Kings of carnival hucksterism. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

April 11, 2023   7 mins

America is witnessing two notable comebacks. The first, covered incessantly by the media, concerns Donald Trump’s quest to regain the presidency — recently complicated by his indictment in New York. The second, though subject to less scrutiny, is no less interesting. Vince McMahon, the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. — more commonly known as WWE — is on manoeuvres. Forced into retirement last summer by a Wall Street Journal investigation that found he had paid millions of dollars in hush money to women he sexually harassed, McMahon is now selling his wrestling business for $9 billion. He is guaranteed a leading role in the reorganised company.

There is a longstanding theory that “wrestling explains Trump”, who has hosted and occasionally even performed on McMahon’s WWE shows. Vann Newkirk first made the case in The Atlantic in May 2016 and several articles with similar arguments followed. Trump had successfully navigated a chaotic primary “fight” to become the Republican frontrunner. A few months before he was elected, Jeremy Gordon asked, in the New York Times, if “everything” was wrestling. Back then, the discourse profoundly misunderstood the relationship between sport and politics. So why is it, like Trump and McMahon, making a notable comeback?

Last month, for instance, Abraham Josephine Riesman published a book that attempts to explain — to a mainstream audience — McMahon’s rise as a wrestling tycoon in relation to Trump’s emergence as a national politician. Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, argues that “neokayfabe is the essence of the Republican strategy for campaigning and governance today”. Here, “kayfabe” refers to what was an unspoken rule of the wrestling world, until 1989: that everyone pretends that the outcomes of the matches weren’t predetermined. “Old kayfabe was built on the solid, flat foundation of one big lie: that wrestling was real”, Riesman writes in a New York Times op-ed. (The “real” matches of a century earlier often degenerated into long, boring grappling affairs on the mat, eventually necessitating some fakery to spice them up.) Even outside the ring, the industry’s employees were expected to uphold the illusion that the matches were genuine athletic contests, and the wrestlers’ emotions authentic.

That is, until 1989, when McMahon publicly disclosed that match outcomes were predetermined, to evade regulatory costs imposed on legitimate sports — as opposed to mere sporting exhibitions — by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission. This revelation marked a major turning point in the industry. From then on, companies promoted wrestling as entertainment, rather than simply a contest of excellence — concentrating on storylines, characters and theatricality, in addition to the performers’ athletic prowess. Neokayfabe, Riesman writes, “rests on a slippery, ever-wobbling jumble of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, all delivered with the utmost passion and commitment”. It’s not hard to see why he’s tempted to draw political parallels.

But there are many oversimplified accounts of wrestling, and alas, Riesman’s is one of them. The “kayfabe” boundary was never strict. The audience was always at least vaguely aware of the sport’s falsity, in part due to the periodic exposes that appeared throughout the 20th century. Yet most wilfully participated in the ruse — some for fun, others to honour the commitment of the performers to the illusion. Besides, McMahon’s “neokayfabe” was merely an amplified version of what came before — an exercise in entertainment, bolstered by aggressive national marketing, branding, intellectual property protection, and numerous collaborations with celebrities.

However, Riesman, to make his point, has to oversimplify. He offers few fresh insights into McMahon’s life or career — because McMahon is intended to represent more than just himself. He is, rather, the cunning businessman who provided a “neokayfabe” blueprint that his old pal Trump adapted to craft a vivid, aggressive, and anti-truth strategy. It was this strategy that the American Right adopted, to sow discord across a country recently united by Obama’s calm, paternalistic centrism.

It is a straightforward, superficially appealing narrative — especially for those who casually watched wrestling in the late Nineties, when McMahon, with his steroidal physique and signature swagger, would confidently stride onto Monday Night Raw as the villainous boss. However, as Joe Biden might say, it’s simply “a bunch of malarkey”. Both Trump and McMahon owe their fame and fortune to something much bigger and older than both of them. Something at the heart of the American Dream: marketing.

Marketing and advertising are America’s most original contributions to global culture. This nation, best known for refining and selling the ideas of others, has produced great evangelists, poets, and statesmen — all of them more skilled at promoting concepts than actually articulating them in any detail. The myth of America’s founding, as an uninhabited land with unlimited opportunities, served as a necessary fiction to persuade immigrants to endure a treacherous ocean journey and start anew. Americans have, ever since, been particularly susceptible to marketing strategies promising a destiny of endless prosperity.

And it was through ever-evolving marketing methods that pro wrestling evolved — from a carnival attraction with roots in the collar-and-elbow and catch-as-catch-can grappling styles imported from the United Kingdom into a multi-billion-dollar global phenomenon. These methods also transformed a portly man with a poor hair weave and a knack for composing oddly memorable tweets into the world’s most powerful leader. Trump harnessed marketing to achieve exceptional worldwide name recognition; McMahon used it to consolidate control over the somewhat disorganised wrestling industry that operated throughout the United States until the mid-Eighties, transforming the $1 million company he bought from his father in 1982 into a $9 billion sale in 2023.

