How Wrestling Explains America
Awash in strobes, Seth “Freakin” Rollins begins his waltz to the ring. His nemesis, the YouTube star Logan Paul, is there waiting for him.
Rollins pauses beneath the jumbotron and holds his arms outstretched like Christ the Redeemer. Green and purple spotlights dart and swirl around Boston’s TD Garden. Thousands of fans start screaming the “whoa-ohh-ohh” part of Rollins’s theme song; exponentially more are live-tweeting the broadcast at home. It’s just before 9 o’clock on a frigid Monday in March—we haven’t even reached Act II of the three-hour pageant. RAW debuted 30 years ago and remains the top-rated cable program nearly every week, trouncing Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow, whose fiery monologues are—knowingly or not—greatly influenced by those of professional wrestlers.
Rollins takes another step forward. Flames burst toward the ceiling. I’m mid-arena, enthralled, sitting next to Abraham Josephine Riesman, the author of Ringmaster, a new biography of WWE Executive Chair Vince McMahon, whose valorization of violent spectacle over morals led to, as the book’s subtitle wants you to believe, “the unmaking of America.” I’ve brought Riesman here to unpack that claim, and to better understand how one man could have such a profound influence on American culture and politics.
You may recognize McMahon as the eye-bulging star of the internet’s go-to reaction meme. He also happens to be a close personal friend of former President Donald Trump. (His wife, Linda, served in Trump’s Cabinet as small-business secretary after two failed Senate bids in Connecticut.) McMahon stepped down from his position as WWE CEO last summer following allegations of sexual misconduct with female employees and related hush-money payments. Nevertheless, he’s still the company’s biggest shareholder and, depending on whom you ask, its puppeteer.
Though ostensibly banished from public-facing wrestling engagements, McMahon is rumored to be in the building tonight to welcome back his former moneymaker John Cena. But Cena and his jorts won’t slide into the ring for a while. Right now, the jacked-up crowd is chanting “FUCK YOU, LOGAN!” at 27-year-old Paul, who revels in the hatred. It’s loud. “Look at the smile on Logan Paul’s face,” Riesman shouts into my left ear. “He’s a dangerous man!”
Is wrestling real? Is it fake? The answer to both questions is, paradoxically, yes. The outcome of each contest is scripted. The body slams and submissions are choreographed. Sworn enemies are, in all likelihood, friends. But the Undertaker (Mark Calaway) really did throw Mankind (Mick Foley) off the top of that steel cage during a 1998 King of the Ring pay-per-view match. Foley really did fall 16 feet and crash through the announcers’ table. He was carted off on a stretcher, only to fight the paramedics and stumble back to the ring, where the Undertaker once again sent Foley’s massive body flying, this time through the “Hell in a Cell” chain-link roof. A bit later, the Undertaker choke-slammed him onto a pile of thumbtacks. By the time the match was over, Foley had a badly injured shoulder and a broken tooth shoved up his nose. Professional wrestling delivers sensory overload that’s almost impossible to capture with mere description. “It’s the best [thing] I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” Andy Warhol said of a 1985 match at Madison Square Garden.
Eight years ago, a pervasive idea took hold in what passes for our “national political conversation.” During the summer and fall of 2015, with each new rally, interview, and debate, we were told that the outsider candidate Donald Trump was transforming American politics into wrestling. It was a convenient, if ahistorical, conceit. Politics and wrestling were entangled long before Trump descended the golden escalator and villainized imagined adversaries to the delight of hooting fans and cable-TV cameras. Around the turn of the millennium, Jesse “The Body” Ventura made televised wrestling cameos while serving as the governor of Minnesota. Teddy Roosevelt brought his love of wrestling into the White House. “George Washington wrestled,” Riesman writes in Ringmaster, “as did Abraham Lincoln, who fought in roughly three hundred matches—indeed, a famous one in New Salem, Illinois, in 1831 made Honest Abe a local celebrity and was a key factor in putting him on the path to politics.”
Millions of people love wrestling; millions more loathe it. Many people simply don’t know what to do with it. Although the symbiotic relationship between politics and wrestling goes back centuries, it is fair to say that Trump exploited WWE tools and tricks better than anyone who had come before him. TV networks once carried Trump’s campaign rallies live because of their sheer unpredictability. In January 2016, it wasn’t enough for Trump to kick protesters out of a Vermont rally; he directed security to “throw ’em out into the cold” and “confiscate their coats.”
In Boston, while watching Seth Rollins and Logan Paul provoke, then pummel, each other, Riesman predicted—with a distressingly low level of irony—that Paul would be president of the United States someday. Paul is a skilled trash-talker and, despite his youth, a veteran self-promoter, two qualities that would serve him well in politics. One of the WWE’s greatest orators, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, spoke at the Republican National Convention during the peak of his wrestling career. Johnson, a household name even without his wrestling moniker, has been hinting at his own presidential run for the better part of a decade. Kane (Glenn Jacobs), the fire-and-brimstone on-screen brother of the Undertaker, is currently the mayor of Knox County, Tennessee.
