Abraham Riesman is the author of “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee” and the forthcoming “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America.”
McMahon is no longer chairman and chief executive of the multimedia firm, nor will he play his character in WWE programming. But he remains the largest single stockholder in the publicly traded company and reportedly controls 80 percent of shareholder votes.
This confusion is appropriate. After all, McMahon made his billions by sledgehammering down the wall between fantasy and reality, leaving everyone else to wander in the dust. But this latest twist in McMahon’s long, bizarre story is a useful lesson in the difference between a real political win and a tantalizing illusion of victory.
“Professional” wrestling has never been a legitimate sporting competition; the outcomes of wrestlers’ bouts are preplanned to inflame the audience’s passions. But that fact used to be concealed by an informal code known as “kayfabe,” intended to uphold the illusion that pro wrestling was as real as baseball or tennis. Kayfabe had to be maintained both inside and outside the ring. That meant never breaking character in public. Wrestlers who performed as “babyfaces,” or good guys, could be fired on the spot if they were caught sinning. “Heels,” or bad guys, couldn’t be seen doing random acts of kindness.
McMahon broke the code in the latter half of the 1980s when he formally admitted that all matches and storylines were preplanned. By putting himself in the same legal category as the circus or the Harlem Globetrotters, he was able to escape the purview of state athletic commissions, which had levied taxes and enforced safety regulations in pro wrestling for decades.
But his greatest political innovation didn’t come in a lobbying campaign. It emerged in the wrestling ring.
In the late 1990s, McMahon chose to make himself the primary character in his own programming. He became a supreme heel known as “Mr. McMahon”: a sadistic, greedy, womanizing billionaire who antagonized the fans’ favorite wrestlers. The character represented the worst impulses in the human spirit. It also bore an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Vince McMahon, but always with a protective layer of irony.
If old kayfabe meant committing to a lie and calling it the truth, McMahon’s new type mixed truth and lies liberally until the two were indistinguishable. If you were a fan, you either let the spectacular confusion wash over and titillate you, or you became obsessed with picking apart what was real and what wasn’t. Either way, you were consuming the product. Either way, McMahon won.
Even if you don’t follow wrestling, these themes may sound familiar.
Donald Trump grew up on the wrestling programs run by Vince’s father, and the former president remains an avid fan of the art form — and of McMahon.
They’ve known each other since the 1980s, when Trump enthusiastically “hosted” two installments of McMahon’s annual WrestleMania extravaganza near his Atlantic City casino. Trump, playing himself, even engaged in a months-long rivalry with Mr. McMahon in 2007, culminating in a WrestleMania performance where he shaved McMahon bald.
Trump’s WWE journey wasn’t just an education in how to be a wrestling heel. He was learning how to hold an audience’s attention and how to let his enemies’ accusations make him more powerful, skills that would allow him to win the 2016 election.
Trump’s ascent to the Oval Office brought McMahon’s revolutionary anti-ethics to the highest echelons of power. Now, it has become common to describe politics as kayfabe, whether the illusion is playing out in staged debates between dueling paid commentators on cable news, or in the careers of a generation of conspiracy-theory-spouting Republican politicians.
But there is a way out of the hall of mirrors that kayfabe represents. Rather than trying to adjudicate the drama, look for who really benefits from a given system. Once you find out where power lies and uncover the agenda behind the spectacle, you will know what you’re up against — and how to fight back effectively.
McMahon’s resignation is proof. While he may be publicly disgraced, the new WWE co-chief executives are a McMahon loyalist and McMahon’s own daughter. The new director of creative is McMahon’s son-in-law. If the company gets sold, as some have speculated, McMahon stands to make a fortune.
It’s worth approaching the latest twists in Trump’s story with a gimlet eye. The spectacle of his prosecution, whether at the federal level or in Georgia, would be tantalizing. But the real victory would be the hard work of protecting the country’s election infrastructure state by state and county by county.
The heels are winning at every turn. The babyfaces are shameful embarrassments. No one knows what to believe. We might be living in Mr. McMahon’s world. But we don’t have to accept his rules.