Last month, after four decades at the helm of World Wrestling Entertainment, Vince McMahon announced his retirement. Given the avalanche of sexual misconduct allegations against him, the news looked like a victory for decency. But nothing is ever what it seems in professional wrestling.
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 and reportedly controls 80pc of shareholder votes.
This confusion is appropriate. After all, McMahon made his billions by sledgehammering down the wall between fantasy and reality. But this latest twist in his long, bizarre story is a useful lesson in the difference between a real political win and a tantalising illusion of victory.
“Professional” wrestling has never been a legitimate sporting competition; the outcomes of wrestlers’ bouts are planned to inflame the audience’s passions. That fact used to be concealed by an informal code known as “kayfabe”. 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 admitted that all matches and storylines were planned. By putting himself in the same legal category as the circus, he was able to escape the purview of state athletic commissions, which 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, womanising billionaire who antagonised the fans’ favourite wrestlers. The character bore an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Vince McMahon, but always with a protective layer of irony.
McMahon mixed truth and lies liberally until the two were indistinguishable. If you were a fan, you either let the spectacular confusion 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 programmes run by Vince’s father, and he remains a fan of the artform – and of McMahon.
They’ve known each other since the 1980s, when Trump “hosted” two installments of McMahon’s annual WrestleMania extravaganza near his Atlantic City casino. Trump even engaged in a 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 duelling 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. The new WWE co-chief executives are a McMahon loyalist and McMahon’s daughter. If the company gets sold, 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 tantalising. But the real victory would be the hard work of protecting the US’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.
© Washington Post