In April 2007, Kenny McIntosh, a 22-year-old pro wrestling fan, turned up at Ford Field in Detroit with a couple of friends for WrestleMania XXIII, which was shaping up to be the biggest wrestling event of all time.
They were part of a crowd of 80,103 spectators, an all-time attendance record for the stadium that shattered the existing WrestleMania records for box office ($5.38 million worth) and pay-per-view buys (1.2 million). The arena setup boasted 414 LED video screens, 56 searchlights and 35 stage flamethrowers spurting flames 30 feet high, and the event kicked off with Aretha Franklin singing “America the Beautiful.”
Perhaps most spectacularly of all, it featured Donald Trump knocking one of the most prominent figures in pro wrestling to the ground and giving him a solid thumping.
“When that happened, everyone was on their feet,” McIntosh told me recently. “It was one of the bigger pops of the night from the crowd.”
Trump’s association with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) dates back to the 1980s, when WrestleManias IV and V were “hosted” by the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City (the actual venue was the adjacent Atlantic City Conventional Hall). In a WrestleMania promo at the time, Hulk Hogan declared Trump a “Hulkamaniac.”
But 2007 was the year that Donald J. Trump went from being a figure on the periphery to a regular and commanding presence in the squared circle.
For Court Bauer, a WWE writer, Trump’s success in the pro wrestling arena exceeded all expectations. “It wasn’t a professional wrestler like The Rock that broke the record for box office and pay-per-view all time,” he said. “It was Donald Trump versus [WWE CEO] Vince McMahon—two guys in their mid-50s, with their hair on the line. Wow. Two guys in suits. It’s really shocking when you think about it. But that’s wrestling.”
With his collection of startling ties, repertoire of dyspeptic smirks and hovering fur cloud of hair, Trump fit right into that atmosphere of perpetual one-upmanship and theatrical ultra-violence.
And the crowd loved him. For some in the audience at WrestleMania XXIII—including McIntosh’s companions—Trump was the biggest attraction of the night. “It really piqued their interest, and was by far the most invested my friends were throughout the show,” McIntosh said. “As soon as the graphic for ‘Battle of the Billionaires’ came up, they were on the edge of their seats. In terms of booking a special attraction type of match, WWE nailed it.”
Even when Trump met a cooler reception, as happened at his induction into the celebrity wing of the WWE Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden in 2013, Trump was unfazed. Introducing him to a chorus of boos, McMahon remarked: “I think he knows exactly what he’s getting himself into.”
“You go to into an environment where pro wrestling fans want pro wrestling and you’re a celebrity, you don’t necessarily receive a hero’s welcome every time,” Bauer said. “Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. He was never rattled by it. He had incredible poise. He didn’t blink. And I see a lot of those things at play today.”
While Trump is yet to resort to physically smacking around his foes and adversaries in the current presidential battle royal, he himself has noted the similarities between politics and the WWE. Pro wrestler and WrestleMania XXIII contender John Cena has weighed in too: “It seems like at least this year around they’re studying our playbook.”
“There are some interesting parallels between pro wrestling and politics,” said Bauer. “It’s theatre—just a different type of theatre. It’s got some of that same DNA in it. It seems almost like it was a testing ground for him.”
Donald Trump’s metamorphosis from mere businessman to full-blown celebrity took off in the 1980s. In 1981, with Trump Tower literally on the rise in New York City, People Magazine called Trump “tall, fair, and movie-star handsome.” By the end of the year, they were comparing him to Alexander the Great. “He is not the newest TV heartthrob but the latest star in the high-stakes world of New York real estate. His aim: ‘to put a little show business into the profession.’”
The same year as the first People puff piece, Trump appeared on the sitcom The Jeffersons. This was followed, in the 90s, by cameos on The Nanny, Spin City, Sex and the City, The Drew Carey Show, Suddenly Susan and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (The claim on IMDb that Trump makes an uncredited appearance as a character named Daniel Ray McLeech in a 1998 episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, would appear to be false.)
He has graced the big screen nearly as often—Ghosts Can’t Do It, The Associate, Zoolander, Two Weeks Notice, a deleted scene from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps—but is probably most remembered for directing Kevin McAllister to the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and sharing his plans to buy St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Woody Allen’s Celebrity (“Well, I’m working on buying St. Patrick’s Cathedral, maybe doing a little rip-down job and putting up a very very tall and beautiful building”).
This is to say nothing of television spots for Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.
