How is Trump like the Tiger King?

6 Ways That Joe Exotic’s Life Paralleled That Of Our President

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What does the popularity of Tiger King have in common with the election of Donald Trump? For one, both represent huge and unexpected cultural phenomena. In fact on March 29, “Tiger King” had more than half as many Google searches as our current president.

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I think the way Tiger King captured the zeitgeist is no accident. I mean, doesn’t the protagonist of the show remind you of someone? Doesn’t Joe Exotic’s life story sound familiar? In Exotic we have a bold and flamboyant showman. Joe is a man who sought fame at all costs. A narcissist, he lied constantly and still earned a cult-like devotion among many, many followers. Oh, and he ran for president of the United States in 2016. This isn’t the only parallel between Joe Exotic and our current POTUS. Below I’ll show how the life of the Tiger King and Donald Trump are eerily similar, each representing funhouse mirror reflections of the other.

1 — Early Money from Family

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As this excellent profile of Joe Exotic explains, his zoo was born from tragedy. A trucking company was found at fault in an accident involving Garold Wayne, Joe’s brother. Gerald’s parents gave Joe the settlement money, which he used to purchase a large horse ranch in Oklahoma. That ranch would become the infamous G.W. Zoo.

Donald Trump’s real estate empire has little in common with a private zoo, but it does have similar, familial origins. President Trump claims that his business started with a 1 million dollar loan from his father Fred. Further investigation by the New York Times showed that Fred Trump actually transferred tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars to his son. It was these funds which allowed Trump to build and expand his real estate business.

In another twist, both Exotic and Trump have had multiple brushes with bankruptcy, and both were bailed out by their parents. For Exotic, mounting legal fees led him to turn to his parents for financial support. He even transferred ownership of his assets to his mother to avoid being collected on. In a strange parallel, Trump was saved by his father Fred. When a bond payment was due on his Atlantic City casino, Fred Trump sent an associate to buy 3.5 million in Trump casino chips. He also personally gifted Donald 150,000 to cover his bond payments. As with Exotic’s land transfers, this move stretched the limits of the legality, and offered only temporary solutions to bigger financial problems.

2 — Media Showmanship

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If there is one talent Donald Trump has, it’s getting people to talk about him. The man was so good at drawing attention that his 2016 campaign received billions in free advertising. But even prior to politics, Trump was a master media manipulator. The earliest example of this is his 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal. The New Yorker described how the book succeeded at “promoting an image of Trump as a successful dealmaker and tycoon.” Of course the whole thing was ghostwritten. Trumps other 18 books were largely written by co-authors or ghostwriters as well.

Similarly, Joe Exotic is no stranger to media marketing. As he was happy to note in the Tiger King documentary, he is responsible for making 5 country music albums. His songs have millions of YouTube views and hundreds of thousands of Spotify streams. And as with Trump, Exotic’s creative work isn’t really his own. The smooth baritone in Joe’s country songs is clearly not his, and the band that was really behind those catchy tunes is finally getting some recognition.

3 — Wrestling and Reality TV

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Before becoming president, Donald Trump was best-known for his work in reality television. In 2003, Trump began his run on the TV show The Apprentice. When the spin-off Celebrity Apprentice aired in 2007, Trump was even more self-aggrandizing, happy to show that even the famous could be “fired”. In the same year, Trump targeted a more blue-collar audience when he participated in WrestleMania 23. There, Trump squared off against WWE CEO Vince McMahon in a “Battle of the Billionaires”.

Also a larger-than-life character, it’s no surprise that Joe Exotic flirted with the world of professional wrestling. Between 2014 and 2018, Exotic did commentary for wild wrestling shows that he hosted at the G.W. Zoo. As the Tiger King documentary points out, Joe would do anything to attract a crowd. Alas, this insane level of self-promotion didn’t work for Exotic as well as it worked for Trump. The Tiger King show that producer Rick Kirkham worked on never even made it to cable.

4 — Political Ambitions

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Like neutron stars orbiting the black hole of American culture, the paths of Joe Exotic and Donald Trump briefly intersected in 2016. By far the smaller sun, Exotic only made it onto the presidential ballot in Colorado, garnering just a few hundred votes. Donald Trump’s star burned brighter. He burst onto the scene and instantly grabbed headlines by promising to build a wall between the US and Mexico. He insulted his enemies and drew both outrage and amusement from critics. He was if anything, refreshingly politically incorrect.

