Donald Trump might be President of the United States, but he’s a really bad businessman. That’s a well known fact. He inherited a fortune of between $40 million and $200 million – and then blew most of that. Of course he got ahead with financial assistance from his father, but he also got by with a little help from his friends. While his Trump Plaza Hotel, Casino & Convention Center was another white elephant, things might have been much worse without event promoters like Don King taking a gamble of their own and hosting shows there.
Another promoter who took such a chance was Vincent K. McMahon, Jr, the professional wrestling guru who had successfully taken his own father’s north-eastern promotion and gone national, running roughshod over regional promoters who had for years held gentlemen’s agreements to host the “World Champion” against their respective area’s top stars, but never cross over or encroach on each other’s patch. This ruthless ambition, coupled with a desire to take pro wrestling from smoky bars and into arenas of smoke-and-mirrors, led McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation to become a global phenomenon, in 1987 culminating in “WrestleMania” at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan, where Hulk Hogan faced Andre the Giant, billed at 7’4″ tall, before what McMahon’s WWF announced to be a “world indoor attendance record” of 93,173.
Upon learning that it appeared Hulk Hogan, who left the show as “World Champion,” earned more money than every other wrestler on the event combined, Jesse Ventura attempted to set up a wrestlers’ union, an idea promptly extinguished by McMahon himself after none other than Hogan ratted them all out to protect his own position. Making it in Hollywood alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in movies such as Predator and The Running Man, Jesse joined Arnie in the political arena, but not before first using his Screen Actors Guild membership to claim royalties from his WWF commentating duties.
Despite the success of WrestleMania to the point where it was able to fill stadia, McMahon agreed to stage not one but both of his follow-up WrestleMania shows – in 1988 and 1989 – at the Trump Plaza, which held less than 20,000 spectators. Donald Trump was so pleased by this that he sat in the front row, right at ringside, at each of the events. As a result, Trump and McMahon remained trusted allies.
What’s more, breaking the age-old Magic Circle-style code known as “kayfabe,” Vince McMahon went against wrestling tradition and admitted to the State of New Jersey Senate that, of course, all matches were predetermined and that shows were not sporting contests but simply entertainment (a word that you’ll notice became more prominent in Vince’s publicity as the years progressed). These admissions removed the scrutiny and taxation faced by other athletic promoters, something Vince’s wife Linda had been battling with for years while running the business behind the scenes.
Yes, if you hadn’t guessed, pro wrestling was officially “fake.” And the grudge matches and publicity stunts weren’t the only fictitious part of the whole presentation: Andre the Giant’s height and even WrestleMania’s success itself had been embellished – it turned out that there were not, in fact, 93,173 in attendance at all, as explained by Dave Meltzer, who has for years largely been one of the few serious and widely-respected documentarians and critics of pro wrestling:
Fellow billionaire Ted Turner, owner of CNN, TNT and TBS, so begrudged Vince’s refusal to sell the WWF to him that he threw everything from his other successful ventures into the wrestling organisation he did acquire, WCW – even if it meant losing Pay-Per-View revenue by putting top main event marquee matches on Monday nights, up against the WWF’s flagship show. By the time AOL Time Warner bigwigs came in to take over Turner’s businesses, they realised WCW was leeching off the other initiatives, so sold it off from Turner’s empire – ironically, to none other than McMahon himself, meaning he’d bought Turner’s wrestling company, rather than the other way around.
Vince immediately portrayed the turn of events as the victory of an up-and-coming underdog against a mighty multinational conglomerate – mostly driven by his own jealousy of Turner – and given the somewhat petty, classless way Turner had gone about trying to crush the WWF, it was easy at the time to applaud McMahon for the upset. But there were other forces, too, that contributed to sympathy for Vince and Linda McMahon around this time.
WWF star Mick Foley, who hit the news for his death-defying stunts to a backdrop of fan-made signs reading “Foley is God,” wrote New York Times bestseller Foley Is Good: And The Real World is Faker Than Wrestling. In that book, he highlighted how the right-wing Parents Television Council clashed with the WWF for their increasingly mature programming content that included racy storylines and Foley’s own violent performances. The PTC was set up by L. Brent Bozell, III, son of infamous communist witch-hunt leader Joseph McCarthy’s ally L. Brent Bozell, Jr, and according to Foley’s book utilised similar scare tactics against the wrestling company, even blaming four playground deaths on WWF performances. Wrote Foley: “It was a strategy that has produced marvelous results in the storied history of smear campaigns. No one could possibly prove that they were not a witch during the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. The Jewish people could not prove that they were not a cause of economic problems in Germany in the 1930s. Alleged Communists could not possibly prove that they were not communists during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. And Bozell probably believes that the World Wrestling Federation cannot possibly prove that wrestling did not play any part in those four deaths.”
The rags-to-riches WWF later humorously co-opted the campaign against them by creating an on-screen parody of the PTC called the RTC (“Right to Censor”), while company directors like Lowell P. Weicker, Jr – a liberal politician – continued to defend the WWF publicly in opposition to the ultra-conservative “religious right.” The McMahons eventually weathered the storm, just as they had in the 1990s when the feds targeted their company specifically for rampant steroid use, nearly putting the WWF out of business, just as Vince had been pursuing his labour of love, the World Bodybuilding Federation (or WBF).
But after Ted Turner’s WCW had been bought – and promptly crushed; shut down – by Vince McMahon, his rebellious streak began to arrive at its end. There was no more competition. He’d become more rich and powerful than he’d ever imagined, and the family business was suddenly becoming the monopolising ultra-corporate interest he’d criticised Turner for pursuing: stock traded as WWFE (World Wrestling Federation Entertainment), with its initial public offering in 1999, partly to raise finance for his latest pet project, the XFL, after the collapse of the WBF.
