Much has been made in the press recently about purported tensions between President Donald Trump and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. For example, as the Chicago Tribune reported on August 28, 2018:
President Donald Trump, who levied extraordinary public attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recent weeks, has privately revived the idea of firing him in conversations with his aides and personal lawyers this month, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The purported reason? The fact that Sessions recused himself from the so-called "Russian inquiry" into election interference. The validity of that reason is beyond my expertise. Watching this play out in the press, however, reminds me of one of the favorite passions of my youth (and one with which the president has great familiarity, as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) proudly notes): pro wrestling. And WWE is an authoritative source on the subject, because they are the country's premier pro-wrestling organization.
The WWE website contains the following biography of President Trump:
From captivating billionaire to reality TV star, from WWE Hall of Famer to the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump has truly done it all.
As one of the most famous men in the world, Trump has been recognized as an innovator of real estate, politics and reality television. And how could you miss him? The Donald's surname — synonymous with wealth and power — has been emblazoned in giant gold letters across skyscrapers and high-rises in the biggest cities in the world. But long before he stepped into the Oval Office, Trump was helping to shape the future of the squared circle. In fact, he had been making a consistent impact on WWE since the days when Andre the Giant was still king.
For those of you who are not familiar with pro wrestling, the "sport" generally follows story lines, not unlike a soap opera. In fact, the sports website Bleacher Report has implied that there were not coincidental corollaries between these two forms of entertainment. Quoting "WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul Levesque (aka legendary WWE superstar 'Triple H')", the site states:
We have a whole department, a creative writing department. We have more than 20 writers at this particular time. ... They come from everywhere. From soap operas to late-night television to movies to theater to former wrestlers. Storytelling is storytelling. Some of them are fans and have a wrestling background. Others don't. They might be really good at the relationship part and somebody else has to help them bring it back to the ring. ... It's a staggering job. The thing is it's never-ending. It's not just they write Monday Night Raw. They write about 10-15 hours on any given week of original content.
The website ThoughtCo defines the traditional "narrative arc", and explains how it structures a story in literature:
Sometimes simply called "arc" or "story arc," narrative arc refers to the chronological construction of plot in a novel or story. Typically, a narrative arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the following components: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Pro wrestling follows this narrative arc, with story lines that can play out over extended periods of time. There are "good guys" ("babyfaces" or "faces") and there are "bad guys" ("heels"). As the website Complex, in an article captioned "The Secret Language of Pro Wrestling, Decoded", defines them:
A babyface is honorable and ethical; he or she fights cleanly, defends the vulnerable, and elicits a positive reaction from fans. ... A heel can regularly cheat or act cowardly. ... A heel can also be super cocky, arrogant, or disrespectful. ... A great heel elicits boos and angry fan reactions.
These roles are not set in stone: "When a face betrays his or her allies in the ring or suddenly turns evil, this is known as 'turning heel.'"
Such forms of storytelling can embed itself in the public psyche. In an article in Psychology Today, Pamela B. Rutledge PhD, MBA, explains:
Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.
Stories provide order. Humans seek certainty and narrative structure is familiar, predictable, and comforting. Within the context of the story arc we can withstand intense emotions because we know that resolution follows the conflict. We can experience with a safety net.
Oddly enough, if you accept the premise to this point, Donald Trump is the heel. How many times do you read articles in which major newspapers refer to the president's cockiness, arrogance, or lack of respect? And frankly, he seems to relish it all.
Well, how do we know that this isn't all just a coincidence, and that these traits are not simply the president's real personality? Select International, which describes itself on its website as "[a] global leader in technology-enabled people and knowledge measurement solutions", put out an interesting post before the election captioned "5 Things Donald Trump Can Teach Us About Leadership". In that post, Paul Glatzhofer, the organization's director of leadership solutions, discussed Trump's leadership style. It contains the following interesting passage:
As it relates to his business dealings, Donald Trump appears to have made some good decisions. On the surface, it seems as though he is a bit of a loose cannon, and probably takes great risks. However when you listen to him speak (if you believe him) he is actually very conservative with his business decisions. He tends to buy properties that have less of an upside if they also are a safer choice (i.e., less downside). Taking risks is part of business, but making sure the risks are calculated and you know the upsides and downsides is key.