What’s amazing is how similar Joe Exotic’s failed presidential campaign was. In the Netflix documentary, Joe’s campaign manager says their strategy was “all about outrage. Get as many views as possible”. Like Trump, Exotic commanded attention. He famously got covered on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver where viewers loved how crazily honest he appeared. “I’ve had some kinky sex. I’ve tried drugs through the younger years of my life. I’m broke as sh*t” Exotic bragged. John Oliver said he seemed like the candidate you’d want to try meth with.

Joe was also no stranger to making wild claims for entertainment purposes. He said that by selectively breeding big cats he could re-create a prehistoric sabertooth tiger. In his 2018 run for governor of Oklahoma, he gave out condoms with his face on them. Despite having no qualifications for the job, Exotic eventually earned 19% of Libertarian primary votes.

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It’s hard to remember, but in early 2016 Trump was also treated as a joke. Both he and Exotic were entertaining and original, demanding to be covered by news media. The real difference between the two was in how skillfully they used that attention.

5 — Making Useful Enemies

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As every student of wrestling kayfabe knows, a good story needs a bad guy. For Joe Exotic, the perfect nemesis was the owner of Big Cat Rescue, Carole Baskin. To fans of Exotic, Baskin must have seemed like a wet blanket, ruining the joy of big cat ownership. Besides, didn’t she keep tigers in cages too? Joe called her a hypocrite and a fraud, but their feud seemed to make great hay for both of them. Exotic even exclaiming “drama makes money, Carole. You know that better than anybody in the world.”

I’m not the first to notice it, but Donald Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton are almost the same as the volleys Joe lobbed at Carole. Trump accused Hillary of treason instead of murder. He continuously maintained that she was keeping secrets and that her illegal activity would eventually be revealed. Let’s contrast the two sets of attacks. Joe demanded that Carole Baskin excavate her property in search of her dead husband’s corpse. Trump demanded that Hillary Clinton release her “missing emails” to show the world her corruption. Both attacks were effective, forcing the targets to try and prove a negative. Every attempt at a response only drew more suspicion.

Both men had other enemies as well. Joe said he felt “hunted” and railed against “animal rights activists”. Trump famously feuds with the media. Doesn’t Trump’s use of pejoratives remind you a bit of the Tiger King?

Personally, I have the same bemused reaction when I watch “Here Kitty Kitty” as I did when the crowd yelled “Lock Her Up” at a MAGA rally. I know it’s wrong, but it’s still fun. If there was election between the unhinged but entrancing Joe Exotic and the comparatively dour Carole Baskin, I’m not sure who would win.

6 — Investigations and Betrayal

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If the Tiger King ever did win political office, it’s safe to say his enemies would stop at nothing to dethrone him. We have proof of this in the election of Donald Trump. When Trump entered the White House he had already antagonized lawmakers, tech executives, and the intelligence community. It’s not surprising that there were immediate attempts to investigate him.

The Mueller investigation spent 2 years looking into Trump and his associates’ ties to Russia. A follow up investigation in 2019 did the same with Trump and Ukraine. Trump himself escaped unscathed but many of his associates did not. Famously Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Roger Stone were indicted. Michael Cohen even turned on his long-time boss and testified before congress about the president’s many alleged wrongdoings.

The outcome of Joe Exotic investigation was the opposite of the ones conducted on Trump. Joe himself was successfully convicted while his associates Jeff Lowe and James Garretson went free. Both cooperated with the feds and Jeff Lowe (Joe’s Steve Bannon) even ended up owning the G.W. Zoo. While Trump sits triumphantly in the Oval Office, Joe Exotic rots in a Texas jail cell.

Final Thoughts

Earlier this month a reporter asked Donald Trump if he would consider pardoning Joe Exotic. It was a fitting moment of levity in a crisis that has kept us all home with nothing to do but make tiger king memes. I think it was also more than that. As the world of Tiger King collided with the world of 2020 politics, we got a glimpse at how insane America has really become. In Donald Trump, we have the Tiger King as president. Or at least we have part of him.

The Tiger King documentary said that “Joe was always trying to be bigger than what he was”. Donald Trump wanted the same thing, except he succeeded. Where Exotic’s narcissism and victim complex led him to be bankrupted and jailed by his enemies, Trump was triumphant. The biggest question might be how a man with all of the Tiger King’s weaknesses was able to control them enough to make it as far as he did.

Married engineer in San Francisco. Interested in words, networks, and human abstractions. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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