Trump, though twice impeached and not a wrestler, remains a proud member of the WWE Hall of Fame. Even if you’ve never watched a single match, you’ve likely seen the clip of the 45th president shaving Vince McMahon’s head with maniacal joy, or the one of him clotheslining his dear friend just outside the ropes. And if not, you’ve certainly seen the edited version in which instead of McMahon, Trump pulverizes the CNN logo. Trump shared that one on his official Twitter account in 2017, back before he was banned (and later reinstated) for inciting a violent mob at the Capitol.
I kept going over Riesman’s subtitle—The Unmaking of America—in my head while watching RAW a few weeks after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. During that speech, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, clad in a white, fur-collared coat suitable for the WWE legend Ric Flair, shouted, “Liar!” at Biden. Her congressional colleague Lauren Boebert has released scores of short, taped monologues that look and sound more than a little like wrestling promos. During Trump’s term, the CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s earnest sparring in the White House briefing room often resembled pre-bout barbs. Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, infamously asserted—with absurd sincerity—that his new boss had drawn the biggest crowd in inauguration history, period. Revisiting that day recently, I thought again of Ric Flair and his boundless hyperbole: “I’ve got a limousine sittin’ out there a mile long!”
Riesman’s book is not about politics, nor is it strictly about wrestling. More than anything, Ringmaster describes one man’s greed and his quest for ultimate power, for control. Thus, politics—implicit and explicit—are woven through the decades-long narrative history of violence-as-capitalism. Yes, matches are rigged, and story lines play out over months or years, but it’s not all a show: Wrestlers really do get hurt. Sometimes they covertly slice their own skin with a blade to produce real blood. Other times, stunts go horribly wrong, such as when Owen Hart’s theatrical descent into the ring with faulty wiring ended his life in 1999. Chris Benoit, after years living with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, murdered his family and then committed suicide in 2007.
“You have a lot of injury and death that comes out of wrestling in a way that it certainly does not in other athletic events, with the possible exception of boxing,” Riesman said. “Pro wrestlers die younger on average than a lot of other professions. And somehow that gets glossed over.”
Through exhaustive research and a few key in-depth interviews—namely with Hart’s more famous older brother Bret—Riesman unspools a story of a messy beast that’s not quite a sport and not quite an opera, and has long occupied a dangerous gray area. As a reader, your appetite for territorial wrestling-promoter disputes and regional-broadcast wars will vary, though Ringmaster contains several valuable insights about how money and influence affect politics.
“Even before he started accepting their campaign dollars, Rick Santorum owed a debt to the McMahon family,” Riesman writes. In the 1980s, the future U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate was a young lawyer lobbying for deregulation on behalf of the WWE (then called the WWF). “Santorum was aggressive in his efforts to sway legislators and officials to Vince and Linda’s point of view,” we learn, especially when it came to loosening wrestling’s health-and-safety protocols.
The ’80s were a curious time for wrestling culture, and most of Ringmaster’s memorable anecdotes take place during this period. In 1988, then-businessman Donald Trump “hosted” Wrestlemania at the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. That word is in quotes because, as with so much involving Trump, it was a con—the actual event took place across the street, at the Atlantic City Convention Center. (TV audiences were none the wiser, Riesman notes, and this helped Trump build his brand.) Two years earlier, the lawyer G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate fame, served as a Wrestlemania celebrity guest judge. A year before that, Gloria Steinem and the former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro filmed segments in which they emasculated “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to show support for Piper’s then-rival, the pop star Cindy Lauper. Although it was still derided as a sideshow, wrestling was going mainstream. Nonwrestlers—including Trump—played a key role in this evolution.
Over dinner before we walked to the arena, I asked Riesman, who goes by Josie, about the masculine stereotypes embedded within wrestling culture. Truthfully, my question was a little clumsier than that. I wanted to know if she thought that the “average” WWE fan we were about to encounter might be surprised to learn that she, a Harvard-educated transgender woman, could love something so barbaric.
“Wrestling is a carnival, and the carnival is a great leveler—there are people who came into wrestling as kids and came out as diehard Trump supporters or Second Amendment thumpers, but then you have people like me who came out as queer, weirdo anarchists,” she said. “I watched wrestling as a kid with a lot of people who came at wrestling from having been sports fans, but I was the one who came at it from the entertainment side.” Specifically, Riesman told me, she loved the wrestlers’ knack for elocution. “I had been doing musical theater, and it felt like musical theater to me. I found it thrilling; I didn’t care about the matches,” she said. “I love the drama.”
