Setting America Back on Its Heels

REVIEW: 'Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America'

Donald Trump, Steve Austin, Vince McMahon, and Bobby Lashley in 2007 / Getty Images
April 9, 2023

In 2017, World Wrestling Entertainment boss Vince McMahon accompanied his family to the White House for a celebration. The clan's matriarch, Linda, had just been confirmed to serve in President Trump's cabinet. Vince, Linda, daughter Stephanie and her husband Paul "Triple H" Levesque, son Shane and his wife, plus grandchildren, posed for a photo behind the Resolute Desk with a beaming 45th commander in chief. Observers were quick to note a surreal statistic: Eighty-five percent of the adults pictured had been on the receiving end of a "Stone Cold Stunner" (WWE superstar Steve Austin's signature move). Including the president of the United States.

To be sure, previous macho men have occupied the Oval Office. "The late, great Abraham Lincoln" (as Trump referred to him) was said to have wrestled in 300 matches with only 1 loss. Pugilist Theodore Roosevelt installed a boxing ring at the White House. What distinguishes Trump from his fistic forerunners is the recognition. He is the only resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to have a combat sport (WWE) "Hall of Fame" credential on his résumé prior to occupancy.

After Trump's formal entrance into politics, comparing the political arena to professional wrestling was de rigueur in elite media circles. The connections were logical. Vince McMahon and The Donald are longtime friends whose careers have intertwined. But a new, unauthorized, and brutal biography titled Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America by Abraham Riesman grapples with a larger thesis: It is McMahon who dramatically "reshaped" our country's cultural fabric by taking a "sledgehammer" to the "walls between fact and fiction."

Wrestling as a medium of entertainment is built around a few core concepts that are important to comprehend while pondering the sport's cultural and political impact. Kayfabe, which Riesman labels the "central conceit," is the most significant: the idea that the fictional storylines and conflicts are real. Wrestlers fall into a character binary: the babyface (the "innocent, unblemished" hero who is supposed to be cheered) and the heel (a villain who "seeks to get ahead through malice" and "feeds off the hatred of the crowd"). For a long while the fans were split into "smarts" who knew wrestling was staged and "marks" who believed what they consumed was authentic. (The book explains in fun detail how Saddam Hussein was the latter.)

McMahon was raised in North Carolina by his mother and abusive stepfather, of whom the mogul once told an interviewer: "It's unfortunate he died before I could kill him. I would have enjoyed that." He eventually reconnected with his birth father who was heavily embedded in the world of professional wrestling, which at the time was a disconnected group of regional promotions. Young Vince sought to build a national behemoth by recruiting top talent from across the country with "larger paydays than they'd ever seen." McMahon's rise sparked "deep trepidations" from insiders and talent who feared the aspiring trailblazer would "kill the business."

Until the mid-1980s, mainstream media coverage of professional wrestling was "condescending and ignorant." Riesman writes that the art form was "a thrill, a hoot, a curiosity. But it wasn't cool." Enter Vince the visionary.

In 1984, the year Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection promoting his theme of "Morning in America," McMahon made a major move by marrying resurgent patriotism with a championship storyline. There was a budding blonde babyface named Hulk Hogan who embodied campy Americana. McMahon leveraged symbolic stakes to transform him into a superstar. Riesman writes that the crowd had come to Madison Square Garden to see "America reclaim its rightful place in the world" by watching Hogan challenge the champion, an "ostensibly pro-Ayatollah Iranian heel" called Iron Sheik. A victorious Hogan declared, "This is USA and Hulkamania runnin' wild!" The wrestler soon adopted the infectious "Real American" ballad as his entrance music and began promoting the values-driven "Demandments": Say your prayers, eat your vitamins, and believe in yourself. Basically: America, f*ck yeah!

Next, McMahon moved to fill the cool-factor gap by involving celebrities as "key players in the drama." Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T were written into the kayfabe as his organization partnered with the ascendant MTV channel for cross-promotional purposes. Politicos got in on the action too. This included Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, who cut a video taunting "Rowdy" Roddy Piper to "fight like a man." Toward the end of the decade a friendship was fostered with a flamboyant businessman and lifelong wrestling enthusiast: Donald J. Trump.

The Trump Organization hosted two early WrestleManias in Atlantic City. Fielding an inquiry about the importance of sponsoring the events, The Donald offered a response that now feels vintage: "It's been fantastic. … It's been unbelievable. The traffic, the numbers of people—we're really honored. … It's been just a great thing and an unbelievable event."

Eventually the rah-rah Hogan era got stale, and in the 1990s McMahon faced serious competition from a rival promotion called World Championship Wrestling. After some pains, he pivoted the characters and narratives to match the "anti-corporate" zeitgeist in a period known as the "Attitude Era." He inserted himself prominently into the kayfabe as a self-caricature, a ruthless executive heel referred to as "Mr. McMahon." His chief rival was a "blue-collar antihero" called "Stone Cold" Steve Austin who loved to chug beer and liberally exercise his middle finger. By this time, the rules had changed: An "asshole" could be a beloved babyface.

