Trump steals page from the WWE playbook
“The past does not have to define the future,” Donald Trump said at a news conference in Singapore following his historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. “Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. And as history has proven over and over again, adversaries can become friends.”
Such banal statements — obvious to anyone who’s been in a schoolyard — no doubt serve a rhetorical purpose, and the first- ever meeting between a U. S. president and a member of the Kim dictatorial clan no doubt merited some high rhetoric. But if Trump really believes it, then he apparently also believes the corollary: today’s accord doesn’t have to be tomorrow’s peace, and old friends can become enemies, too.
Not quite such a cheery thought, eh? But it seems to define the new U. S. foreign relations posture. To other world leaders — as well as investors trying to gauge geopolitical risk in the Age of Trump — what must be especially unsettling is the speed and apparent caprice with which he makes friends out of old enemies and enemies out of old friends.
Let’s do a quick recap. Kim, who has had members of his own family assassinated and enslaves his own people ( a point Trump himself made only a few months ago), is suddenly “very talented” and bargaining “in good faith.” Meanwhile, the President baffles G- 7 leaders by urging them to readmit Russia, despite its meddling in the U. S. election and its ongoing illegal occupation of Crimea, which got it kicked out of the club in the first place.
On the other hand, Justin Trudeau becomes the target for an intemperate and insulting Twitter attack, while Canada — a military and economic ally, and a neighbour — is deserving of tariffs on aluminum and steel and maybe automobiles on the grounds of “national security.” And Trump gives Kim a major concession — halting military exercises on the Korean peninsula — without even consulting South Korea or his own Pentagon.
Enemy is friend; friend is enemy.
The dichotomy hasn’t been lost on Canadians, nor on other U. S. allies. The question is why. For more than 70 years, the U. S. has led efforts to build and maintain a model for western- power relations, one that’s not perfect but that works. So why tear it up now? Why impose unjustified trade barriers, bad- mouth his country’s friends and embrace bad actors like Kim and Vladimir Putin? What’s the new model? Is there one? There is: professional wrestling. OK, OK. But don’t laugh. Just entertain the possibility that Trump learned a lot during his long relationship with wrestling maven Vince McMahon and the WWE, one that goes back 30 years.
As far as I know, Trump is the only U. S. president who’s been honoured with a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame. Back in the 2000s, he participated in a couple of phony rivalries with McMahon, who’s actually a close friend — so close that Trump appointed his wife, Linda, to head up his Small Business Administration. ( If you want the details on Trump’s WWE history, Aaron Oster’s piece in Rolling Stone is required reading.)
So what’s the similarity? Well, in pro wrestling, the contenders fall into two groups: babyfaces and heels. Babyfaces are the good guys, who stick to the rules and honour alliances. Heels are the villains, who cheat and lie and turn on their “friends.” In the old days, faces got the cheers and heels got the boos, but in today’s “sport” it’s not that simple. The faces routinely turn “bad,” or are portrayed as naïve suckers, while heels are often beloved by wrestling fans. Good is bad. Bad is good.
The point is, give the people what they want — and they want confrontation, conflict and chaos. The “rules,” such as they are, only apply insofar as they provide entertainment value.
Maybe we’re now seeing the ethos of wrestling applied on the global stage — Trump playing heel and babyface in turns, and in different areas, so as to keep the audience ( his base) entertained. The trouble is that in wrestling everyone is in on the game; when Trump plays heel to Angela Merkel’s babyface, she has no idea what the hell is going on.
This is not to say diplomatic chaos can’t yield benefits. If Trump can actually get North Korea to disarm, then great. But getting anything done might not actually be the point. I would be shocked if the Trump- Kim détente lasts more than a few weeks; I would also expect the Trump- Trudeau feud ( one- sided as it is) to dissipate. There will a new rivalry, or a new love affair, to take their places soon enough.
Yet there will be more damage, and not just to the western alliance. Other players are strengthening. Russia must love Europe’s growing alienation with the U. S., but China might be the bigger winner. The cancellation of U. S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula — along with Trump calling them “provocative,” which is Pyongyang’s preferred word for them — is already a big win; if it foreshadows U. S. withdrawal from South Korea, which Trump said was his long- term goal, it will increase China’s influence in the region exponentially. In the context of the broader landscape — as Xi Jinping manoeuvres to fill the vacuum left by the abdication of U. S. leadership on economic cooperation and trade liberalism — this week’s love- in with Kim has to be seen as a victory for China.
So Trump is playing Monday Night Raw. And Xi is playing chess. Who do you think will win?
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, centre, held by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, prepares to have his hair cut off by Donald Trump, left, and Bobby Lashley, right, after Lashley defeated Umaga at Wrestlemania 23 at Ford Field in Detroit in 2007. Is Trump’s experience as a WWE villain influencing his foreign policy?