Vince was obsessed with being more than just a “carny” pro wrestling promoter; he banned from his shows words like “wrestling” to be replaced with terms such as “sports-entertainment”, “wrestlers” instead called “superstars” even if they were unknown, and screamed into commentators’ headsets to have them refrain from saying “belts” or “bouts” or “feuds.”
As an alternative to the NFL, the XFL, of course, was another failure, and admittedly the mainstream media were not without fault, with their instant ridicule of the product challenging the American football establishment, despite the fact the XFL actually inspired change in the NFL as well.
After the XFL was gone, along with directors like Lowell Weicker, Jr, the all-powerful, all-knowing yet unknown WWFE shareholders remained, and Vince’s campaign to “Get the F out” – changing the WWFE to simply WWE after the World Wildlife Fund had taken legal action on use of the acronym “WWF” – was one of his last attempts of edgy rebellion, by definition a surrender to long-established forces. Far from being diehard fans of his product, the shareholders were of course only interested in the bottom line, which meant no more experimental creativity, and no more risks. The product, to this day, has remained ultra-corporate, formulaic, and stale, full of hyper-scripted content and product placement.
It also meant no more scandals.
When mild-mannered Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit – secretly suffering from severe concussions and brain damage – shockingly killed himself and his family, while pro wrestling roving reporters like Dave Meltzer and Wade Keller were trying to draw attention to the industry’s need for better wrestler rights (something Jesse Ventura had wanted while fighting to form a union), the mainstream media instead threw investigative journalism completely out of the window and claimed steroid abuse and ‘roid rage had caused the killings, despite the fact they had occurred not, in fact, in a fit of rage but over the course of a weekend.
It didn’t matter. The feds returned, and the McMahons were back in front of them again having to explain themselves, only briefly touching on wrestlers’ rights enough to force Vince to introduce a WWE “Wellness Policy,” but stopping short of preventing them tying wrestlers into unfairly binding contracts while calling them “independent contractors” and making them pay for their own travel, injury bills and pension plans.
Linda, meanwhile, had by this time unsuccessfully run for office more as a personal ambition, and as seemingly an annoyance to Vince. Until Vince realised he could get the government off his back for good if he had influence there.
When they found out their old oddball ally Donald Trump was now running for office himself, they pumped around $7 million into his campaign to help get him into the White House. Trump’s approach, “unparalleled in modern presidential history,” was to guarantee influential positions for those willing to pay for it by putting him in power.
Almost all of these cabinet picks have massive conflicts of interest from the public’s perspective, but from their own perspective they now occupy the corridors of power for the express purpose of deregulating the business sectors in which they operate. Trump’s simply giving them dividends on their investment. When he campaigned suggesting he meant business, you’d better believe at least that much is true.
It might treat pro wrestlers shamefully, but WWE is safe and sound even though it may have no soul left. No longer innovative, ground-breaking, or risk-taking with liberals on its board taking on the McCarthyists, today it’s part of the establishment it once seemed to rail against. In their pursuit of more money and power, they’ve been swallowed whole by a shareholder profit motive and their political allegiances, and they’re a bigger part of the problems they used to cite and complain about. Even Ted Turner opposes Donald Trump, who in turn attacks CNN. Now, Turner is the favourable anti-hero, and Vince the establishment stooge who didn’t make it on his own in the end but was bailed out and bought and controlled by investors and politicos.
Linda McMahon has been appointed Administrator of the Small Business Administration and the McMahons – and therefore WWE – have reach right into the White House. There, resides a President who, true to pro wrestling live-action pulp fiction, claims his predecessors are “McCarthyists” though he himself was mentored by Joe McCarthy’s sidekick, Roy Cohn. But again, truth doesn’t matter, and if you argue with him, state your case, or even present cold hard facts, you’re labeled “fake news” – what the Nazis used to call lugenpresse to discredit evidence against them.
Trump, like the McMahons, know too well the dishonesty of the establishment media and its various agendas, but is now exploiting that in order to attack any and all evidence against himself. In many ways, the press brought it on itself, but the lies of this President are on such a scale that they threaten to provide a smokescreen over the truths we do get from mass media and journalists. It’s frightening to dismiss all of it as “fake news.”
No, the only truly “fake news” these days is that coming out of the Trump administration, you can be sure of that. In a regime targeting environmentalists, Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, women and the LGBT community to name a few, they’re relying on the white nationalist Steve Bannon to handle the propaganda strategy while sending Sean Spicer to berate the press that are being kicked out if they don’t report on Trump favourably. When confronted with facts, they present “alternative facts” (also known as lies). In true Orwellian fashion, to Trump, lies are truth, and truth is lies – or “lugenpresse.”
Again, this is far more fake than pro wrestling, where chair shots to the head gave life-shattering concussions and supposed “superstars” pay for their own trips and healthcare costs and often end up making more money on the independent circuit. The dangers of pro wrestling are very real, but now the carny promoters are part of Trump’s administration, they don’t have to worry about that. They’ll just keep promoting Trump instead – a superstar more dangerous than Hulk Hogan, more scripted than John Cena. A superstar they helped to create to gain influence, in exchange for millions of dollars and the spirit of entrepreneurial rebellion.
They taught him how to create a show and tell a story, even if it wasn’t true or real. And now Mick Foley is finally right: the real world is faker than wrestling.