Former wrestling executive Eric Bischoff wrote in his Controversy Creates Cash memoir about spectators being a crucial ingredient in the show: "The crowd validates what the viewer at home feels." Riesman assesses Vince's genius in his heel role by using "the Austin character to co-opt his viewers' anger—at him, at their own bosses, at the whole American system." Feeding off crowd energy while channeling a populist sentiment that simultaneously validates the feelings of those watching on television and YouTube? It does sound like a MAGA rally. Riesman reminds readers that Trump has echoed a McMahon thesis: "The biggest thrill in the world is entertaining the public; there is no bigger thrill than that."

When thinking about Trump the politician, you can spot a correlation between his bravado and the two major wrestling eras covered in Ringmaster. His "Make America Great Again" spirit has a 1980s Hulk Hogan patriotic machismo vibe. He also employed the irreverence, pugnacity, and rage against the political machine ethos of the "Attitude Era." But Trump's showmanship has also been compared to many things other than wrestling: reality television, a circus, Ultimate Fighting Championship, various strongmen (both historic and present), etc. Furthermore, those two WWE themes mirrored the real world zeitgeist.

Yes, there are other interesting parallels noted by Riesman between real-life Vince, "Mr. McMahon," and the former president. Both donated to Democrats before their politics tacked hard to the starboard side. Both have survived real-life scandals and serious accusations while flaming prosecutors and media foes alike. But Trump knows a lot of people who've had their reputations filleted by the media and was tutored in brass knuckle public relations by showmen like Roy Cohn and Roger Stone.

The notion that McMahon created candidate Trump's persona is a convenient oversimplification. Trump was famous before, during, and after his stints in the WWE. McMahon isn't credited as author on The Art of the Deal. He didn't build and acquire iconic properties across the world. He didn't meet Kevin McCallister at the Plaza Hotel in Home Alone 2. He wasn't splashed by the New York Post for giving Marla Maples "the best sex she ever had." He didn't own the Miss Universe pageant. He wasn't a favored Oprah guest and pen pal. Nor did he mastermind the winning 2016 campaign platform.

Ringmaster succeeds as a deeply researched wrestling history and antagonistic executive biography written by a WWE fan. But the meat of the industry's history is sandwiched between politics. If you love the sport and detest McMahon, you'll appreciate the attempted powerbombing of his legacy—which for a liberal audience requires inferring that he's responsible for Trump. But it fails to convince this reviewer that McMahon is bigly responsible for a larger "unmaking of America."

American traditional and social medias are poisoned by highly performative actors who do take a "sledgehammer" to the "walls between fact and fiction." Former CNN honcho Jeff Zucker did his best to Tombstone Piledrive the channel's venerated hard news brand into what critics described as a WWE-esque spectacle. But the fornication of news and entertainment isn't new. Four decades ago, culture critic Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, a riveting indictment of the corporate perversion of television news programming as Vegas-style show business.

Social media are overrun by "influencers," grifters, and charlatans who prey on marks for clout. As the saying goes: Twitter isn't real life. Sure, there are probably conscious imitators in these venues who ape the "heel/babyface" formula. But McMahon is not the root of the widespread shenanigans lunging us to a cultural rock bottom. He did not create the technological platforms designed to provide "a social-validation feedback loop" by "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." And there's no evidence of a national conspiracy where people are wittingly adhering to McMahon-styled kayfabe rather than every other traditional storytelling duality of good vs. bad that has existed throughout history.

Likewise, McMahon is not responsible for the insertion of theatrics into American politics. Calvin Coolidge, the radically underrated and humble president, lamented in his 1929 autobiography, "It has become the custom in our country to expect all Chief Executives, from the President down, to conduct activities analogous to an entertainment bureau," while emphasizing there was "no occasion too trivial."

Ringmaster ends with a provocative curiosity: In 1999, nearly 20 percent of Americans identified as wrestling fans. Riesman muses that those who had WWE content "seared into our brain" are now "ascending to positions of power." For the author, those millions of fans are, "in our own way, Vince's children and are about to inhabit the Earth."

The jury is still out on whether McMahon's proverbial spawned army will conquer the country. Donald Trump remains the only president to ever face a "Stone Cold Stunner." But that could change if Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson decides to run. If that happens, the Oval Office can rightfully be viewed as a "squared circle" and McMahon could correctly be crowned the king of America's cultural ring.

Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America
by Abraham Riesman
Atria Books, 464 pp., $29.99

Rob Lockwood is a media strategist who resides in the Washington, D.C., area.