For most of his professional life, Glenn Jacobs was not known by his real name. He was Kane, the WWE superstar who, as the disfigured younger brother of The Undertaker, won pretty much every championship the organization had to offer. Though the 51-year-old never officially left the ring, his given name has taken precedence in recent years. Jacobs and his wife Crystal own an insurance agency and real estate company in Knoxville, Tennessee, and last April he announced his candidacy for Knox County mayor. About 13 months and tens of thousands of knocked-doors later, he won the Republican primary — although by only 23 votes — all but ensuring he’d helm the legislature of the state’s third-largest county, which Trump won by nearly 24 percentage points. Last week, he made it official, defeating Democratic challenger Linda Haney by a two-to-one margin.
The win is indicative of the boon President Trump has been to outsiders seeking political office. Actors like Antonio Sabato Jr. and Cynthia Nixon are in the middle of campaigns in California and New York, respectively. In June, notorious brothel owner Dennis Hof won a seat in the Nevada state legislature. Jacobs capitalized on Tennesseans’ disillusionment with career politicians, and wasn’t shy about using his wrestling career to differentiate himself from his opponents. His campaign logo features a flame, a sly nod to the facial burns that required his character Kane to wear a mask, and his red and black campaign motif mimicked that of his WWE brand. When Jacobs secured victory last Thursday night, Kane’s walkup music played at he took the stage in a Knoxville Crowne Plaza hotel ballroom.
But after the music subsided, Jacobs — who is a proud Trump supporter — made clear that his political concerns extend far beyond the Knox County infrastructure. After stressing the importance of electing Republicans in the November midterms, he turned his focus to the future. “I’ve heard a lot of talk about the Republican supermajority in the state of Tennessee, and the fact that the blue wave, which the media keeps talking about, was going to crash into the big red wall in Tennessee,” the six-foot-seven Jacob boomed. “It will…this year, and it probably will in the next election cycle, and probably in the following. But if you look at the demographics, they’re not really on our side. What happens if that big red wall is ever breached? If it is, our state and our country will fundamentally change, and we can never, ever let that happen.”
Rolling Stone spoke with Jacobs about Trump, tariffs and why he’s so concerned about the future of the Republican party.
When did you first get an inkling that you might want to run for office?
I’ve always been interested in politics. Social studies was my favorite subject. I remember I portrayed Walter Mondale in a mock debate in my sophomore social studies class. Probably about three years ago I played with the idea of running for county mayor. As time went on and I started thinking more seriously about it, I started to think that I really could do it. The timing was right as the county mayor is term-limited, so there was no incumbent and it was an open seat. From a strategic standpoint, that’s what you want.
To what extent did Trump’s win inspire you to run?
It did. Speaking strategically, Bernie Sanders was right there with the Democratic nomination, which some people feel was stolen from him. We’re seeing two guys who were definitely outside the establishment. Even though Bernie is a politician, he’s outside of the Democratic establishment, and then you have this guy who is completely outside of the establishment by any metric. I was like, “Wow, people, whether they’re on the left or the right, are sick and tired of politicians.” People want something different. That certainly played right into my hands. I’m as far outside of the mainstream political establishment as you can get.
We knocked on over 50,000 doors in Knox County over the course of 15 months. People would ask me if I was in government or not. Initially, I was thinking that I was going to say “no” and they were going to say, “Well, what are you doing? Why do you think you can do this?” But the funny thing was that the response I got inevitably was that when I said, “I don’t have any [government experience],” people would say, “Good, because I’m not going to vote for a career politician.” When folks look at Trump, especially among the local Republican establishment, they think it’s only a phenomenon on a national scale. It’s not. It’s everywhere.
“When folks look at Trump, especially among the local Republican establishment, they think it’s only a phenomenon on a national scale. It’s not. It’s everywhere.”
You identify as a Libertarian and have cited writers like Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard as influences. The original wrestler-turned-politician, Jesse Ventura, has also expressed some Libertarian views. Is there something about wrestling that lends itself to Libertarian philosophy?
I think that’s what most people are, but they get so inundated with noise that they don’t realize there is another option besides what you generally hear. Basically, I’m a fiscal conservative. When it comes to social issues — do your own thing, but don’t put it on other people and don’t make other people approve of it. Also, don’t make other people clean up your messes and expect other people to fix your life. I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. People hear [“Libertarian”], and wonder what it means. There’s baggage associated with that. It’s not even a term I try to use that much anymore.
One thing about the WWE and fiscal conservatism is that we are independent contractors, which means that we’re not subject to withholding tax. The guys actually have to write a check out to the U.S. treasury, to the IRS. If I were ever to become president, which is not something I plan on doing, the first thing I would do would be to eliminate the withholding tax so that everyone has to write a check. From [wrestlers’] perspective, it is kind of eye-opening. A lot of our guys think, “Gosh, how much money are they getting?” Then you start seeing some of the waste and it just drives you nuts. The money is actually in your hands and then you have to turn it over.
