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How Vince McMahon and his wrestling empire explain America

In the revelatory biography ‘Ringmaster,’ Abraham Riesman explores the strangely entwined worlds of Trump-era politics and the WWE

Donald Trump and Vince McMahon at a WWE event in Washington on March 12, 2007. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
9 min

An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Owen Hart fell to his death during the taping of a weekly program called "Raw Is War." He instead fell during a pay-per-view event called "Over the Edge." The review has been updated.

The history of professional wrestling is a story of fixed matches, false narratives and the bloodthirsty consolidation of power. Standing at the heart of this uniquely violent hybrid of sport and entertainment is WWE majority owner and executive chairman Vince McMahon, the (uncooperative) subject of Abraham Riesman’s revelatory new biography, “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America.”

Riesman’s book is a captivating dive into a spectacle that cannot genuinely be categorized as a real sport but that nonetheless relies on the talents of world-class athletes. It’s a story that feels urgent today, thanks in part to McMahon’s recent appearances in the news. He retired as the chief executive of WWE in 2022, in the wake of allegations that he had paid millions to suppress accusations of sexual misconduct and infidelity. In the process of unpacking how we got here, “Ringmaster” draws alarming parallels between the rise of pro-wrestling culture and a political movement that saw a member of the WWE Hall of Fame voted into the White House.

It’s that story — Donald Trump’s relationship with McMahon, as well as their parallel paths to power — that ultimately fuels the book. But long before the two meet, Riesman introduces readers to what has arguably become the central conceit of both figures’ lives: the art of kayfabe. This industry term refers to the way wrestlers proceeded as if the events that played out in the ring were real outside it, too — staying in character for interviews, for example, or acting as if their fictional rivalries bled into their home lives. Kayfabe was predicated on pro wrestling’s decades-long efforts to keep the business’s great secret — that the outcomes of matches are all determined ahead of time — from the public.

As Riesman points out, this charade was never more than a partial success, with news outlets catching on to the grift almost immediately. Today, fans of professional wrestling are overwhelmingly aware of how the business actually works — but that hasn’t stopped them from tuning in and buying tickets to see their favorite goliaths live in the ring. Even without the prospect of real competition, Riesman writes, the appeal of the spectacle endures.

In fact, it may be wrestling’s insistence on an alternate reality built on fakery that makes it feel so essential. As Riesman puts it, “There is no art form more intrinsically and blatantly American — in its casual violence, its bombastic braggadocio, its virulent jingoism, its populist defiance of respectability, and its intermittently awe-inspiring beauty — than professional wrestling.”

And for the past 40 years, McMahon has been the one pulling the strings behind this “blatantly American” art form. As we learn in “Ringmaster,” he is also “likely the closest thing to a friend that Donald Trump has” and “is said to be one of the only people whose calls Trump takes in private.” How did this direct bridge between one of America’s most popular pastimes and a past president running for the office again come to be? It all starts with another Vince McMahon.

Early on, McMahon learned the business at the side of his father, Vince McMahon Sr., also a wrestling promoter. He would go on, however, to break nearly every unwritten rule of wrestling promoting once he was put in charge of WWE (then WWF) in 1982. Riesman writes that McMahon waged a ruthless campaign to put rivals out of business and hold a monopoly on the wrestling entertainment industry. His all-encompassing obsession with wrestling offers a contrast to the subject of Riesman’s previous, equally excellent biography, “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee.” Though each served as the most famous face in his respective industry for decades, Lee’s lifelong ambition was to prove his worth in different mediums (he wanted to be known as a novelist, among other things), even as he served as the figurehead of Marvel Comics. McMahon’s life, by contrast, has always, and only, centered on the spectacle of the ring.

Capturing the elusive story of the real Stan Lee

As Riesman shows, McMahon’s early ambitions — including an ill-fated pay-per-view stunt with daredevil Evel Knievel and a wrestling match in Japan in which he begged boxing great Muhammad Ali to take a dive (Ali refused) — didn’t always come to fruition. But his most diabolical stroke of genius would arrive in 1997. That was the year McMahon cast himself as his company’s new arch-heel, Mr. McMahon. The announcement effectively reinvented the kayfabe universe of WWE by blurring lines between fact and fiction as McMahon simultaneously continued his real-life reign as the industry’s kingpin and became a star in the ring.

