First Time Farce, Second Time Tragedy?

For Minnesotans, the Donald Trump phenomenon has an air of deja vu. We have seen this play before, and it doesn’t end well.

in 1998, former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (a stage name) ran for Governor of Minnesota as an independent. He had two opponents, one strong–Norm Coleman–and one weak, Skip Humphrey. Through most of the campaign Ventura was given no chance. But as the fall wore on, his campaign took fire. It became, in essence, a fad. People who had never voted before whooped and hollered at the thought of electing a pro wrestler. College students hung Ventura banners from dormitory windows. Only in the last days before the election did polls reflect the surge in support for Ventura. To the astonishment of almost everyone, probably including Jesse, the pro wrestler was elected Governor of Minnesota.

Ventura was in some ways a formidable person. A former actor and Navy frogman, he had a commanding presence and, in the right circumstances, an undeniable charm. But the core of his appeal was that he was not a politician! Actually, that wasn’t quite true–he had served as mayor of a large working-class suburb of Minneapolis. But that wasn’t held against him. Ventura’s chief virtue, as one heard over and over from his supporters, was that he wasn’t a politician. Sadly, that turned out to be correct.

Most people assumed that Ventura was some kind of conservative. The assumption was natural, superficially speaking: who can imagine a liberal pro wrestler? Moreover, Jesse had a gruff voice, frequently said things that were politically incorrect, and was a former talk radio host. A tough guy in the ring and in films, he seemed to be the farthest thing from a liberal.

So quite a few conservatives voted for him. Once Ventura took office, however, a couple of things became apparent. First, not being a politician ceased to be as asset. Ventura had no idea what he was doing, and had to rely on his advisers for pretty much everything. Second, Ventura was not a conservative at all. On the contrary, he and his aides governed primarily as liberals. When his four-year term was up, I assessed Ventura as two-thirds Democrat and one-third Republican.

I doubt that Ventura thought of himself as a liberal, but like any politician who has no fixed ideology and who has not thought through a coherent approach to governing, he blew with the prevailing winds. And the winds–in Washington, even more than in St. Paul–always blow from the left. A non-ideologue elected to office is a liberal in training.

Ventura’s four-year term was more a disappointment than a disaster. After a year or two, no one still thought it was cool to have a pro wrestler in the governor’s mansion. Jesse found, I think, that he didn’t much like being governor. He chose not to run for a second term, and left office unlamented by anyone. In later years, he turned out to be a hopeless crank, muttering darkly about conspiracies and briefly hosting a cable television show that promoted conspiracy theories.

The Ventura fad didn’t cause Minnesota much long-term harm. But electing a president on the grounds that he says outrageous things and is not a politician! could be disastrous. Trump, like Jesse Ventura, talks in ways that we generally associate with conservatives. But to a far greater degree than Ventura, he already has taken liberal positions on a number of issues, socialized medicine being just one of many. Ventura immediately saw the kinship between himself and Trump: he has openly campaigned to be Trump’s vice-presidential nominee.

Electing pro wrestler Jesse Ventura Governor of Minnesota was a joke that was enjoyed by many, at least for a while. But electing the ill-informed buffoon Donald Trump President of the United States could be a tragedy that haunts us for generations.