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The key to understanding Donald Trump’s enduring appeal is Vince McMahon Judd Legum

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Donald Trump, wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin and WWE Chairman Vince McMahon attend the press conference held by Battle of the Billionaires to announce the details of Wrestlemania 23 at Trump Tower on March 28, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Some people don’t want to believe it, but it’s true: Donald Trump has a reasonable chance of being elected the next president of the United States. 

According to conventional political analysis, a presidential candidate charged with a single felony count would have little chance of winning a primary or general election. Presidential campaigns have been derailed for far less serious matters. Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign came to a crashing halt when it was discovered he plagiarized sections of campaign speeches. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) saw his 2012 campaign irreparably crippled when he was asked to name three federal agencies he would eliminate and could only name two. The campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (D) effectively ended because he screamed awkwardly during a campaign event in Iowa. 

Trump has been criminally indicted four times and charged with 91 felonies, including “conspiracy to defraud the government” and “solicitation of violation of oath of a public officer.” In May, a jury found Trump liable for sexually assaulting advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, awarding Carroll $5 million. And yet, these events do not appear to have had much of an impact on Trump’s appeal. 

Trump is dominating the Republican primary and running about even with Biden in an anticipated general election matchup. This is not simply a matter of Trump’s hardcore supporters overlooking his legal troubles. National polling shows Trump attracting the support of about 44% of registered voters. That’s far more voters than even identify as Republican. So, Trump is not only retaining the support of the Republican base but also millions of voters who identify as independent and moderate. 

To better understand Trump’s enduring appeal, Popular Information spoke with Abraham Josephine Riesman, author of Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America. Why talk to the biographer of a wrestling executive to understand Trump? McMahon is one of Trump’s closest associates and, Riesman reports, one of the few people whose calls Trump takes in private. McMahon, who inducted Trump into the WWE Hall of Fame, could be serving as something of a role model to Trump right now. How many other people beat federal felony charges in court, weathered multiple sex scandals (so far), and emerged wealthier and more powerful?

Perhaps more importantly, McMahon is the creator of neo-kayfabe, the blending of fact and fiction — and good and evil — until it is all impossible to distinguish. McMahon himself became the most popular character on WWE shows, assuming the character of the arch-villain Mr. McMahon. There is now little distinction between McMahon and his WWE persona. 

In his book, Riesman makes the case that Trump’s political strategy is shaped directly and indirectly by McMahon. “For more than three decades, Trump has watched and admired Vince’s product,” Riesman writes. “He has been both host and performer at many of Vince’s wrestling extravaganzas, honing his abilities as a rabble-rouser. Through Trump, Vince’s wrestling-infused mentality has reached the highest levels of the American system.”

Donald Trump attends a press conference about the WWE at the Austin Straubel International Airport on June 22, 2009 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mark A. Wallenfang/Getty Images)

Popular Information spoke to Riesman about what McMahon and WWE wrestling can teach us about Trump’s continued popularity, his response to federal indictments, and whether Trump believes his lies about the 2020 election. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

On how some people on the left misunderstand Trump’s appeal:

What we have with Trump is a guy who a lot of people on the left misunderstand as being just loved by the people who vote for him. And I think the feeling is not just, “Oh, Trump is good and strong and loves people and is a good Christian.” Very often, people will approach Trump in the way that they approach what they call in wrestling a “tweener.” Somebody who’s not exactly good or not exactly evil, where they go, “Yeah, I don’t approve of all of his methods or the things he says, but he’s cool, and he gets the job done.” I think thinking in terms of face [a “good guy” in wrestling] and heel [a “bad guy” in wrestling] for Trump is too binary, because it’s too much in the old way of doing things. The old kayfabe, not the neo-kayfabe. Trump is not perceived just as a good guy or a bad guy.

On the wrestler who is most similar to Trump:

Stone Cold Steve Austin is the person who, more than anyone else, altered the way the wrestling public uses their protagonists. Because Steve Austin was billed as a heel. He was introduced as a bad guy. And they were pushing him hard as a bad guy. But the crowd was seeing all these evil acts and just eating them up. They were obsessed, and cheering for this horrible character who was doing awful things. And that’s a real sea change for wrestling that, and then it ends up being a sea change for the culture.