Riesman describes this development as the birth of “neokayfabe,” a new era of pro wrestling in which McMahon’s actual wife, son and daughter were all cast in (often abhorrent) storylines involving elements like supposed kidnappings and suggested sexual assault. By conflating his real-world actions with those of a character designed to rile wrestling, McMahon profited handsomely, giving devotees of his business new incentives to pay for the privilege of hating his guts.

Perhaps no moment encapsulates the opaque miasma of neokayfabe better than the night of May 23, 1999. In service of a storyline for a taping of a pay-per-view event called “Over the Edge,” EMTs and an ambulance were standing by to assist with a scripted “injury” McMahon’s character was to suffer. But instead of helping the fictitiously injured Mr. McMahon, the gathered medical personnel were thrust into genuine action when wrestler Owen Hart accidentally fell from the rafters of Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.

“Television viewers watched Owen, as the Blue Blazer, give his pretaped interview,” Riesman writes. Meanwhile, “in the arena, the live audience saw Owen lying in the ring, surrounded by the EMTs who had been booked for Vince’s fake injury.”

Hart would die almost immediately from his injuries and, tragically, go on to stand in for the many wrestling stars — and others associated with the business — who would suffer in one way or another during McMahon’s tenure. The examples documented in “Ringmaster” are numerous, including the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” which saw McMahon assist in orchestrating popular wrestler Bret Hart’s unscripted loss to Shawn Michaels in a 1997 title match. (Bret Hart is Owen’s older brother.) They also include chilling accusations of sexual assault from referee Rita Chatterton and lingering questions surrounding the untimely death of Nancy Argentino, girlfriend of former WWF star Jimmy Snuka.

Both seemingly immune to scandals and constantly embroiled in several, McMahon would go on to find a kindred spirit in Trump when the two first partnered in the late 1980s, combining forces for a series of WrestleMania events hosted at Trump casinos and other properties. But their connections would soon run deeper: Looking back 40 years later, the rise of McMahon as a prototype for Trump’s eventual transformation into a political powerhouse is difficult to ignore.

Trunp's origins in a New York world of hustlers, mobsters and con men

“For more than three decades,” Riesman writes, “Trump has watched and admired Vince’s product. He has been both host and performer at many of Vince’s wrestling extravaganzas, honing his abilities as a rabble-rouser. Through Trump, Vince’s wrestling-infused mentality has reached the highest levels of the American system.”

While Trump’s wrestling appearances are sometimes held up as a point of ridicule — more evidence that he was never qualified for electoral politics — it’s possible that the two pursuits were closely entwined all along. The key to understanding wrestling, as Riesman shows, is to recognize that it is both popular entertainment and a potent political force. This marriage is nothing new. In 1831, for instance, a young man named Abraham Lincoln won a wrestling match in New Salem, Ill. — one of roughly 300 bouts Honest Abe apparently competed in — that provided a local fame he would swiftly parlay into a future in politics. And today, many speculate about the political potential of former WWE star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Few offer a more prescient example of pro wrestling’s appeal as a runway to politics than McMahon’s wife, Linda McMahon.

After two unsuccessful U.S. Senate runs, Linda was among the most generous Republican supporters in the 2016 presidential election, donating $7 million to pro-Trump super PACs. In 2017, she was nominated to Trump’s Cabinet to head the Small Business Administration, and she was overwhelmingly confirmed by a vote of 81-19.

“It was a perfect example of kayfabe morality,” Riesman writes. “Linda had played the role of the kindly, moderate babyface; Trump had been the vicious, extremist heel. But they were working for the same promotion — the Republican Party. The differences between their politics are purely cosmetic.”

Wrestling and politics have been grappling for centuries, the former increasingly providing the latter with a template for its own theater of conflict — a drama neither entirely fake nor fully real.

Also like Trump, McMahon has proved surprisingly resilient, even when seemingly self-inflicted scandals threaten to bring him down. Despite publicly passing the reins to his daughter, Stephanie McMahon, he returned to WWE’s board in January, leading his daughter to abruptly resign and prompting rumors of a possible sale of the business to Saudi Arabia. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but as Riesman’s engrossing biography makes clear, no force has yet succeeded in separating pro wrestling’s most infamous name from the only throne he’s ever known.

Zack Ruskin is a freelance arts and culture writer living in San Francisco.


Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America

By Abraham Riesman

Atria. 452 pp. $29.99

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