Governance by spectacle? Trump taps WWE's Linda McMahon to head SBA.

The president-elect has tapped a co-founder of the WWE for his latest cabinet pick. His campaigning-by-spectacle may become governing-by-spectacle.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Passersby look at a sign advertising the reality television show, 'The Apprentice,' displayed at the entrance to the Trump Tower building in New York, March 27, 2004.

President-elect Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that he would bring on Linda McMahon, a co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE), to run the Small Business Administration for his cabinet.

In tapping her, Mr. Trump brings into the fold a fellow native of the world of mass-market spectacle, though one who has also devoted recent years to her political ambitions.

It comes in the days after Trump drew manufacturer Carrier Corp. into a standoff over its plans to close an Indianapolis plant, emerging with a deal to keep production going. And when the workers’ union leader charged that the president-elect had lied about how many jobs it would actually save, Trump lashed out at him on Twitter.

That reliance on spectacle – to drum up excitement, then harness that excitement as a kind of support – has defined Trump as a candidate, and as a real estate mogul and reality-TV star before that. But especially in light of the rejiggering of political alliances, it’s unclear whether it will lift him the way Ronald Reagan’s canniness with image did, or simply accelerate partisanship of a kind that will sink him with everyone but his base.

“He won the campaign because he’s the master of media spectacle, however crazy or entertaining,” Douglas Kellner, a philosopher in the University of California-Los Angeles’ education department who is a leading theorist on media culture, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “I think he’s going to govern in the same way.”

The appointment of McMahon, who will bring little experience at fostering businesses other than her own, could reflect her robust support of his campaign (she and her husband gave $5 million to his foundation, making her the largest outside donor, according to NBC, and she donated $6 million to a pro-Trump Super PAC).

But she also may share Trump’s view of how politics ought to be done: both McMahon and the president-elect have appeared in televised matches several times over the years. Trump himself is an inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame.

Mr. Reagan was perhaps the original modern master of presidential spectacle, particularly when it came to projections of military muscle. For example, even as antagonisms between the United States and the Soviet Union cooled throughout the 1980s and diplomatic efforts between the two sides bore more and more fruit, the Reagan White House was booming with anti-Soviet rhetoric, noted North Dakota State professor William Stodden and colleague John Hanson in a 2015 study on professional wrestling and politics.

“Interestingly, President Reagan is still given credit for being ‘tough’ on the Soviets and for being a man who knew how to beat his foe into submission,” they wrote. “His aggressive and militarized response to the Soviet Union is still seen in some political circles as being responsible for ending the Cold War.”

Well-known for his preoccupation with how he would appear when in front of the cameras, “the acting president” tended to strictly choreograph his moves. Reagan and every president since, including Obama, says Dr. Kellner, have relied on television to create spectacle. That method is a world away from Trump’s style. 

“No one’s done it off the top of their head at 5 in the morning on Twitter,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor.

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