Donald Trump is not that much different than many of the effective leaders in the world. The amount of wealth he has and his personality are definitely differentiators, though. His "in your face" style is off-putting to some but refreshing to others. No matter where you land, the fact remains that Donald Trump has been an effective businessman. We can learn something from everyone, even The Donald.
The question then becomes why the president would choose to play the heel in any public pseudo-pro wrestling match?
Often, but not always, the heels are more interesting than the babyfaces. When I was a boy watching pro wrestling, probably the greatest babyface was Bob Backlund. According to the WWE website:
A former athletic standout at North Dakota State University — where he won the NCAA Division II heavyweight wrestling championship — Backlund had the rare combination of good looks, pure strength and technical skill.
Bleacher Report describes Backlund in the following manner:
If "Vanilla" is a euphemism for "boring", then Bob Backlund would be vanilla extract, homemade vanilla ice cream and vanilla beans, all rolled up in a vanilla flavored crepe.
I would agree with that analysis.
Much more interesting were the heels: Nikolai Volkoff (Soviet bad guy), the Iron Sheik (Iranian bad guy), and "manager" Bobby "the Brain" Heenan (egoist). The Chicago Tribune reported that a fan (maybe) even took a shot at Heenan in 1975. But nobody would really cheer for the heel, would they?
You'd be surprised. As Bleacher Report explains:
Yes, you love heels and you know they are the best part of the wrestling "program."
The heel is such an easy character to love. Just as much as the "face" because there is not as much built into the process of being the bad guy. Some wrestlers will tell you it is "easier" to turn heel or come out as a heel than it is to be a face.
I guess it is because the fans draw their own conclusions from the heel's actions. The face must keep them interested.
It is the dark side we all wished we had and wished we could do in the ring. It is the way we want to talk to our enemies or our boss or just someone in general.
The heel encompasses many of the same characteristics of everyday people. [Or] they could be part of a really "good" reality show (if that is possible).
And the heel always has us coming back for more to see what happens next week.
"Reality show"? Remember "The Apprentice"? No one wants to hear "You're fired," but people tuned in to hear Donald Trump say it for 14 years, nonetheless, and then elected him president.
Nor was Donald Trump the only heel to ever get elected. Jesse "The Body" Ventura was a heel. And, as TV Tropes notes, one of his catch phrases was: "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat." Hardly the kind of sentiment that we want to associate with our politicians. But, as that website notes:
He was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, in 1990, serving from 1991 to 1995. In 1998, he successfully ran for the office of governor of Minnesota (as a third-party candidate, the first such occurrence in modern political history), serving from January 1999 to January 2003.
Really, though, why would anyone seeking public acclaim want to be a heel and not a face? Wrestling fans know that "heels" are not really as bad as they are portrayed; we are in on the joke. Nikolai Volkoff, the Soviet bad guy, was really Croatian and, according to the New York Times, "detested life in Communist Yugoslavia" and stated "that he could not wait to flee":
"I was just so happy to get out from there," he said in an interview for the book "The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels" (2007), by Greg Oliver and Steve Johnson. "Those Communist bastards. I hated them."
The Iron Sheik? Bleacher Report notes that he had been a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran and represented that country "in numerous international tournaments and was an assistant coach for the American Olympic team in 1972 and 1976."
As for being a face, the opposite applies. We are naturally wary (especially in our politicians) of anyone who constantly tells you what a truly good person they are. How many moralists have we seen who had feet of clay? Plus, we all have our faults, and none of us wants to suffer by comparison.
Keep in mind that one of the president's main media opponents has the tagline "Democracy Dies in Darkness". It invites parody (which it got), as well as the retort, "Who do you think you are?" Furthermore, it sets a standard of purity and rectitude that is almost impossible to meet.
The other good thing about being a heel is that you can tell the audience who the face is just by being opposed to him or her. If Bobby Heenan didn't like you, you must be the good guy. Which brings me to Jeff Sessions, and immigration.
Immigration was one of the "signature issues" of Donald Trump's campaign, as the Council on Foreign Relations noted. And no attorney general in recent history has done more to enforce the immigration laws than Jeff Sessions. For example, the New Yorker, no fan of the president's, described Sessions' immigration efforts in June 2018 in the following manner:
President Trump has struggled to fulfill several of his campaign pledges, but in one area his Administration has made considerable headway: his Attorney General is leading a brutal crackdown on undocumented migrants.