Ringmaster has one of the best dedication pages I’ve read: “For my mother, who custom-stitched me a tearaway T-shirt after I first saw Hulk Hogan on TV.” One Halloween, my own saintly mom used a black marker to draw the Rock’s trademark sideburns on both of my cheeks and helped me wedge a set of football shoulder pads under a JUST BRING IT shirt to complete the costume. Like most parents, she didn’t love that I loved wrestling, but she eventually understood that I and every other middle-school boy was obsessed with it. RAW, Smackdown—we couldn’t look away. Maybe it was transitive: Watching a “good guy” like the Rock deliver “the people’s elbow” to a bullying foe was cathartic.
Or maybe we were just addicted to the story lines. Reflecting on my interview with Riesman, and her use of the word drama, I thought again of Santorum, who, after his failed bid for the White House in 2016, joined CNN as a political commentator. Although CNN positions itself as centrist, it leans left, and, until his firing in 2021, Santorum was one of its few Trump defenders. In other words, he was the network’s go-to “heel,” in wrestling parlance—a bad guy. I thought back to a line from the former CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who helped bring Trump and The Apprentice into American living rooms back when he was at NBC. Zucker once told a reporter for The New York Times Magazine that he viewed CNN’s pro-Trump panelists as “characters in a drama.” On-camera feuds boosted ratings. Political TV panels, like professional wrestling, could be both live and structured with familiar set pieces each week. Yet you never knew what someone might say or do. With WWE, McMahon perfected a sports-and-entertainment behemoth that kept 12-year-olds like me glued to the TV. With Trump, Zucker and his competitors were crafting similar news-and-politics-and-entertainment products. Flashy graphics, flying taunts, unraveling democracy: Who could look away?
In Boston, the RAW broadcast cut away for a commercial break, and the jumbotron ran a WWE promo: “This May,” a booming voice began, “live from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia …” WWE is currently in the midst of a 10-year deal to stage programming in the Middle East, a privilege for which the kingdom is paying an estimated $40 million per event, according to Riesman. One of WWE’s rising stars, the scrappy and cerebral Sami Zayn, is the son of Syrian immigrants. Zayn reportedly refuses to participate in the Saudi gigs and thus, Riesman argued to me, “can never be champ.” Some wrestling insiders allege that it’s the Saudis who have banned him, on account of his ethnicity and political leanings. (Zayn has also been known to share links from the socialist magazine Jacobin—back in December, he wrote “GOAT” over a photo the publication had posted of the leftist public intellectual Noam Chomsky.) The WWE did not respond to a request for comment about Zayn’s involvement in matches in Saudi Arabia.
As Wrestlemania returns next weekend, Seth Rollins and Logan Paul will once again square off. During the main event, the title belt may transfer from the uber-dominant Roman Reigns to Cody Rhodes, son of the legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes. The younger Rhodes is a buttoned-up, blue-eyed, bleached-blond character whose nickname is “The American Nightmare”—the inverse of his father, “The American Dream.” Rhodes’s logo is a menacing skull with eagle wings covered in an American flag. His entrance song also has its own choral “whoa-ohh-ohh.” It is hard to watch Rhodes strut out into the arena in his suit and tie and not think of a tougher, fitter, more strapping Trump—or, for that matter, Vince McMahon. Riesman’s full portrait of McMahon is by no means a puff piece, though I’d also hesitate to call it a hit job. For all of McMahon’s undesirable traits, for all the toxic masculinity, Riesman does seem impressed by his ability to vanquish his enemies through the years. More than an aloof businessman, McMahon is portrayed as an unhealthily competitive auteur who tapped into the American id and, on occasion, made magic.
Trump, in relative exile, seems obsessed with rekindling his 2016 campaign’s grotesque, supersize magic. For a while, Trump has been road-testing nicknames in hopes of denigrating his strongest 2024 rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. “Ron DeSanctimonius” wasn’t cutting it. “Meatball Ron” had potential. “Tiny D” was, well …
DeSantis, for his part, recently reacted to news of Trump’s legal troubles with a slow-motion insult: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” he said at a press conference last week. Though still a fairly new force in Republican politics, DeSantis, too, makes a brief cameo in Ringmaster. In April 2020, barely one month into the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis deemed WWE an essential business, and permitted the organization to film fanless events at its facility in Orlando. The result was oddly quiet and a tad dystopian. “You can have a baseball game without a crowd,” Riesman said. “You can’t really have a wrestling match without a crowd.” Nor, for that matter, a political rally.
Riesman and I were at RAW right after I watched Trump deliver one of the darkest speeches of his career. “I am your retribution,” Trump told his CPAC fans. Though it wasn’t his strongest turn at the mic, the former president sounded more than a little like a pro wrestler, psyching himself up, hobbling back to the ring. And people seemed hungry for it.
Source: The Atlantic
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