On how WWE primed a generation for Trump:

You can’t deny that millennial boys grew up watching Stone Cold Steve Austin, and then the Rock and Triple H, and all these other people in that mold. These are people who are not quite face, not quite heel, but beloved by the crowd, despite their evil acts. Millennial boys shaped their whole worldviews when they’re 11 to 15 around that sense of morality. Not: Is it good, or is it evil? Just: Is it exciting? Is it cool? That’s what the premium is placed on. And that’s true now in politics, too. Maybe it’s always been true in politics to a certain extent. But right now, the thing that grabs people to vote is very often just: Do I find this person entertaining, recognizable, iconic, or funny? As opposed to: Will this person do a good job in the elected office that I’m voting for them for? And wrestling turned that into a science. 

(Photo by Leon Halip/WireImage)

On how Trump, like McMahon, is popular because of — not in spite of  — his transgressions:

Trump is very good at pressing buttons, as Vince is. They’re very good at finding the parts of your brain that make you the most riled up and just mashing that button, just making you as amped up, or angry, or both, as you can be. He throws out these transgressive pieces of red meat. And if you’re on his team, that’s very exciting for you, if you’re not on his team, it’s also very exciting for you, but in a negative way. The point is, you’re excited, and you’re paying attention to him. And that’s a great strategy for him. And people really enjoy it. Like they don’t want to admit it, and it’s not a good thing that they enjoy it. But the human brain is what it is, and it likes when people break the rules. Even if you wouldn’t break the rule, there’s something titillating about seeing somebody who has no regard for the rules. All of these [WWE] characters are so ludicrously transgressive, and that appeals to people. And that transgression can come in the form of saying something horrifying that you don’t agree with as a viewer, or it can come in the form of that same character saying something totally true that you do agree with, but you can’t believe was said in public. 

On how Trump fans, like modern wrestling fans, understand that most things Trump says aren’t real:

This ecosystem allows people to do horrible things and still succeed, even among people who are offended by the things that are being done and said. Because you operate from the assumption that everything you’re seeing in the ring is fake, or at least most of it. And that’s dangerous, because once you’re assuming everything’s fake, except for the things you want to believe are true, then you’re just having a grab bag, personalized reality. So you can go, if you’re a Trump voter, “Trump means it when he says [X], but he doesn’t mean it when he says [Y].” And once you start just picking and choosing what you think reality is from a grab bag of truth and lies that you can’t distinguish between, then you’re in real trouble as a society. Every individual person is just picking their own hodgepodge reality.

The neo-kayfabe mindset is, “take it seriously, but not literally.” Take the excitement as something that is a force to be reckoned with, but don’t actually believe any of the content. That’s wrestling. You’re gonna have a thrill, but don’t actually believe anything that’s happening, except for the whispered part, which is, except believe the parts that you want to believe, those parts are true. And then people can just completely lose their minds. 

(Photo by Mark A. Wallenfang/Getty Images)

On whether Trump believes his own lies about the 2020 election:

The biggest thing I want people to take away from the book is that it does not matter. What is in his heart and what he believes is much less important than what he does and what the material effects of those things are. And when it comes to Trump, you can lose many years of your life trying to figure out what’s going on inside that head, inside his skull, inside his brain. But the ultimate big question is what is to be done about the material harm being caused, as opposed to this academic parlor chatter about does he really believe the election was stolen? Or is he making it up? The reason that that’s not a relevant question is not only because there are more important things, but also because I don’t think that’s a distinction that exists for Trump

On how Vince McMahon might advise Trump to respond to criminal charges:

The best strategy that Vince ever comes up with in any given situation is to mess with the heads of the public. Mess what their minds. This is what Trump is best at, and Vince is even better at. It’s messing with reality, acting ostentatiously, and saying things you’re not supposed to say to such a degree, that, ultimately, the masses are just sort of baffled, and paying attention to you. This is something that I try to get at in the book is, when you have a viewer, or a reader, a surfer of the web, whatever, who is baffled about whether the thing they’re looking at is real or not, or where the boundaries of reality and fiction are, that they start paying really close attention to what they’re looking at, because they’re so confused. I think Vince’s advice generally would be so ridiculous or be so real, or both, that people are confused enough about the news that they disengage and go, “I don’t care.”

You can buy Riesman’s book, Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, from an independent bookseller here

 

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Letters to the Editor: America Doesn’t Respect Teachers The Free Press

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“Society holds the teaching profession in such low esteem, which has led to a massive teacher shortage,” writes one reader. (Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“How can public schools at once be hotbeds of radicalism, yet produce students who are so poorly informed about radical causes?” 