Documentary filmmaker and Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris has a theory: “I think he just likes the attention.” Spheeris directed Trump in The Little Rascals, in which he played father to the character of Waldo, the spoiled brat.
“If you’ve been on movie sets, what happens is people are very sort of tippy-toe, and don’t want to disturb anybody, they don’t know which way to walk, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh I hope I’m not interrupting.’ OK—think of the total opposite of that, because that’s the way Donald entered the set.”
The Apprentice producer Bill Pruitt—in defiance of “a Bible-thick NDA”—told me “Trump was as big a narcissistic pig while doing The Apprentice as he’s ever been.” Pruitt has come to regret his own part in the aggrandizement of the Trump name. “Producers like myself helped give him a platform and become a more successful public figure by surrounding him with well-told stories that appealed to thirty million viewers. We are in the hero-making business … We needed the Trump brand to be massive so we sold him like a shiny new car and viewers bought it. The Trump name was firmly placed by the NBC/Burnett team on the Thursday primetime schedule just as prominently as it was on casinos and skyscrapers, golf courses and fake universities.”
A key element of NBC’s pro-Trump campaign was televisual cross-promotion. In between episodes of the fourth season of The Apprentice in 2005, Trump made a cameo on NBC’s Days of Our Lives. “I’m thrilled that Donald Trump will be guest starring on Days of our Lives,” said Sheraton Kalouria, senior vice-president of NBC Daytime, in a statement. “He intimately knows drama from his many business ventures to his weekly boardrooms on The Apprentice.”
On the episode, Trump visits the fictional town of Salem and sticks around long enough to be propositioned by Nicole, one of the show’s resident schemers. “I think you’ll find that I’m a very willing employee,” she tells him. “Working under you, I think, could be mutually beneficial.” The following Saturday, NBC’s Saturday Night Live spoofed the Days of Our Lives appearance with Darrell Hammond impersonating Donald Trump impersonating Marlon Brando.
A little more than a year later, a series of appearances was planned for Trump on an altogether sweatier brand of soap opera—the WWE, whose high-octane theatrics were an even better fit for the Trump brand. NBC had close ties with WWE, with Monday Night RAW airing on the NBC-owned USA Network and, at the time, an arrangement that NBC would air at least two 90-minute WWE specials a year.
More importantly, Trump and WWE CEO Vince McMahon were friends and kindred spirits. “They were both very aggressive in their worlds, masters of the universe in their worlds, very into branding, very nouveau riche,” said Bauer. “There was a lot they had in common.”
Hatched simply as a blatant, extended NBC-WWE cross-promotional stunt, Trump’s involvement turned out to be a gift for the WWE writing team. They relished the chance to integrate the Trump persona into their toy-box of outsize characters. “He’s a larger than life character himself,” said Chris DeJoseph, another writer for WWE. “The team didn’t find it too difficult to write stuff for Donald. He’s such a big character and a part of pop culture: a tough, over-the-top businessman who doesn’t hold anything back or pull any punches.”
The breakthrough for the writers was the realization that Trump was a natural adversary and foil for McMahon, whose own on-screen WWE persona—the loathsome billionaire—was already distinctly Trump-like. “It was an interesting dynamic to have these two mega-rich egomaniacs go at it,” said Bauer. “Whatever opportunity we had, we’d always use him.”
WWE seemed to understand Trump better, and make better use of him, than any of his other film and television appearances. Where the Days of Our Lives version of Trump made a “generous donation” to the Horton Foundation, the WWE incarnation of Trump made it literally rain money in the arena. (Fake or one-dollar banknotes are used for such moments, Bauer informed me. It’s a $3,000–$5,000 stunt, at most.)
In marked contrast to what was, according to Bill Pruitt, Trump’s abhorrent behavior while shooting The Apprentice, he was a willing and agreeable presence behind the scenes of the WWE. “He played right along,” said wrestler Bobby Lashley. “He said, ‘I can play whatever guys you want me to play to the best of my ability.’ And that’s what he did.”
Bauer agreed: “He didn’t have any issues with anything we wrote for him. He would actually recommend taking things a step further sometimes.”
Not that his patience was unlimited: after submitting to a few filmed takes of a dressing room skit, Trump decided he’d had enough. “You got what you got,” he said, and left.
“That was an example of something that wouldn’t fly with anyone else,” said DeJoseph.
On a January 2007 episode of RAW, wrestler Ace Steel donned a crude Donald Trump costume and wig and tussled with a Rosie O’Donnell lookalike, a tasteless spectacle greeted with unanimous scornful boos from the audience. (Bauer himself said he had “scrubbed that from my brain for nearly a decade.”)