The reductive comparison between the intricate landscape of US politics and the spectacle of pro wrestling is just another form of marketing. Much of the media reduces political events to us-versus-them narratives, in order to boost ratings or clicks. It’s easy to forget that politics is a multifaceted system with various influences — and that it directs all our lives. Politicians can only talk to us through the media, after all. Marketing must necessarily play a crucial role in shaping their decision-making. It took an entire team of millennials to write Hillary Clinton’s tweets, for instance.

Politicians work on their personal brands more than most businesspeople, and promote policy positions like any other “product” in the marketplace of ideas, constantly competing to employ new tactics and technologies to reach voters more effectively. This approach is working in politics: the 2020 election saw a record number of ballots cast. It worked, too, in wrestling. In the Nineties, McMahon’s company and its main competitor, World Championship Wrestling, combined to achieve remarkable ratings, through the innovative strategies that fall under the umbrella of “neokayfabe”. But it doesn’t follow that wrestling guided politics; merely that both were guided by the eternal American undercurrent of marketing.

Indeed, comparing the producers and consumers of “neokayfabe” to politicians and voters is both misleading and condescending. While there may be some parallels in the blurring of reality and fiction, the stakes, motivations, and consequences of political actions are vastly different from those in professional wrestling. Equating the two undermines the seriousness of the political process, and to reduce Republican campaigning and governance to “neokayfabe” ignores the multitude of forces — class, race, gender, international relations — shaping political decisions and strategies. Entertainment may influence politics, but politics is not, ultimately entertainment.

Wrestling, too, is more than entertainment. Reisman’s narrative does a disservice to the sport, by telling its story through the lens of one vague concept from McMahon’s life. Pro wrestling, while diverging from its ancient roots by becoming scripted, maintains a connection to the motivations that drove ancient Greeks to compete in it: the desire to use each agon, or contest, to prove arete, or excellence, still motivates daredevil wrestlers such as Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay. The physical techniques and manoeuvres used in pro wrestling are often derived from traditional wrestling styles. And wrestlers still train rigorously to develop their physical abilities and execute complex moves in the ring — even if their performance in matches is ultimately governed by employers seeking a good spectacle.

It’s crucial to distinguish between — rather than conflate — these forms of performance, and the consequences they have. Even seasoned political commentators, who primarily observe and analyse, can occasionally misinterpret the the sort of performance they’re watching (“Trump is just taunting us like a pro wrestler trying to sell tickets to his match; he’ll drop out soon!”), and thereby fail to understand the possible outcomes (Trump, conducting an unconventional yet highly effective political campaign, secures the presidency).

In wrestling, fan-driven publications known as “dirt sheets”, such as Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter, play a role comparable to that of Vox and Politico in politics. These publications provided insider knowledge, enhancing fans’ enjoyment of the sport. However, a fixation on firings, hirings, booking decisions and television ratings sometimes overshadows the fact that there are actual matches to appreciate. This situation parallels the way an obsession with political gossip, which bears at least a passing resemblance to “dirt sheet” reporting, can divert attention from the substance of politics itself.

Wrestling’s deeper meaning is not found in the destructive rhetoric of its interviews or the “neokayfabe” that supposedly blurs the lines between backstage manoeuvring and centre-stage presentation, but in the camaraderie among athletes of diverse backgrounds. Gatherings such as Red Bastien’s Shootout in Dallas exemplify this, as wrestlers get together to reminisce and refer to each other as “brother”. Riesman reduces the sport, fundamentally the business of these performance-bonded “brothers”, to a mere prop for a partisan argument. Hasty to criticise McMahon, Trump, and an entire political party, the author neglects to provide an insight into the wrestling business, instead peremptorily declaring the demise of “real” wrestling and “real” Right-wing politics. In so doing, Riesman also dismisses the substance of still-extant “real” Right-wing politics and its impact on the 70 million Americans who support it — people who voted for Trump because they had faith either in him or the Republican Party.

Both modern wrestlers and Trump excel at emotional appeals — but both realms of performance are merely marketing-improved variants on carnival hucksterism. Wrestling emerged from carnival sideshows, and its goal, as with any field of endeavour that utilises sales and marketing, was to extract as much money as possible from unsuspecting customers. Trump’s continuing scorched-earth tactics — such as using his recent arrest as a means to dominate the news cycle and overshadow his chief Republican competitors for the presidential nomination — resemble short-sighted promoters who enflame fans’ sentiments for immediate gains, perhaps risking long-term destruction.

This marketing-centred approach is not exclusive to politicians and wrestlers; it is also employed by tech bros, bankers, and rappers. Indeed, marketing tactics are so prevalent in American society that it is easy to forget that, beneath surface-level spectacles, there are still some shared values and meaningful relationships. But by focusing on these deeper, more enduring aspects, we may find ourselves able to engage with everything, from politics to sport, in terms of what truly matters in our lives.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work