Every Friday night, good collided with evil in Calgary, Alberta. It was a preacher’s kid who turned me on to Stampede Wrestling in the 1960s. I was riveted. Especially when Archie (The Stomper) Gouldie launched into one of his patented tirades.
Ratings soared when the Stomper got into an ongoing beef with Stu Hart, the retired wrestler who owned and promoted Stampede Wrestling. One of The Stomper’s rants shocked me. The brute had broken the promoter’s arm a few days earlier, and he was just getting started.
“Stu Hart,” The Stomper roared, “I know where you live. And I’m gonna come to your house. And I’m gonna rip it down, brick-by-brick. And I’m gonna stomp your kids. And then I’m gonna take your sweet wife, Helen, and piledrive her into the sidewalk while you look on like a helpless little baby.”
Stu Hart’s 11-year-old son, Bret, was selling programs at the Stampede Corral the night Archie issued this threat. The boy was terrified. A few days later, the doorbell rang at the Hart home. It was The Stomper. Bret was surprised to see his mother open the door and invite a smiling Archie Gouldie into the kitchen for coffee.
That’s how Bret (The Hitman) Hart was inducted into the secret world of Kayfabe. In the 1960s, the scripted nature of professional wrestling was still a carefully guarded secret. When The Stomper supposedly broke Stu Hart’s arm in the ring, the promoter kept a cast beside the door in case he had an uninitiated visitor. In public, everybody in the wrestling business stayed in character.
Stone Cold Steve Austin
By the time Bret Hart made the big move from Stampede Wrestling to the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-1990s, Kayfabe was on life support. The pyrotechnic stunts wrestlers were performing were spectacular, but they could only be pulled off with the active cooperation of both wrestlers, and it showed. The advent of the internet soon would drive a stake through the heart of Kayfabe.
But wrestling was still a conflict between good and evil. There were “baby faces” (good guys) and there were “heels” (bad guys), and you didn’t have to guess which was which.
By the late 1990s, the WWF was rapidly losing market share to competing promotions, and all the wrestlers were adopting new personas, or “gimmicks.” Steve Austin shaved his head, grew a goatee and added “Stone Cold” to his name. Vince McMahon, the owner of WWF, wanted Austin to “turn heel.” The transformation was scripted to happen at the King of the Ring event where Austin was to utterly destroy an aging Jake the Snake Roberts. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had forced Roberts into an early retirement. But after he found Jesus, he sobered up and launched a comeback. Calling the audience to repentance and quoting Scripture became Jake the Snake’s new gimmick.
As a humiliated Roberts hobbled to the dressing room, Stone Cold Steve Austin ascended a makeshift throne to be interviewed by an announcer. “The first thing I want to be done is to get that piece o’ crap outta my ring!” Austin screamed. The crowd booed lustily.
Stone Cold decided to kick things up a notch.
“You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere!” Austin sneered. “Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16. Well, Austin 3:16 says, ‘I just whipped your ass!’”
The crowd went berserk. Before long, 10 million “Austin 3:16” T-shirts had been sold and Stone Cold’s feuds with Bret Hart and WWF owner Vince McMahon were packing huge arenas from coast to coast.
Stone Cold Steve Austin was a beer-swilling bad boy who didn’t take any crap from anybody.
“Give me a ‘hell yeah’ if you wanna see me lay a stunner on Mr. McMahon’s ass today,” he would hell. “Hell yeah,” the crowd roared back. Stone Cold was neither a heel nor a babyface. He was an anti-hero with a simple message: “I am your retribution.”
Trump and professional wrestling
From his earliest days, Donald J. Trump has been a big wrestling fan. In the 1980s, Trump hosted WrestleMania (McMahon’s yearly extravaganza) at his Atlantic City hotel. McMahon became the closest thing to a friend Trump had known since the infamous Roy Cohn died in 1986. Trump’s “you’re fired!” gimmick line from The Apprentice was actually stolen from the heel McMahon played in the ring.
In 2007, the future president of these United States challenged Vince McMahon to a wrestling match. The loser had to let the winner shave his head. The two men were represented in the ring by wrestler-surrogates. They called it “The Battle of the Billionaires.”
By this time, Stone Cold Steve Austin was in semi-retirement. Pro wrestling is scripted, but the stunts can be physically taxing and many wrestlers are on the road 300 days a year. But the Stone Cold brand was still hot, so McMahon invited Austin to serve as celebrity referee.
The entire show was designed to feed the crowd’s carefully orchestrated desire to see “Mr. McMahon” get what was coming to him. Trump was even allowed to body slam McMahon onto the concrete floor outside the ring and to pummel him with faux punches. With McMahon’s surrogate defeated, Trump beamed lasciviously as he wielded the clippers and razor.
Trump played his role to the hilt, even agreeing to allow Stone Cold to deck him with his patented “stunner” as the event’s coup de grace. The event made so much money for McMahon that he made a $5 million contribution to Trump’s fraudulent foundation a year later (more on that in a minute).
