Jesse Ventura – the wrestling governor who blazed a trail for Trump

  • Themes: The Lost Decade - 1990s Week on Engelsberg Ideas

The former Navy SEAL and WWE champion won Minnesota’s governorship in 1999 on an anti-elite ticket. His transition from showbiz to politics was a precursor of the age of Trump – but ’the Body’ was no ordinary populist.

Jesse Ventura speaks with Bill Clinton at the National Governors' Association Convention, 1999. Credit: Stephen Jaffe / AFP via Getty Images.
Jesse Ventura speaks with Bill Clinton at the National Governors' Association Convention, 1999. Credit: Stephen Jaffe / AFP via Getty Images

This is the story of a populist politician who emerged from the gaudy, sleazy world of casinos, gossip columns and late-night talk shows to win the support of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. To many people he seemed brash and boorish, vulgar and ignorant. To others he was the voice of the common man, articulating the hopes and anxieties of people who had long been overlooked.

His critics said he spoke without thinking. ‘You might not always like what you hear,’ he shot back, ‘but you’re gonna hear it anyway.’ Pouring scorn on Washington’s dynastic technocrats, denouncing government itself as wasteful and incompetent, he claimed to personify the will of the American people. And nothing summed him up better than his motto: ‘Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!’

This is the story, then, of Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, former Navy SEAL, bodyguard to the Rolling Stones, star of the World Wrestling Federation, supporting actor in PredatorThe Running Man and Batman & Robin – and, from 1999 to 2003, thirty-eighth governor of the state of Minnesota.

In truth, I had forgotten all about Governor Ventura’s extraordinary career until, in the strange final days of the Trump presidency, I watched Channel 4’s excellent 2017 series Trump: An American Dream, in which he plays a typically colourful supporting role. (I’ll come to that later.) But as soon as his dazzling bald head and oddly amiable scowl came into view, it all came flooding back.

I never voted for Jesse Ventura, but at the end of the 1990s I did live in Minnesota, the first, and so far, only American state to have been governed by a man who once lost three successive bouts to Hulk Hogan. At the time I was a Cambridge doctoral student, writing a PhD about another notable Minnesota politician – the former US senator Eugene McCarthy, who contested the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, effectively destroying the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. So I knew a lot about Minnesota politics, or thought I did. And to me, Ventura simply made no sense.

At most, outsiders know three things about Minnesota, the northernmost of the Midwestern states. First, it is probably the most Nordic of all American states, shaped by very high levels of Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish immigration. Its political culture feels more Nordic too: many people like hunting and own guns, but they have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1972. Second, Minnesota is generally seen as very dull – not entirely unfairly, to be honest. And third, it is widely regarded as a having a very high quality of life, as befits an American Scandinavia. It is quiet. It is peaceful. It is clean. It is – well, a bit boring.

So how could Minnesota, of all places, have voted for a wrestler? How could the home of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, famous for producing liberal icons like the vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, have voted for Jesse Ventura? What was going on?

In retrospect, of course, the Ventura episode looks like a harbinger of things to come, with the former wrestler leading the populist assault on the old establishment. But if that’s true, it raises some interesting questions about the new populism.

For one thing, there’s Ventura himself. Born James Janos in Minneapolis in 1951, he joined the Navy in 1969 and entered the wrestling world in the mid-1970s, retiring to the commentary booth ten years later. As a product of television and celebrity culture, he obviously anticipated Donald Trump. But his gubernatorial campaign played heavily on his record in the United States Navy, a staple of American political biographies. And he actually had more political experience than is often remembered, having served as mayor of Brooklyn Park – basically a suburb of Minneapolis – since 1991. In that respect, he wasn’t so different from Clint Eastwood, who served as mayor of Carmel for two years in the late 1980s – or indeed from Ronald Reagan, who had served for two terms as governor of California before he ran for president.

All this is a useful reminder that screen experience is a potent political asset. Ventura’s critics mocked him as a mere wrestler, just as Reagan’s critics always referred to him as a mere actor. But to many ordinary working-class voters, wrestling and acting are eminently admirable, lucrative, aspirational things to do. In both fields, you have to be good to get ahead: talented, disciplined, reliable. And Ventura’s job as a wrestler wasn’t just about fighting. As a member of the WWF, he was essentially playing a scripted part. He worked with directors and producers; he had to remember lines and moves; he had a stage persona to uphold, the ‘heel’ whom the crowds love to boo. In the small-screen age, that’s not so different from running for office.

But Ventura was also interesting for what he wasn’t. He wasn’t overtly ideological: he called himself ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal’, and made a virtue of his own ambiguity. Unlike Trump, he never played on racial antagonism. Today Minnesota is known across the world as the state where George Floyd was killed. But by American standards, it has relatively little history of racial discord, partly because its black population is so small: even now, less than six per cent. Nor did Ventura have a particularly strong appeal to the left-behind. In fact, Minnesota is a relatively prosperous state, the thirteenth richest in the nation. And if you look at the data, his victory in November 1998 was based on a remarkably wide, heterogeneous coalition, with his strongest showings in the suburban counties around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Whatever it was, this wasn’t working-class populism.

