Journalist Steve Sailer commented this week that Donald Trump is the polar opposite of the late David Bowie - Trump has been famous forever and he never reinvents himself.
As usual, Steve is entirely correct. It should therefore surprise no one to learn that Trump, who has never met a piece of kitsch he didn't like, was once upon a time a part-time star in professional wrestling. This doesn't mean that Trump rolled around in a pair of tights. Instead, he played the role of alpha-male executive (sound familiar?), offering his support to the company's leading heroic wrestlers in their scripted struggles against the villainous Vince McMahon, who, both on-screen and in real life, is the majority owner and chairman of the board of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
So successful was Trump in this role that he is actually a member of WWE's Hall of Fame. Just in case you still don't believe me, here's a highlight reel of Trump's greatest WWE moments, the climax of which is Trump forcefully shaving McMahon's head live in the ring at Wrestlemania.
Professional wrestling in the modern era is a tricky business. Once upon a time, audiences would dutifully cheer the heroes (like Hulk Hogan) and boo the villains (like Ted DiBiase, whose "Million Dollar Man" gimmick was in many ways a parallel to Trump's real-life persona). Since the late 1990s, this dynamic increasingly broke down, and, as audiences grew older and more mature, they began to openly cheer for villains whom they had grown to love.
Rebellious young teenagers and older cynical men both love a bad guy, after all, especially one who performs the role with consummate excellence. Over time these two demographics – both of whom were perfectly aware of the scripted nature of the performances – have come to dominate wrestling audiences, though WWE did try to pivot back to a more child-friendly product from about 2006 onwards.
As a result, it's tricky to play a hero to today's wrestling audiences – you might get booed out of the building by a particularly cynical audience – and difficult also to play a villain, as you might well get unwanted cheers from that same audience. To keep audiences onside, a trick of the modern wrestling era is to break the fourth wall: to give off subtle little hints that you, as well as the audience, are very well aware of the true nature of wrestling.
The little children watching you won't even notice, and the older, cynical fans will love you for it. Watch beloved antihero Randy Orton raise his arms in frustration after Kofi Kingston incompetently misses his cue to enter the ring, a glorious moment that breaks the boundary between wrestler and fan and makes the amoral badass character that Orton plays best even more attractive.
Perhaps his years in WWE taught Trump something, because he was copying the playbook of WWE stars such as Orton, CM Punk and John Cena when he spectacularly broke the fourth wall in the aftermath of his massive victory in the Nevada caucus. A memorable victory speech included this ostensibly bizarre quote: "We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated."
Sentences such as this seemingly break all the rules of politics. Yes, it might well be true that Trump's core vote are white people with only a high-school education, but for heaven's sake. It surely isn't right for the candidate himself to say so in such non-euphemistic terms. You can't go around offending your own base.
Except that Trump, as usual, is several steps ahead. That core base he's already captured: hook, line, and sinker. They won't desert him no matter what he says or does. But Trump knows that this base will not be enough to win him a general election against Hillary Clinton.
Voters not in love with Trump the showman will be far more inclined to trust Trump the executive if they know that he doesn't quite believe of all his own absurd hype
He'll need to reach out to swing voters of all stripes, and breaking the fourth wall - giving off little verbal slips that reveal he's fully aware of his own campaign's calculated strategy and the mad, carnival atmosphere he's cultivated – will make it easier for him to reassure those higher-information, better-educated voters that he is fit to be US president.
Something similar is going on when Trump brags about his uncle who was an eminent professor at MIT. On one level, he is simply telling low-information voters his family are very smart and so, therefore, is he. On another, however, he is subtly whispering out of the back of his hand to higher-information voters "see? This craziness is all just put on for the proles... really I'm just like you".
Likewise, when he tells audiences that he can be "the most politically correct person you have ever seen", he might as well brand Trump Tower with the logo THIS IS ALL AN ACT. By breaking the fourth wall, Trump is setting the stage for Part Two of the grand sale he is making to America.
Perhaps it's a good thing that much of the media refuses to properly acknowledge the brilliant methods behind Trump's apparent madness. If they took a closer look, they'd have to acknowledge how truly enthralling and terrifying he is, all at once
Part Two will not necessarily involve a pivot to the political centre ground – immigration apart, Trump is already a very centrist candidate, even left-wing on some issues (such as trade). It will involve a shift of tone, showing that in addition to Trump the showman, who has captivated the primary process by putting on The Greatest Show on Earth, there is also Trump the cold, detached, hard-nosed businessman, whose executive skills can lead the country to greatness.
Voters not in love with Trump the showman will be far more inclined to trust Trump the executive if they know he doesn't quite believe of all his own absurd hype, and by giving them hints in that direction, he is starting a slow process of suggestion and persuasion that he believes will pay off further down the road towards the presidency.
Perhaps it's a good thing that much of the media refuses to properly acknowledge the brilliant methods behind Trump's apparent madness. If they took a closer look, they'd have to acknowledge how truly enthralling and terrifying he is, all at once. And if you, dear reader, still think Trump can't beat Clinton in a general election, then you haven't been observing carefully enough.