Wrestling and popular religion
Fortunately for Trump’s political ambitions, evangelical preachers are keen students of popular culture, and that definitely includes pro wrestling. Dozens of aging wrestlers have come to Jesus in their golden years, and megachurches will pay good money to hear their testimonies. Jake the Snake did the preaching circuit before he relapsed.
A few years ago, Ed Young, pastor of the multi-campus Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, interviewed four famous wrestlers on successive Sundays. Young even built a faux wrestling ring at the front of the church. The story was always the same: fame, temptation, drunken debauchery, infidelity, drug addiction, rock bottom, Jesus, salvation, praise the Lord. Young introduced 6-foot-10, 300-pound Mark William Calaway, better known as “The Undertaker,” to the crowd in a very convincing WWE announcer’s voice.
“Megachurch preachers culled important lessons from pro wrestling.”
Megachurch preachers culled important lessons from pro wrestling. The folks showing up for worship on Sunday morning weren’t that different from the audience at WrestleMania. Stone Cold Steve Austin fans had no beef with John 3:16, per se; but Austin 3:16 got their blood pumping. The cheek-turning Jesus was out; the ass-whipping Jesus was in. Which is why Ed Young was so excited to have The Undertaker sitting across from him. He confessed he could hardly contain himself.
Everything is fake
If wrestling is fake violence; porn is fake sex. Megachurch preachers are free to profess their love for WWE wrestling; but any form of non-marital sex is a non-starter within the evangelical community. Porn is viewed as a virulent form of cancer spreading rapidly through the body of Christ. For a politician with Trump’s reputation, this posed a problem.
Trump’s association with pornography is as well-established as his ties to pro wrestling. He once appeared on the cover of Playboy and was a regular at Hugh Hefner’s famous mansion. He had an affair with Playboy Bunny, Karen McDougal, and everybody knows about both his evening with Stormy Daniels and his attempt to keep it from the public. Trump has even been dubbed “The Porn President.” How do Christians who claim to love marriage and hate porn vote for such a man?
Trump’s followers don’t reason their way to a justification of his salacious past. Given their core commitments, neither Trump’s behavior nor his stated opinions can be justified. But Trump’s long association with pro wrestling taught him an important lesson: If you can tap into the deepest, darkest desires of your audience, you don’t have to make sense. Give the people what they want, and they will suspend disbelief just enough to enjoy the show. If you are giving an audience something it can’t find anywhere else, people will give you the benefit of the doubt.
“Trump’s followers don’t reason their way to a justification of his salacious past.”
Wrestling taught Trump a second lesson: If everything is fake, there are no heroes. Deep down, everybody is motivated by a lust for violence, revenge, sleazy sex, personal advancement and power. Those things are real. Some may claim to be motivated by higher aspirations: humility, love, compassion, forgiveness, and a thirst for justice and reconciliation. That’s all fake. Trump doesn’t buy it.
In Trump’s world, when prosecutors hand down indictments, they are out to punish and humiliate their enemies. Fifty years of constant litigation have taught the ex-president to distrust the words inscribed on the façade of the Supreme Court building. There is no equal justice under law. Those with the deepest pockets and a willingness to play the long game prevail. Those with lots of moral integrity but little money will lose. No one really cares about abstract ideas like “justice” or “the rule of law.” The courts are simply one more way to screw your opponents.
Trump doesn’t just think this way; he encourages his followers to agree with him. It’s working.
McMahon’s fall from grace
On June 15, 2022, the WWE board revealed that Vince McMahon was the subject an internal investigation. It eventually came to light that the wrestling promoter had misappropriated more than $20 million over the years, including the money he donated to Trump’s Foundation and at least $14.6 million in hush money payments to various female employees. McMahon stepped down as chairman and CEO and repaid the money he had misappropriated.
But Vince McMahon, like Trump, has a gift for turning apparent disaster to his advantage. A few months after his resignation, he was back in charge at WWE and its parent company, TKO group. It was as if he never left.
Then, on January 25, 2024, a lawsuit was filed against McMahon accusing him of “physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault and trafficking.” Janel Grant is alleging that, between 2019 and 2022, McMahon forced her to engage in sex, trafficked her to others, and made pornographic videos of her against her will.
Vince McMahon denies these allegations, but he has severed all ties to WWE and TKO group. He likely didn’t have much choice in the matter. Professional wrestlers always insist they are not the characters they play in the ring. Is that true of Vince McMahon? As Abraham Riesman asserts in Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, persona and person have gradually merged.
The same can obviously be said of McMahon’s friend Donald Trump and for the holy host of megachurch pastors who have embraced the ex-president as their champion. Perhaps without realizing it, they have gradually adopted his nihilistic philosophy. They hoped he would be their retribution; he has become their reputation.
Alan Bean serves as executive director of Friends of Justice. He is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.