What was it, then? Well, one way to answer that is to look at the context. During the immediate post-war years, Minnesota had been one of the bastions of Cold War liberalism. But by the 1990s its politics, like those of the United States and indeed the Western world in general, felt increasingly manicured, managed, sapped of life and authenticity. Indeed, the 1998 gubernatorial race tells a wider story.

The Republican candidate, who finished second to Ventura, was the mayor of St. Paul, Norm Coleman, who might have been supplied by a casting agency specialising in greasy political hacks. Formerly a liberal Democrat, he had jumped ship to become the most slavish of Republicans. Best known in Britain as the senator later harangued by George Galloway, he was not exactly a man of shining principle. Today he works as – surprise! – a Washington lobbyist.

And then there were the Democrats. Their eventual candidate was one Hubert Horatio Humphrey III, known as ‘Skip’, the son of the former vice president. Among the rivals he beat for the nomination was Ted Mondale, son of another former vice president, and Mike Freeman, son of a former governor. All men, of course, are the sons of somebody. Even so, this was surely taking dynastic politics to extremes.

Against this background, why wouldn’t voters crave somebody different? Why wouldn’t they look for somebody who spoke as they did, who promised to shake up the system and say the unsayable?

This was where Ventura came in. He entered the race as the darkest of dark horses, with a budget of just $300,000. But his slogan, ‘Don’t vote for politics as usual,’ struck a chord, and his emphasis on small local events made for a stark contrast with his rivals’ televised appeals. And – very unusually – his campaign was funny. Just watch his closing advert, which is on YouTube. The camera tracks across what looks like a Greek sculpture – a naked man, athletic and muscular. ‘The Mind’ says a giant caption, while a voiceover tells us that he’ll give taxpayers a better deal and improve school standards, and that he takes no money from special interests. Then the camera pulls back. It is, of course, Jesse, ‘The Body’.

Of all political virtues, humour is the most consistently underestimated. Whatever his defects, Donald Trump spent much of his pre-presidential career poking fun at his own image, while his campaign rallies were little more than extended stand-up routines. Boris Johnson’s sense of humour, which enrages his critics, explains why so many ordinary people are happy to see him and find him so ‘relatable’. And far from being repelled by Ventura’s odd combination of scowling irascibility and good-humoured levity, many Minnesotans rather liked it. After all, how many other governors would have said this after meeting the Dalai Lama? ‘I asked him the most important question that I think you could ask — if he had ever seen Caddyshack.’

Even Ventura’s gaffes fitted into this pattern. He suggested legalising marijuana; he called for legalised prostitution. He said the United States should stop fighting foreign wars, denounced its embargo against Cuba and was bitterly opposed to the war in Iraq. He called the press ‘jackals’, which ensured him disobliging coverage for the rest of time, and said organised religion was a ‘sham and a crutch for weak-minded people’, which had most pundits rending their garments in horror.

But like Boris Johnson’s supposed gaffes, Ventura’s obiter dicta simply reinforced his sense of authenticity. And not only did he say what he thought, he made a virtue of the fact that he often had no idea what he was talking about. ‘I call it like I see it; I tell the truth. And if I don’t know something, I’ll say so.’

Was Ventura a great governor? No. Was he a terrible governor? No. He was fine. Life in Minnesota went on, much as it always had. He patently disliked the press attention, and stepped down after his first term. But in 1999, when he was almost halfway through his stay in the governor’s mansion, there was a very suggestive might-have-been.

As the 2000 primary season loomed, Ventura approached an old pal from the wrestling world to run for president on a Reform Party ticket. This was Donald Trump, whose Atlantic City casinos had been involved with the WWF since the late 1980s. And at first, Trump loved the idea. As he explained to Larry King, he and Ventura had much in common. He was ‘getting much more liberal’, he said, and he was particularly keen on ‘universal health care’. He even prepared a list of his future Cabinet appointees: Oprah Winfrey as Vice President; John McCain as Secretary of Defense.

Alas, the Trump candidacy came to nothing. Ventura’s remarks about organised religion horrified many Reform Party supporters, and after a brief but bitter struggle, the party’s nomination went to the veteran ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan. Ventura stormed out of the national Reform Party, his career as a presidential kingmaker over before it had begun. And Trump? He could never support Buchanan, he said. ‘He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this.’

Neither of them, though, could shake the presidential bug. Ventura has not held office since 2003, and spends his time on endless book tours and television appearances. But he flirted with running for the White House as a Libertarian in 2016 and was nominated by the Green Party of Alaska in 2020, winning just 0.7 per cent of the statewide vote.

And the other fellow? Well, you know that story.


Dominic Sandbrook