When, later in the month, Donald Trump showed up on RAW again to kick off the feud with McMahon, the reception was quite different. The moment he began speaking, there could be no doubt he was the real deal:
“Let me put it very simply, Vince. I’m taller than you. I’m better looking than you. I think I’m stronger than you. And I’m here to challenge you to a match in WrestleMania … That’s right.”
“Wait a minute. I know you had an ego but I didn’t know it was that big. Come on. You want to challenge me to a match in WrestleMania?”
“Absolutely right. One hundred per cent. I will kick your ass.”
Cheers erupted from the audience.
In WWE, dialogue-driven, pantomimic scenes such as this are scripted in detail and rehearsed in the arena a few hours before the doors are opened to the public. Performers are also allowed free rein to improvise according to established parameters—Trump included.
“He was exceptional in that capacity,” said Bauer. “Being able to ad lib. Being able to read and manipulate the crowd. That’s the key to pro wrestling. When he enters the room he reads it, and you can sense that he’s adjusting—What kind of a climate am I entering into? What do I have to do here? He knows how to charm and he knows how to instigate. He has a lot of tools on his belt as a carpenter of sorts within show business.
“You see the parallels today with what he’s doing in politics. The same things apply: whip a crowd into a frenzy and convert that energy into support.”
Trump was remarkably unfazed even when, in another episode of RAW, “Texas Rattlesnake” Stone Cold Steve Austin got up in his face. (“I’ve done my research,” Austin said. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re worth one billion dollars. Two billion dollars. Three billion dollars. Four billion dollars. Five billion dollars. Six billion dollars. Seven billion dollars. Eight billion dollars. You piss me off, I’ll open up an eight billion-dollar can of whoop-ass and serve it to you.”)
But by then, Trump had proved himself able to taunt, trash-talk and trade prurient remarks with the best of them, telling McMahon: “Your grapefruits are no match for my Trump Towers.” (McMahon came up with the line.)
In the storyline, McMahon and Trump agreed to each select a surrogate to wrestle on their behalf. It would be, as WWE commentator Jerry Lawler shrieked, “The Battle of the Billionaires.” Trump raised the stakes further, declaring a Luchas de Apuestas, or “gambling fight”: whoever’s wrestler lost would have his head shaved bald.
“All right! How many you people want to see a hair match between McMahon and Trump?!”
Apparently everyone did. What’s more, they wanted Trump to win—as evidenced in the chants of “Don-ald! Don-ald!” as he made his his entrance to the Apprentice theme song on the arms of two beautiful women. With McMahon applying himself whole-heartedly to the role of the heel, or villain, Trump was carefully arranged to be the audience favorite.
“There’s a few different types of villain in wrestling,” said Bauer. “There’s the bully, the chicken-shit villain, there’s the cheater, the schemer—all the tropes you find in any form of entertainment and TV, you find in pro wrestling. Trump is the disruptor. It’s also what he is in the Republican party. In the WWE he came in and disrupted the status quo, disrupted the management, coming in saying he was a better boss. He came in and did that straight talk, that blue-collar stuff. He wasn’t pandering for cheers or anything. But because a lot of people didn’t like who he was going against, they got behind him.”
Bobby “The Dominator” Lashley was “ecstatic,” he told me, when he got the news he’d be fighting for Trump. “I knew he was going to bring a tremendous amount of attention at a point in my career when I could use a boost,” he said. “He was bringing a whole different fan base to watch the show. That was cool for us.”
The “Battle of the Billionaires” storyline led to one of the more surreal scenes in the history of WWE: Donald Trump in the ring with Vince McMahon, Bobby Lashley and the “Samoan Bulldozer” Umaga (signature move: high-speed thumb thrust to his opponent’s throat), while groin-stomping Stone Cold Steve Austin energized the audience with a follicular-themed rant.
“Someone’s gonna get a haircut. I’m not talking about a flat top. I’m not talking about a buzz cut. I’m not not talking about a crew cut. No one’s getting ‘a little off the top’ and no one’s getting their damn ears lowered. Someone’s gonna get their head shaved bald at WrestleMania—and that’s the bottom line, ’cause Stone Cold said so.”
When Trump picked a fight with McMahon—at one point actually going, “You want some? You want some? Come on up here. Come on up, Vince. You want some? Let’s go”—it wasn’t all schoolyard bloviating and big-talk. To the astonishment of audiences, and the glee of the WWE crew, Trump wasn’t shy about getting physical for the role.
