Calculated Controversy: The Origins of Donald Trump’s Pugilistic Political Persona

 “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”- Oscar Wilde


Alright. Before we begin, I’m going to take a moment to acknowledge that for some of you, this hasn’t been the best month of your life. Maybe you’ve been attempting a detox of political content in the wake of what has to have been the most highly publicised, polarising, often shocking and ultimately paradigm-shifting political cycle in my own lifetime at least. So rest assured, whether you’re a beleaguered liberal stumbling, bleary-eyed, towards the Trump inauguration, wondering what just happened, or a conservative trying to enjoy their victory whilst half of your friends seem to have the end of the world marked in their calendars on January 20th, this post isn’t going after you. I’m not interested in post-fact political point scoring or signalling my own positions here. What I’m going to attempt is an analysis of what was the driving force behind so much of the election coverage from America this past year: The Trump Persona.

Love him or hate him (and the reaction he gets on social media suggests you’re either in one camp or the other), the Trump effect on the media during the race was very real. Every word the then-candidate uttered was hung on, by supporters and detractors alike. While his fans reveled in the unconventional bombast of Trump’s rhetoric, his opposition were similarly ensnared, searching, dissecting and hoping for the slip up that would stymie a politician who was seemingly exempt from the normal rules of engagement, one who’s entire campaign, being based on a foundation of saying that which no other serious politician could get away with saying. The effect of this, combined in the General Election with Hillary Clinton’s campaign allowing comparatively sparing  exposure to the media for their candidate, was that Trump successfully made the election about himself. It is impossible to overstate how much this exposure must have aided the Trump campaign. It allowed them to drive the direction of the media news cycle, even as they criticised the media’s biases. In the world of American round-the-clock cable news channels such as Fox and CNN, the ability to dominate the 24 hour news cycle is the key to political self promotion, and it took Donald Trump from what was considered a joke candidacy to a very real presidency.

This polarizing, controversial approach to self-promotion may seem to be an unprecedented phenomenon in the modern political arena.However, there is an arena in which Trump’s strategy may seem more at home, and it’s located in the heart of Trump’s own home city of New York: Madison Square Garden. In a move that may have facilitated his campaign’s growth and eventual success, Donald Trump took to the political game with a strategy from the fight game. To anyone familiar with the publicity-seeking theatrics that fighters in sports such as boxing, or more recently mixed martial arts, have indulged in, Trump’s courting of controversy, and his entire combative persona, seemed familiar.


Perhaps the archetypal example of this approach is The Greatest himself, The Louisville Lip, the late Muhammad Ali. Although politically, it would seem that there was a vast gulf between the positions of the former champion and the future president, they were similar in one key area: the sales pitch. While Ali is eulogised as a universally beloved and charismatic figure, it bears remembering that in his time, Ali himself was a polarising, outspoken figure, roundly criticised in media circles for his conduct. His controversial conduct attracted many detractors as well as fans, but all the while, Ali’s profile rose, affording him more money, fame, and opportunities. It was Ali’s own braggadocious, outrageous, and often outright insulting rhetoric that garnered this attention, calling opponents everything from “bum”, to “embarrassment” to “ugly little man”. One could just as easily imagine the Trumpian epithets of “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” coming in Ali’s trademark Kentucky drawl as in his own New York variant. The attention-grabbing, polarising “draw” of Ali and Trump was essentially the same, half of the people would tune in to see Ali victorious, the other to see him humbled. Regardless of their intent, their attention turned boxing in to The Muhammad Ali Show, and catapulted him to worldwide popularity. Both Trump and Ali perceived this simple truth; that nothing creates a platform like controversy.

Ali Iconic.jpg

This polarisation-promotion tactic has been used to great effect throughout the history of professional fight promotion. Ali himself is on record as saying that his public persona was inspired by the early professional wrestler, “Gorgeous” George Wagner. Furthermore, in an example that brings this idea a little closer to home as an Irish person, perhaps the purest modern equivalent of the Ali strategy comes out of Crumlin, Dublin.


Conor McGregor, the mixed-martial-arts sensation whose trash-talking persona earned him what Forbes estimates to be 22 million dollars in 2016 alone, takes clear inspiration from the Ali brand of self-promotion. Perhaps poignantly, McGregor most recently made headlines with a championship in Madison Square Garden, where the late Ali fought so many times. Three days earlier, Donald Trump won his upset electoral victory, and introduced politics to the full potential of what could be considered the most successful self-promotional model in modern history.

Eat your words!… I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I’m so great I don’t have a mark on my face. I shook up the world” – Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, to the ringside press after defeating Sonny Liston to capture his first World Heavyweight Title, 1964.


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