This was the central question of Robert Pondiscio’s piece, published June 12: “How Public Schools Became Ideological Boot Camps.”

His answer is that every day, material that hasn’t been officially approved is put in front of children. Here, the founder and president of the Academy for Teachers, Sam Swope, offers an alternative theory, and argues that Robert’s solution—greater oversight—would only make things worse:

Robert Pondiscio argues that because there’s so little oversight of what teachers teach, teachers do whatever they want, and what they want is always bad. 

There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but his call for stricter oversight and less autonomy for teachers isn’t going to solve the problem. It will make things worse.

Our core problem is that society holds the teaching profession in such low esteem, which has led to a massive teacher shortage, meaning principals are scraping the bottom of the barrel, desperate for any warm body to stand in front of a classroom. Not surprisingly, most new hires don’t last. For kids, this is a disaster: school is a parade of one inexperienced teacher after another. 

Schools are looking for smart, creative, empathic teachers, who can be trusted—indeed, expected—to bring their personal passion and intelligence to the work. Of course the schools provide oversight, but they want to be able to respect their teachers as professionals. (Sure, there will be teachers who are bad actors, but you deal with them.)

And yet, given an increasingly weak teaching force, I understand the urge for stringent, distrustful oversight. I can also understand, even as I cringe at the thought, the urge to mandate curricula. At least then some learning might happen!

But a stringent, distrustful, mandated approach is intolerable for the best teachers, and it will make a teaching career repellent to smart, young, idealistic people eager for a profession where they can shine.

There are two urgent problems in education to solve: how to retain our best teachers, and how to encourage inspired young people to join the profession. 

—Sam Swope

Last month, we gave over an episode of Honestly to one of the most contentious debates of the moment: Is Israel’s War Just? Free Pressers Eli Lake and Michael Moynihan argued yes; arguing otherwise were former Bernie Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray and Jake Klein, editor of The Black Sheep. (The debate originally took place at Dissident Dialogues, in partnership with UnHerd.)

Recently, Rabbi Hayim Leiter was listening to this episode in his car while driving to work. There’s something he wants Gray and Klein to know.

I’m based in Efrat, in the West Bank, but I recently traveled to Tel Aviv for a meeting. As is my practice on long drives, I was listening to an Honestly episode, a recording of a live debate entitled, “Is Israel’s War Just?” Right up my alley.

The panelists were all over each other, passionately debating the issue, when Briahna Joy Gray said Israel should not be a Jewish state. She said all of the Arabs should have the right of return and Israel should become a democracy devoid of religious identity. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Then, suddenly: “CRITICAL—Rocket and missile fire.” A Home Front Command notification appeared on my phone. This meant I had less than a minute to get out of my car and lie down with my hands over my head. Now, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Rockets in Tel Aviv? The middle of the country had been quiet for months. 

BOOM, BOOM, BOOM: the explosions were instantaneous and directly overhead. I hadn’t even had time to pull over. I suppose sometimes the Home Front Command warnings are delayed. Thank God the Iron Dome response wasn’t. No one was killed, but later I heard there was a woman injured by shrapnel not far from where I was.

As the dust settled, my focus returned to the podcast. “The right of return is what will ultimately lead to peace,” Gray reiterated. I wanted to yank her out of the radio and sit her next to me. “Do you see that?” I’d ask her, pointing at the smoke trails in the sky. “That’s a rocket.” 

It’s so easy to argue about this war from the safety of America, where the problem is almost always Israel: if only we’d done more of this or less of that. But very few people spend time thinking about what’s happening here, right now. They have no idea what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a Qassam rocket.

I managed to pull myself together and head to my meeting and then to officiate a wedding an hour north of Tel Aviv, in Zichron Yaakov. As we prepared to sign the Ketubah, my phone continued to ring with additional rocket warnings across the country. It’s unnerving knowing that the Huppah could be interrupted at any moment by air-raid sirens. But somehow you press on, praying you won’t have to face that reality.

—Rabbi Hayim Leiter

On Saturday, we ran a piece by Larissa Phillips about what city kids learn at her “farm camp” in upstate New York—important lessons like “Cuts, scrapes, and stings aren’t really a big deal.”

Beneath it, we asked you: How did you spend your childhood vacations? What are the lessons school simply can’t teach you?