You’ve said you voted for Trump and support Trump. As a fiscal conservative, how would you assess how Trump has handled the economy so far?
I think the tax cuts were a very good idea. I’d like to see the tax codes simplified. Maybe a flat income tax instead of the current system, which is brutal on everybody. It gives the IRS the ability to arbitrarily interpret many of the rules, which can lead to trouble when you’re a taxpayer. We need to cut the corporate tax. That’s the reason corporations are leaving the country. I don’t think the tariffs are a great idea at all. The initial impact will be positive, but in the long term it hurts the consumer, because they’re paying more for imported products. There’s a carbon fiber company here that can really do some great things. They’re on the cutting edge. But they have to import the raw product and that’s going to make them less competitive. That’s what we have to think about it. If you look at the international division of labor, some things are just going to be cheaper to make somewhere else. It’s cheaper to grow a pineapple in a tropical region than it is to grow one in Alaska. If everybody concentrates on what they’re good at, that drives prices down and it’s good for everybody. Tariffs end up distorting that division of labor, which isn’t good.
I understand the thinking behind it. NAFTA is a horrible deal and the U.S. should just pull out of it. It’s supposed to be free trade but there’s 1,300 pages of tariffs. That’s not free trade. I think President Trump has realized that. He put out a tweet challenging the EU to drop all their barriers and all their tariffs and we can have actual free trade, and that’s great. I don’t think we should impose retaliatory tariffs, though, because things can get out of hand.
You mention the tariffs, which have been hitting Tennessee particularly hard. What is the temperature like in the state regarding what’s been happening since Trump began imposing these?
I haven’t heard much about the impact here. Maybe I’m not talking to the right people. When you talk about consumers, it’s not like stuff goes up a huge amount. It’s a few pennies here and a few pennies there. But when you’re talking about companies and their bottom line, when they have margins that are a few percentage points, it has a huge impact on them. I heard Governor Haslam speak last year, and he was worried about it. We have a great economic environment in Tennessee. We have the fourth-lowest state local tax rates in the country. We’re very business-friendly. We’re seeing economic expansion, but much of it is coming from companies that are based overseas. As much as we talk about outsourcing from the U.S. to other countries, when we have good economic conditions here, the opposite takes place and we see foreign companies building their factories here, which is of course what we want. We get into trouble then when we have a policy that is not in the best interest of those companies.
Does Trump just not understand this? Or do you feel like he already does and just has some sort of larger strategy in mind—
I do, actually. I do. I think what he’s doing is trying to create an environment that is advantageous to U.S. interests. It’s funny but it’s true, but if you look at his business career and books like Art of the Deal, that’s what he’s doing. He is pushing things as far as he can to get them to pull back, and then he’ll pull back, as well.
Republican Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have been particularly tough on Trump in response to the tariffs, and Corker has perhaps been tougher on Trump than any other Republican lawmaker. The tariffs are affecting the state’s economy. Some of these races in November could be pretty close. With all this in mind, do you think Trump is helping or hurting the welfare of the Republican party in Tennessee?
I think he’s helping. The main thing about President Trump that attracts everyone, and frankly, attracts me, is that he is an outsider. Whether you agree with him or not, what he does is not based on political expediency. He doesn’t care about the political ramifications. Whether you like it or you hate it, I wish we had more politicians that thought like that instead of ones saying, “I need to do this to get elected again.” That’s not how we should be thinking. You may not like the policies, but if someone’s being honest and saying they’re doing it because it’s what they think is right and they don’t care if it hurts them or not politically, we should respect that.
During your victory speech, you spoke about the future of the Republican party in the state, and how it might be a little fragile considering how the demographics are changing.
The millennials are going to be a bigger voting block than the baby boomers, and baby boomers tend to be more conservative. So we have some work to do to make sure that Tennessee keeps a Republican majority. The state overall is red, but if you look at the urban centers, they’re blue and they’re expanding. I think that we have to make a more concerted effort to grow our party and to concentrate the principles I believe the Republican party is all about: Individual liberty, free markets, economic opportunity. We end up screaming at each other a lot in this country, but that’s not constructive for anybody. We need to have an intelligent discourse about the advantages of the free market and economic opportunity versus the socialized system that promises … basically, to me, Democrats promise a floor under you. Republicans say you can go as high as you want, and we want to empower you to do that. So let’s have that discussion.
Do you have any plans to get back in the ring?
WWE is always going to be part of me and hopefully I’ll always be part of it. I haven’t ruled out making special appearances every now and then. My main priority is being mayor, of course. [My role in the WWE] does bring a lot of attention to Knox County, so that’s cool. It’s just a matter of making sure everything I do — WWE or any other outside stuff — does not impact my role as mayor.