WWE and politics: Art imitates life and life imitates art

WWE and politics: Art imitates life and life imitates art

In these upside-down times, we should look to sources of wisdom that have stood the test of time. Such sources would include the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, and, yes, Yogi Berra. Even though Yogi claimed that “I really didn’t say everything I said,” the irony captured in so many of the sayings remain eternal. A high stakes real-life drama now playing out before us illustrates that the best thing about the eternal truths is that they are eternal.

I have been a professional wrestling fan since I started watching it with my grandfather in the early days of television. I came out of the closet as a fan when World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), controlled by the Vincent McMahon family, revolutionized the business by the use of modern technology. With the advent in the 1980s of satellite and cable TV, the WWE took a mom and pop business that was dominated many individual territories around the country (loosely coordinated by several “leagues” such as the WWE, the American Wrestling Association and the National Wrestling Association) and numerous “World Championships” and championship belts and essentially consolidated the entire industry in the United States, Europe and Asia. The WWE’s business success is even the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.

First, create a character …

I used to tell my friends, who sometimes would challenge my sanity for being a wrestling fan (right question; wrong reason) that professional wrestling and politics are essentially the same business. A politician and a professional wrestler first must create a character — a public persona which may or may not resemble who they really are. Second, they must “put over” (wrestling parlance) their character with the public, largely through television and also in pubic appearances (politicians) or public shows (wrestlers). And third, a key trait in each business is the ability to look into a TV camera and lie convincingly. Many politicians and professional campaign advisers are professional wrestling fans. Among the biggest was the late Lee Atwater, a critical campaign adviser for President H.W. Bush. Besides teaching the president to eat pork rinds, he was known from time to time to round up a group of presidential aides to go watch “rastling” at the Capitol Center.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? It is an old lesson of life that failure often begets success, success begets more success, which often leads to failure. Sometimes people simply cannot keep up with change, particularly in a fast-paced high-tech society. Or sometimes success encourages competitors who are hungrier or who have a better mousetrap. But oftentimes success breeds hubris, that old fashioned Greek word for excessive confidence or pride. One of my grandfather’s favorite expressions was, “Some people just can’t stand prosperity.”

So what does this have to do with our current situation? We are witnessing the occurrence of this phenomenon in two seemingly disparate but two parallel worlds. In real life, Vince McMahon is one of President Donald Trump’s best friends. Several days after Trump was nominated and few thought he could win, McMahon wrote a $5 million check to a Trump political action committee (PAC). His wife, Linda McMahon, who was the CEO of the WWE for several years when there were steroid issues, was among Trump’s first Cabinet appointments and until recently served as head of the Small Business Administration. She now chairs the president’s largest PAC.

So the wrestling world until recently was Vince McMahon’s oyster. He had come to essentially monopolize professional wrestling on a worldwide basis and once again was ready to tackle pro-football. Some years ago he created the XFL football league with NBC executive Dick Ebersole. It operated for a short time but failed. His new league has failed as well. But suddenly, almost like a pandemic, competition has appeared on the wrestling scene. The owner of the Jacksonville Panther’s NFL pro-football team recently started a new professional wrestling league called dynamic All Elite Wrestling (AEW). It is a low-overhead operation compared to the WWE. It is a little rougher and bloodier than the WWE. And it also has some great talent that formerly wrestled for the WWE such as John Moxley, aka Dean Ambrose, aka Jonathan Goode, and Chris Jericho, aka Christopher Irvine, and Cody Rhodes, aka Cody Runnels, the son of the famous wrestler Dusty Rhodes, known as the American Dream. The son, of course, calls himself the American Nightmare. A number of its other wrestlers are largely unknown, but they all know how to put on a good show.

McMahon has taken his lumps

So where has this left McMahon? “Billionaire Vince,” as he was once known, has taken his lumps. As discussed above, his new off-season professional football league folded faster than the prior one. The WWE’s TV ratings are down significantly, and now of course they cannot wrestle in front of live crowds. The publicly traded stock of the WWE has fallen from a high of close to $90 a share to around $40. McMahon recently sold for the first time in many years a large block of stock. He has fired a number of senior business executives. Several key personnel, however, remain securely in critical positions. His daughter, Stephanie McMahon, remains the chief creative officer, and her husband, Paul Levesque, who wrestled under the name Triple H, is the executive vice president in charge of talent (or lack thereof). As they say in the world of family business, “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.”

Just as the McMahons have taken their lumps, Vince’s good friend Trump ironically seems to be in the same situation at the same time. The economy has fallen from record heights to, at a minimum, a small recession and to what could become the worst economy since the Great Depression. What pre-pandemic appeared to be the likely re-election of the president is now far from a certainty. The public will decide the now raging debate of whether the president acted in a timely way in the face of the pandemic, or was asleep at the switch for several months when some advisers warned him of the dangerous potential of the virus.

What is the lesson here? I believe it all goes back to word hubris. When things are going well, we should not believe all of our success was predestined or the result of our brilliance and our hard work. Chance, luck, fortuity, randomness, or whatever one wants to call it, plays a large part in almost anyone’s success. We should savor good fortune, appreciate it, share it, and give back to those who are less fortunate. (In fairness to the WWE, it does an excellent job of supporting our troops and supporting major charities such as Connors Cure for child cancer.) And if we are in difficult circumstances, we should try to not give up and continue to work hard and try to provide for our families and ourselves. In life, circumstances change and life evolves. There usually are some silver linings in any cloud.

The pandemic must ultimately be addressed through international cooperation or our globalized economy will never recover. Perhaps it is a warning and warm-up for other serious issues, such as climate change, which must be addressed internationally if we and future generations are to survive on this planet. And who knows, a year from now the WWE might again regain its momentum in professional wrestling and Trump might be serving a second term as president. As Yogi said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Alan J. Wilensky served in 1992-93 as acting and deputy assistant secretary for tax policy of the U.S. Treasury Department. He is now a lawyer and financial adviser in Minneapolis.

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