- By B.J. Bethel
When Atlantic City legalized gambling in the mid 1970s, a young Donald Trump wanted a piece of the action.
By 1984, he opened Harrah’s at Trump Plaza with the goal of driving high-stakes (i.e. rich) gamblers to his casino. After two years and lack of profits, he realized he needed middle and working class gamblers as well.
This was the birth of Trump’s 30-year affiliation with World Wrestling Entertainment and pro wrestling. In his new book “TrumpMania,” writer Lavie Margolin, who writes covers the president’s relationship with the McMahon family, and how the real estate baron went from host, to sports entertainer, to commander-in-chief.
At just over 200 pages, it’s a fast read, but more revealing of Trump the person than Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” the best-seller that resulted from 18 months embedded with the Trump campaign, through the transition to the White House.
Trumpmania gives an overview of the friendship between Trump and WWE owner Vince McMahon. McMahon’s wife Linda heads the Small Business Administration as part of Trump’s Cabinet. The two remain close friends with similar personalities and business backgrounds. Both have appetites for headlines and the sensational. Both have been at a tabloid-level of celebrity, both wanted acceptance as part of the mainstream elite.
Both have failed at the later. Donald Trump’s dream to own an NFL team was shot down numerous times by the league’s owners. McMahon started movie studios, a failed football league (he’s also piecing together another league this year), and other ventures to get mainstream acceptance. Linda had two crushing losses in U.S. Senate races. As president, Trump may have distanced himself even further.
The book begins with Trump hosting Wrestlemania twice in 1988 and 1989. The shows were part wrestling, part commercial for Trump’s various businesses and his most important brand - himself.
Not that it was seemless. Ivana Trump, Donald’s first wife, was seated front row with her husband for Wrestlemania IV, enjoying champagne and talking to people around her. This didn’t sit well with wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who was famous for bringing a bag with a large snake to the ring. Ivana wasn’t paying attention and doing so on camera, Roberts felt the wrestlers were being disrespected, so he gave her a scare with the snake. Ivana spilled champagne on herself, was escorted backstage by security, who she asked repeatedly why they hadn’t shot the snake on sight.
Trump was said to be amused about the incident, which didn’t appear on camera.
Robert LiButti, notorious in New York circles for his Mafia connections, was ringside with his daughter as Trump’s official guests. LiButti wasn’t happy with the constant camera attention, and at one point was glaring into the lens and at the camera man live on air. Trump denied knowing LiButti or being friends with him, but his Plaza Hotel was fined $650,000 due to its relationship with LiButti, who would was often given cars by the hotel, which he then sold.
Trump’s facilities were one of the few to host the struggling UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship, mixed-martial arts promotion in the late 90s and early 2000s. Banned in most states, Atlantic City was one of the few areas which still ran UFC live events, and Trump was always front and center for the full show in his first row seat, something White and McMahon were equally grateful. UFC president Dana White attributed much of the company’s early survival to Trump during a speech at the GOP Convention last August. Trump tried his own MMA promotion in the 2000s, but only lasted a few shows.
Trumpmania is full of fun anecdotes, especially Trump’s time as a WWE character onscreen during the so-called “Battle of the Billionaires” feud in 2007, which put him against his friend Vince McMahon in a fictional battle for the rights to WWE’s top program Raw. The storyline was an effort to boost ratings for both Raw and Trump’s “The Apprentice.” The climatic ending at WrestleMania featured Trump and his handpicked representative Bobby Lashley shaving the head of McMahon in a “loser loses their hair” match, with referee and former wrestler Steve Austin participating.
Margolin wrote Trump was a good sport, taking a wrestling move from Austin after the match, even as Trump’s security vehemently disagreed with him doing it. McMahon told Trump the fans would love him taking a move, so he ignored security.
The most memorable moment was Trump, tired of McMahon’s interference as the story of the match progressed, running around the ring, tackling McMahon to the ground and pounding him in the face. WWE didn’t have time to train Trump how to throw a proper wrestling punch that would avoid hurting the opponent, so McMahon asked Trump to just punch him in the face, to keep it as real as possible. McMahon got a black eye, as did a backstage worker who worked with Trump prior to the show to set him up for the spot. The WWE locker room was surprised Trump was getting so physical given his age, and given he could break one of his hands throwing blows.
While Trump showed an eagerness to participate and play well, Margolin details some of Trump’s hypocrisies in recent years when it comes to language, professionalism and behavior.
Despite Trump’s own comments about grabbing women by their genitalia, he fired former Ms. California Carrie Prejean for scantily clad photos and for opposing same-sex marriage when asked the question during a pageant. He dismissed WWE wrestler Maria Kanelis during an episode of “Celebrity Apprentice” when she made “locker room” type remarks about a competitor using a nearby bathroom, marking her for unprofessoinal conduct and taking her off the show.
Trump’s comments, caught on audio before an interview on Access Hollywood, were dismissed by Trump ironically as locker room talk.
Most hypocritical of all, Trump’s hiring of Linda McMahon as his SBA administrator. The McMahon family, through books, DVDs and other means, have rewritten the story of how they grew their company. The McMahon’s have always claimed to be small business at heart, but the story is complete fabrication. Vince bought the company from his father in the early 1980s for four payments, using company profits to pay for three. Margolin doesn’t mention the amount, which Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer said were $250,000 in four installments for a multi-million dollar company and one of the two biggest wrestling promotions in the world.
After McMahon’s father died, Vince would take the company national and began burying smaller wrestling promotions through sheer monetary advantage. Other areas of the country didn’t share the big city payoffs the McMahon’s received in the heavily populated Northeast. McMahon’s tactics were often predatory in nature. The last competitor standing, Jim Crockett Promotions, was bought by Turner in 1988 and was eventually out of business and bought by WWE in 2001.
Linda said she and Vince took the company over when it had 13 employees, but that wasn’t counting independent contractors, which would include, on-air talent and nearly every wrestler. When the McMahon’s give advice to small business, it comes from the perspective of putting them out of business.
Trump’s 2007 storyline in WWE was where he began carving his stump style, which he used to great affect in 2016, often throwing insults at campaign opponents and mocking nicknames, much like a pro wrestler would do during interviews. Like a pro wrestler, this gave Trump supporters an almost vicarious experience, watching him tear into various politicians and the media. He was entertaining, controversial, and the media made him the story of the election. In the end he won.