburst of violence, almost all of it white-on-black. “In Houston,” writes historian Allen Guttmann, “Charles Williams openly celebrated Johnson’s triumph and a white man ‘slashed his throat from ear to ear’; in Little Rock, two blacks were killed by a group of whites after an argument about the fight in a streetcar; in Roanoke, Virginia, a gang of white sailors injured scores of blacks.” While at least 20 people were killed and many more injured, the newspapers that wrote up the match and the film company that recorded it made tremendous profits.
Like Trump’s campaign, the Johnson-Jeffries bout both played off existing racial tensions and greatly exacerbated them. The gladiatorial nature of boxing lends itself to allegories about group pride and dominance, and Trump clearly picked up some tips from his longtime friend Don King, the sport’s most shameless promoter and stirrer of the racial pot. This summer, before saner heads prevailed, Trump even asked King, who served time for manslaughter after kicking a man to death, and Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champ and convicted rapist, to speak on his behalf at the Republican convention—Trump’s twisted idea of reaching out to black voters.
What he didn’t learn from Don King about racism as entertainment, Trump gleaned from his favorite art form: the quasi-sport of professional wrestling, which took the tradition of exploiting America’s racial anxieties, blew it up, and turned it into a highly profitable, long-running drama. Boxing always had a show-biz aspect to it; Jack Johnson made off-ring dollars on the vaudeville circuit. But professional wrestling is an even purer example of strife sold as entertainment—and it became the perfect place for Trump to hone his act as a bigger-than-life, self-inflating, insult-flinging antihero, while taking notes from impresarios like Vince McMahon, the CEO of Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment.
Trump hasn’t merely been an avid fan. He’s hosted two editions of WrestleMania, and participated in numerous story lines through the decades. In 2007’s “Battle of the Billionaires,” he shaved McMahon’s head after his own wrestler bested McMahon’s champion. Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk II described the proceedings as a virtual precursor to the Trump campaign: “phallic boasts, celebrity endorsements, crowd-pleasing grandstanding, lots of bloody violence, and constant references to polls by Trump.”
While it has become déclassé in American marketing to traffic too openly or obviously in racial stereotypes, pro wrestling never stopped. As recently as 2008, you could still see Kamala, a tribal boogeyman from “deepest, darkest Africa,” performing in face and chest paint and wielding a spear. African American wrestlers still pose as pimps and ghetto “thugs.” Latinos fare no better, often done up in stereotypical garb—bandannas and “wife-beater” t-shirts—with equally offensive backstories. One of the best-known Latino wrestling teams, Los Guerreros, performed under the motto: “Lying, cheating, and stealing.”
The pleasure of professional wrestling is that it blurs distinctions not only between sports and entertainment, but between reality and fiction. Wrestling fans bristle at the accusation that the sport is “fake,” since the athletic prowess needed to perform in the ring is indeed genuine. And if you ask them about the racially stereotyped characters, many will say that they’re not meant to be taken seriously, that they’re just jokes.
Trump’s campaign has translated those blurred distinctions into the political arena. His outrageous comments are shielded by the plausible deniability afforded a WWE hype-master. When he suggested this summer that only “Second Amendment people” would be able to deal with Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Paul Ryan shrugged it off as a “joke gone bad.” Earlier in the campaign, when Trump fell into a fake Chinese accent while speaking about trade deals—“We want deal”—it barely stirred a ripple of protest. It was just Trump being Trump.
Over-the-top vulgarity and tacky spectacle—the stocks-in-trade of professional wrestling—have defined Trump’s presidential campaign from the get-go. His campaign launch could have been scripted and produced by WWE: the grand escalator entrance, the whooping audience stocked with hired actors, the racial taunting of Mexican immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs,” Trump thundered, Los Guerreros–style. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” His rallies are WWE-style events, too, complete with his own hype-master—anti-immigration crusader and campaign adviser Stephen Miller, who whips the crowds into a frenzy before the candidate triumphantly takes the stage.
The appeal of Trump’s act also draws on a related tradition in American entertainment: that of the insult comic. At the National Review, John Podhoretz called Trump the heir to Howard Stern and Andrew Dice Clay, those ace purveyors of the (white) American id. “Guys like the Dice Man and Stern,” Podhoretz observed, “had been told and taught and trained by respectable middlebrow culture to believe that their tastes and desires were piggish and thuggish and gross, and they said, ‘So be it!’” For insult comics, nothing is off-limits. Just the way Trump and his fans like it.
Trump’s pose as a fearless taboo-breaker may be the best explanation of how he’s sold a plutocratic agenda (which includes getting rid of the estate tax) to a base that consists largely of older white men. Contrary to most media accounts, this is not really a crowd of “working-class whites.” Most of the men at Trump rallies are Tea Party types, solidly middle class. But culturally, they are drawn to the plebeian forms that Trump so expertly deploys: the insult humor of stand-up comedy, the over-the-top stereotypes and cartoonish conflicts of pro wrestling, and the Darwinian ethos of boxing. More deeply, they are taken by the white man’s nostalgia of Trump’s message, his call for a return to an older style of bluntness—and offensiveness—about race and ethnicity that once pervaded the culture, reinforcing white supremacy under the guise of amusement.
Trump is routinely described in the media as a “real-estate mogul.” But for more than a decade, he has been a professional entertainer who licenses his name for profit. His real-estate deals routinely fall apart. As a politician, he doesn’t display even a minimal interest in enacting policy or advancing an agenda. His specialty is performing his insult-flinging, “king of the world” character while flogging his eponymous brand. Like others before him in the worlds of boxing, stand-up comedy, and professional wrestling, he’s found a lucrative niche market in exploiting racial tensions for their entertainment value.
It appears that Trump’s market really is a niche—that what drives some voters to him drives more of them away. It’s tempting to take comfort in such political math. But when it comes to Trump’s brand of racial showmanship, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. As the riots that followed Jack Johnson’s win back in 1910 remind us, what starts out as a racist spectacle in the ring too often ends up spilling blood in reality.