This is all the more remarkable given the fact that, since the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has only very limited authority over immigration. The attorney general has made the most that authority.
Utilizing his referral authority, the attorney general has clarified the standards for potential asylum claims, streamlined immigration adjudications, curbed continuances in immigration court, and ended administrative closure. Each of these actions will, over time, bring down the backlog before the immigration courts, resulting in more speedy deportation of removable aliens from the United States.
These were not popular decisions, at least in certain quarters. For his efforts on asylum, Slate stated in July 2018 that "Jeff Sessions is doing everything in his power to make asylum-seekers suffer." As a result of his continuance decision, the American Immigration Council proclaimed in August 2018, "Sessions' Decision Places New Burdens on Individuals in Removal Proceedings and Immigration Judges". That organization asserted in May 2018 that "Sessions Ends Administrative Closure at the Expense of Due Process in Immigration Court".
None of these actions, however, gained Sessions the opprobrium that his "zero-tolerance" policy for criminal-entry prosecutions did. The April 6, 2018, DOJ press release for that policy explained:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions today notified all U.S. Attorney's Offices along the Southwest Border of a new "zero-tolerance policy" for offenses under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a), which prohibits both attempted illegal entry and illegal entry into the United States by an alien. The implementation of the Attorney General's zero-tolerance policy comes as the Department of Homeland Security reported a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018, and a 37 percent increase from February 2018 to March 2018 — the largest month-to-month increase since 2011.
In that press release, Sessions was blunt:
The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable. Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest — that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border. As a result, a crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border. ... To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration's commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice. To the Department's prosecutors, I urge you: promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens. You play a critical part in fulfilling these goals, and I thank you for your continued efforts in seeing to it that our laws — and as a result, our nation — are respected.
As that passage notes, in taking this action, the attorney general was carrying out the policies of his boss, the president of the United States. Those policies, however, resulted in the much-criticized "separation of families" at the border. Sessions did not shrink from the criticisms, however, defending the policy publicly in June 2018, as reported by USA Today.
Enter Donald Trump, the heel. On July 19, 2018, the New York Times reported:
President Trump said on [July 18] that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision "very unfair to the president."
On September 2, 2018, the Washington Times noted that: "Over the course of August, the president's attacks on his attorney general intensified. Mr. Trump called him 'scared stiff' and 'missing in action.'"
Not surprisingly, the heel's attacks prompted a defense of the heretofore vilified attorney general. On August 23, 2018, the Washington Times quoted Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) as stating: "We have a great deal of respect for Attorney General Sessions. We've known him personally ... and I can tell you that he is the right man for the job." Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn stated, "I think it would be bad for the country, it would be bad for the president, it would be bad for the Department of Justice for [Sessions] to be forced out under these circumstances," according to the Huffington Post on August 23, 2018.
The Tennessean reported on August 24, 2018, that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) (again, no fan of the president's) "said Trump was undermining the justice system with his criticisms of Sessions. 'It just degrades our nation and it's going to have some long-term effects.'" The New American Journal (with the tagline "Truth, Justice and the American Way: Objective Journalism Based in Science, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth. We don't abide alt-facts.") published an apparent opinion piece from Glynn Wilson on August 24, 2018, headlined "Attorney General Jeff Sessions Defends Justice Department from Trump's Attempt at Political Influence". In the Washington Post on August 30, 2018, opinion columnist Catherine Rampell noted: "[T]he unlikeliest of the left's adopted underdogs is Trump's embattled U.S. attorney general."
There are still criticisms of the attorney general on immigration, particularly from the immigration judges' union, but they don't capture nearly the attention that the Trump-Sessions cage match has received.
Again, perhaps I'm reading too much into the actions and statements of the president. Perhaps perception is reality, and the American people elected a man with poor self-control to be their leader.
It is notable, however, that President Trump appointed Linda McMahon, the former CEO of the WWE as the administrator of the Small Business Administration.
And that then-businessman Donald Trump squared off (through proxies) with McMahon's husband, Vince (the "boss, big cheese, head honcho, high muck-a-muck, top dog, man upstairs, taskmaster, ringleader and kingpin" of the WWE, according to that business' website) in February 2007's "Battle of the Billionaires". The loser had to get his head shaved. Trump won.
And that Trump entered the WWE Hall of Fame well before he became president, in 2013.
The mid-term election is nine weeks away. Let's get ready to rumble.