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How fair is it to compare Donald Trump to Jesse Ventura?

Donald Trump and Jesse Ventura have often been compared -- but is that fair to Jesse Ventura?

Donald Trump and Jesse Ventura have often been compared -- but is that fair to Jesse Ventura? Associated Press

If you came of voting age around the time of Trump’s ascendency to power, you were probably under the impression that things could not be and have never been so impossibly bananas in America’s democratic system.

We were all relieved of our notions on the former. Things were exactly that bananas, and have only gotten crazier two years into Trump’s presidency.

But you might also be comforted (?) to know that the latter isn’t necessarily true, either. Twenty years ago, Minnesota made the collective decision to let a man named Jesse Ventura be governor.

Ventura, like Trump, was a reality TV star -- a professional wrestler who went by the moniker “The Body.” He often took to the ring wearing a feather boa. He was indeed known for his body, but he was better known for his mouth.

“I am the baddest dude that walks the streets today, Chump Hogan,” a beret and sunglasses-wearing Ventura said dead into a camera during a promotional video. He then went on to say that Hulk Hogan couldn’t even beat Sylvester Stallone “in the movie Rocky III,” and that he “would have squashed that peanut in 30 seconds.”

When he decided to run for governor, Ventura’s transformation into a serious public figure roughly amounted to re-nicknaming himself Jesse “The Mind” Ventura. He remained bombastic. He still picked fights with the media, calling them “jackals.” And Minnesota, torn three ways between Ventura, Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, and Democratic legacy Hubert H. Humphrey III, shocked the world by picking him.

It may sound spookily familiar. Many Americans were floored when a coiffed, trash-talking host of Celebrity Apprentice landed in the highest office in the nation, and again -- perhaps misguidedly -- when he didn’t suddenly turn into a serious, scripted, non trash-talking president.

Plenty of people have made the comparison between Ventura and Trump, partially as a means of explaining the political state of the nation today. But Ventura himself calls it “hogwash.” His former chief of staff, Steven Bosacker, gave MPR a much blunter answer.

“Jesse Ventura is colorful,” he said. “Not corrupt.”

It may be unfair to call Trump and Ventura the same, but it might not be unfair to point out they were cut from a similar cloth. Both of them considered themselves “Reform” candidates back in 2000, when Ventura welcomed Trump to his state as a friend. (Ventura later led Minnesota’s Reform Party to change its name to the Independence Party.)

Both of them are also their own best advocates when it comes to trumpeting their intelligence, strength, and political capability. And both of them have a strange love-hate relationship with the media, which they crave for the notoriety and decry for any dents in their reputations.

But if you take away the flash bulbs and grease paint, you will find two very different candidates. Ventura, for example, had previous political experience. He was a mayor for four years in Brooklyn Park in the 1990s. Trump had never held office before he became president.

While Trump has been pushing the Republican party further to the right, Ventura was relatively progressive. He vocally supported gay marriage and legalizing drugs. He told MPR in 2016 that he more closely aligned with Bernie Sanders politically. Today, he says, he’s probably “offended worse than the Mexicans” over Trump’s comments about Mexico.

If there’s a quick way to sum up the difference between these two men, it’s that Ventura began independent, and he stayed independent. His dream was for Minnesota to have a unicameral, one-house Legislature, and nothing would make him happier than to see the two-party system go down in flames.

Trump, however, is a Republican of the moment. He parrots the stances that make his far-right base happy. He demonizes the other party. His stances -- like his pro-choice views in 1999 -- have utterly reversed so he could better fit the conservative bill.

Ventura, for all his faults, comes by his “colorful” persona honestly. It’s hard to say the same for the president.