Here’s what you said:

My family moved from our prairie home in Saskatchewan to the east coast when I was 5. But every summer we popped on a flight from Saint John, via Toronto or Winnipeg, to Saskatoon. From there it was another five-hour drive north, to where the pavement turned to dirt. In our hometown, we literally lived at the end of the road. 

My grandparents had a cabin, a solitary lease lot in a provincial park, with no neighbors save for the reservation across the lake and a campground five kilometers up the shore. My summers were spent at that cabin with nothing but a canoe, and the odd cousin or friend if I was lucky. There were no cell phones, just loons, leeches, and occasional lightning strikes.

Here, I learned about the forces of nature. I canoed to the middle of the lake, the size of a small sea, during a thunderstorm, and had to make it back against three-foot whitecaps. I discovered that you should not cross the path of a protective mommy beaver, unless you want the bow of your canoe attacked. Most importantly, I learned self-reliance and the value of boredom—to take in the gift of hours alone.

The nights of powwow drumming across the lake while we sat with the campfire will never leave me. Nor the chipmunk that stole my sunflower seeds.

—Jarod Farn-Guillette, Brewer, Maine

I spent seven amazing summers as a camper in Northern Ontario. My family wasn’t rich. My father, an immigrant tailor, only got two weeks of vacation. But my parents knew it was important for me to experience a place different from my home; they sacrificed to send me to summer camp. It was almost six decades ago, but I still remember my mother begging the director for financial assistance.

I learned everything there: how to build a fire, how to swim, how to get along in a cabin with 14 other boys and no bathroom. Peeing off the cabin porch in the middle of the night without waking the counselors was another acquired skill. I not only grew; I grew up. That brief time away from my parents was enough to change me, and they commented on that change every year when I returned home. When I was too old to be a camper, I became a waiter at the camp, my first paying job.

I met my wife at that camp when I was a teenager, and 56 years later we are still together and still talk about our experiences. Looking back, I am amazed at how random choices have such a huge impact on one’s life. Who and where would I be without those summers? When I visit my parents’ graves, I thank them for the opportunities they gave me. I like to think that I raised my sons with the same degree of independence, and that they, in their own time, will pass it on to my grandchildren.

—Sheldon Meingarten, Toronto, Canada

Do you have a unique perspective on a Free Press story? Can you bring your personal experience or expertise to bear on an issue we cover? We want to hear from you. Send us a letter to the editor: letters@thefp.com.

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June 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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My First Job, at the Stanford Internet Observatory Julia Steinberg

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Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised I’d “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time,” writes Julia Steinberg. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The Stanford Internet Observatory—a research center tasked with rooting out “misinformation” on social media—is shutting its doors. Chances are if you’ve heard of the SIO it was in a scathing piece from Michael Shellenberger or Matt Taibbi, who have accused the center of being a key node in the censorship-industrial complex.

It was also my first employer. Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised to “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time, to develop a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science, and to translate our research discoveries into training and policy innovations for the public good.” To me, that meant ending internet abuse like the glamorization of anorexia on social media or financial scams that steal billions every year. But mostly I worked on the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which SIO ran during the 2020 and 2022 elections. The purpose of that project was to identify so-called “fake news” spreading on social media. 

In actuality, SIO hired a load of interns to scan social media for posts deemed to be mis- and disinformation. It turns out that the posts we students flagged were often sent along to moderators at Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which took them down in order to quash dissenting viewpoints—viewpoints that sometimes ended up being right, as in the case of Covid likely being the result of a lab leak, or Hunter Biden’s hard drive being his actual hard drive—not Russian disinformation. 

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, the SIO’s work has come under a lot of scrutiny, including in Washington. A recent House Judiciary Committee report alleges that, by cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, the SIO’s Election Integrity Partnership “provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny.” 

The SIO has stated that “Stanford has not shut down or dismantled SIO as a result of outside pressure. SIO does, however, face funding challenges as its founding grants will soon be exhausted.” But on June 13, Platformer reported that much of SIO’s staff was on the way out: “Its founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. Renee DiResta, its research director, left last week after her contract was not renewed. One other staff member’s contract expired this month, while others have been told to look for jobs elsewhere, sources say.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case, Murthy v. Missouri, that addresses whether the U.S. government should be able to collaborate with social media companies to censor commentary. The plaintiffs, in their brief, lambast SIO for its role in abetting government censorship. We’ll be watching that case closely.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press. Read her piece on the college dropout who unlocked the secrets of ancient Rome using AI. And follow her on X @Juliaonatroika.

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