Each time things took a turn for the violent, it happened the same way: Trump would seethe and stew and suddenly ignite. On RAW, he shoved McMahon in the chest, sending all 248 pounds of him in an Olympic backwards somersault towards the canvas. At the WrestleMania XXIII press conference at Trump Tower in New York in the lead-up to the main event, Trump abruptly walloped McMahon in the face, seemingly bringing a halt to proceedings.
But these outbursts were tame compared to what unfolded ringside in Detroit for WrestleMania XXIII. Incensed by how the Umaga and Lashley match was progressing, and cheered on by his personal posse of Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe, Trump snapped. He ran and crash-tackled the flabbergasted McMahon, pinned him to the ground and thumped him repeatedly in the skull.
More than 80,000 spectators simultaneously lost it. Trump got up, smoothed his marshmallow-colored tie—his hair still perfectly in place—and strode away, leaving McMahon clutching his face. Of all his time in the WWE spotlight, he had never looked more in his element. Lawler howled into his commentator’s mic: “The hostile takeover! Of Donald Trump! On Vince McMahon! Has happened! At WrestleMania! Twenty-three!”
McIntosh described the feeling in Ford Field at that moment as one of “sheer awe.”
“I genuinely thought there was a zero per cent of Trump getting physically involved,” he said. “It never dawned on me that he’d rugby tackle Vince McMahon.”
With Lashley emerging victorious against Umaga, Trump’s hour of follicular domination finally arrived. He personally took to the bewildered McMahon’s scalp with a clipper, then a razor and a theatrical glob of shaving foam, seeming to relish his part in the grotesque kabuki as the crowd cheered on.
As with everything else in the storyline, of course, this conclusion was predestined.
“It was decided day one that someone was going to lose their hair and it was never going to be Donald,” said Bauer. “I don’t think there was even a discussion. It was an idea that had been on Vince McMahon’s mind for years, and he finally said, ‘If I’m going to do it, this is the time to do it.’”
DeJoseph told me that Trump had been nervous about the possibility of getting double-crossed at WrestleMania—worrying that it was his scalp destined for the razor. “He had to be assured it wouldn’t be a Detroit Screwjob situation.” (Bauer refuted that version of events, assuring me that, actually, Trump never showed any signs of unease: “A lot of people in wrestling like to color up a story and make it sound outrageous,” he said.)
But Trump wasn’t let entirely off the hook. Steve Austin, for his own grand finale, unleashed his devastating signature finishing move, the Stone Cold Stunner—a maneuver with which he has ceremoniously dispatched everyone from The Rock to Santa Claus—on just about everyone left standing. That included Trump, whom Austin dealt a swift kick in the vicinity of his groin, clutched in a jaw-breaking facelock and hauled headlong towards the ground.
As Austin told Men’s Journal recently, that coup de théâtre had only been dreamed up that day. With no rehearsal, Austin had “literally five seconds” to advise Trump on how to sell the choreography.
Truth be told, Trump was less persuasive in the role of casualty, seemingly losing confidence mid-fall and snatching at the air and Austin before falling turtle-like and helpless onto his back. The rapid switching of camera angles only does so much to disguise the awkward inelegance of the moment.
Asked to assess Trump’s handling of the Stunner, Lashley just laughed. “Well, it’s hard. It takes years to be a professional wrestler. You bring someone up to the ring and show them some moves, they’re not going to take it like I take it. But it went over really well.” No longer part of the WWE, Lashley only has fond memories of WrestleMania XXIII—not only because Trump tried to set him up with Miss America. “That particular match and everything that was going on with that match was an incredible experience.”
Trump earned the lasting respect of the Texas Rattlesnake too.
“[I]t wasn’t the greatest Stunner in the world but I give Donald Trump a lot of credit and respect for doing something like that that he didn’t have to do,” Austin said. “I had no idea back then that he would be a candidate to be President of the United States.”
“If you had bet me $100 in 2007 that Donald Trump would have taken a Stunner, I’d have taken that bet and lost my money,” said McIntosh.
Apart from the other records broken that night in 2007, WrestleMania XXII was also, at the time, the largest gathering of Donald Trump supporters ever. “You have to hand it to him,” said McIntosh. “When he signed up, he went all in. As a spectator, you can’t ask for much more than that.” McIntosh and his friends departed Ford Field late that night having been thoroughly entertained, the arena-filling chants of “Don-ald! Don-ald!” just a fading, happy memory.
An edited version of this story appeared on Thrillist in 2016.