Reviews | Vince McMahon’s WWE resignation and the key to post-Trump politics

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Abraham Riesman is the author of “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee» and the next «Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Destruction of America.”

Last Friday, after four decades at the helm of World Wrestling Entertainment, Vince McMahon announced his retirement. Considering the flurry of sexual misconduct allegations against her, the news felt like a victory for decency. But nothing is ever quite what it seems in professional wrestling.

McMahon is no longer president and CEO of the media company, nor will he be playing his character on WWE programming. But he remains the largest single shareholder in the publicly traded company and would control 80% of shareholder votes.

This confusion is appropriate. After all, McMahon made his billions tearing down the wall between fantasy and reality, leaving everyone to wander in the dust. But this latest twist in McMahon’s long and bizarre story is a useful lesson in the difference between real political victory and a tantalizing illusion of victory.

“Professional” wrestling has never been a legitimate athletic competition; the results of the wrestlers’ fights are planned in advance to ignite the passions of the public. But this fact was covered up by an informal code known as “kayfabe”, intended to maintain the illusion that professional wrestling was as real as baseball or tennis. Kayfabe had to be kept inside and outside the ring. This meant never breaking character in public. Wrestlers who performed as “babyfaces,” or good guys, could be fired on the spot if caught sinning. The “heels,” or villains, couldn’t be seen doing random acts of kindness.

McMahon broke the code in the second half of the 1980s when he officially admitted that all matches and scenarios were pre-planned. By placing himself in the same legal category as the circus or the Harlem Globetrotters, he was able to escape the jurisdiction of state athletic commissions, which had levied taxes and enforced safety rules in professional wrestling for decades.

But his greatest political innovation did not come from a lobbying campaign. He appeared in the wrestling ring.

In the late 1990s, McMahon chose to become the lead character in his own lineup. He became a supreme heel known as “Mr. McMahon”: a sadistic, greedy, womanizing billionaire who antagonized fan-favorite wrestlers. The character represented the worst impulses of the human mind. He also resembled oddly to the real Vince McMahon, but still with a protective layer of irony.

If old kayfabe meant committing a lie and calling it the truth, McMahon’s new type liberally mixed truth and lie until the two were indistinguishable. If you were a fan, you either let the spectacular confusion overwhelm and titillate you, or you became obsessed with distinguishing between 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 feud 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 the public’s attention and let his enemies’ accusations make him more powerful, skills that would help him win the 2016 election.

Trump’s rise to the Oval Office brought McMahon’s revolutionary anti-ethics to the highest echelons of power. Now it has become common to portray politics as kayfabe, whether the illusion is played out in staged debates between dueling paid commentators on cable news, or in the careers of a generation of Republican politicians at the conspiracy theory.

But there is a way out of the hall of mirrors that kayfabe represents. Rather than trying to judge the drama, find out who really benefits from a given system. Once you discover where the power lies and uncover the agenda behind the show, you will know what you are up against and how to fight back effectively.

McMahon’s resignation is proof of that. Although he may be publicly disgraced, WWE’s new co-general managers are a McMahon loyalist and McMahon’s own daughter. The new creative director is McMahon’s son-in-law. If the company is sold, as some have speculated, McMahon should make a fortune.

It’s worth approaching the latest twists in Trump’s story with a bored eye. The spectacle of his pursuit, whether federally or in Georgia, would be enticing. But the real victory would be the hard work of protecting the country’s election infrastructure state by state and county by county.

Heels win at every turn. Babyfaces are shameful embarrassments. No one knows what to believe. We may be living in Mr. McMahon’s world. But we don’t have to accept its rules.

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