How WWE's Vince McMahon reinvented his persona, his business and American politics

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The WWE’s brand of sports entertainment has always existed in its own reality, sometimes unmistakably outlandish and sometimes resembling our own with the satirical volume turned up. It’s a universe where someone could conceivably be in two places at once — especially someone like Vince McMahon. He has had the final say in the company for the better part of four decades while also portraying “Mr. McMahon,” a Lynchian evil boss character whose onscreen appeal draws on McMahon’s actual reputation for being a bit of a Lynchian evil boss. He has lied to wrestlers about their matches; engaged in petty business feuds and been accused of backstage abuses of power. Facing sexual misconduct allegations last summer, he tweeted his retirement in July, only to return as chairman in January. But through it all, we’ve known little about the real Vince — his early life, his personal struggles — until now.

For her new book, “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America,” Abraham Josephine Riesman has spent the last three years visiting the North Carolina region of McMahon’s youth, connecting with his childhood friends (many of whom weren’t aware the “Vinny Lupton” they’d known was the controversial billionaire they’d been watching for years on WWE). She’s also interviewed dozens of people who knew him at WWE, putting together a rich narrative of how “Mr. McMahon” operates. Riesman spoke to The Times about McMahon’s self-invention, the WWE’s heel turn and the role it might play in Trump-era threats to American democracy, in an interview edited for length and clarity.

You mention in the book that prior to starting it you hadn’t followed WWE for about 20 years. Was there any particular news event that inspired you to come back to it?

The genesis of this book was a conversation with my spouse about what to do with my second book. One of us said “Vince McMahon,” and that was a really good notion. A lot of it is just instinct, and then research to find why you had that instinct. When I came up with the idea in 2020, Vince wasn’t in the news. Once I started poking around I realized nobody had really done this. I didn’t have to go very far to find there’s a lot of interesting narrative in Vince’s life. There’s no shortage of controversy.

You interacted with so many people from Vince’s early days. Had anyone reached out to them before?

No. Pretty much across the board nobody had ever been asked about Vince, and definitively nobody had seen Vince recently. Vince walked away from North Carolina and never looked back. He decided his childhood is something he wanted to keep buried except for this brief period at the turn of the millennium where he would talk about [it]. But all of that was distorted, as it turns out. It was to serve a purpose. He wanted to build the Mr. McMahon persona, which was at that time one of his top priorities. He was giving an origin story of this alternate character who was a complete ass— from Day 1. But everyone I spoke to who knew Vince from sixth grade through high school, they said he was a nice kid. Friendly, did well in school. He said he was the first member of his military school to be court-martialed; I found no evidence of that.

It really is this fascinating dichotomy: You have the start of his pro wrestling career in his military school. He’s enormously proud of his pro wrestling career and the reason he’s obscured it is because he cares about his pro wrestling career. He wanted people to think he was getting into physical fights at a young age and never stopped, as opposed to his introduction to fighting being “theatrical fighting.”

You’ve researched decades of mainstream coverage of the WWE. Did you notice any shift of how his company was presented?

He definitely presents his company differently at different times. The weird thing is the media kind of eats it up. The thing about wrestling is, because the end product is regarded as “silly,” people think the process must be silly too. And nothing could be further from the truth. The process of making wrestling is extremely brutal and unfair, and no one bothers to investigate that part of it. There have been moments where the media has turned on WWE, but it doesn’t last.

Vince has given them very different things to eat over the years. In the beginning of the ’90s, when he’s hit with the steroid scandal and other scandals, his response is this little bit of obsequiousness. It’s very unlike Vince today. But by 1995, after he’s beaten [the Department of Justice] in his federal trial over steroids, there’s a real shift where he’s presenting the [then] WWF as this defiant and proud organization that won’t take criticism anymore. He starts “cutting promos” on the media saying they’re “corrupt” and “out to get us,” and that shifts public perception a bit.

The idea that made WWE popular at the turn of the millennium was, “We don’t give a crap, we will do whatever.” When they became that confrontational is when they became their most popular. Vince has, much like a wrestler, flipped the moral valence of his company many times, and it usually works.

Were you surprised when Vince returned as chairman in January?

I wasn’t surprised, no. I thought something like that was going to happen. I was in no way conclusive in the book that he was “never coming back.” The Vince McMahon era has time left as long as Vince is still kicking, which could be for a very long time — his mom lived to 101. He’s still the ultimate power there. I knew he’d be back.

Two interviews in your book really surprised me, one with 80s WWF Women’s Champion Wendi Richter and one with Gulf War-era WWF villain (and real-life friend of Saddam Hussein) General Adnan. In the book, their feelings for Vince are much warmer than one would think. Did you find it a challenge to separate the truth from the kayfabe — the wrestling stagecraft?

Sure, of course. It’s wrestling! I did the best I could. If anything, it was helpful to have the baseline knowledge that everyone in wrestling is trying to “work” you. I hope that people take my version of the research and build on it. I’m a journalist, I did my best and I have a pretty good instinct for when I’m being heavily worked. I tried to avoid everything that wasn’t cross-referenced. It’s a unique medium as the lying comes baked-in in a public way.

It was also surprising seeing how many political figures popped up in the book. We know about Vince’s longtime friendship with Donald Trump, but there’s also Ron DeSantis and Rick Santorum. It calls to mind the similarities between modern WWE and modern politics. Has wrestling influenced modern politics, or merely come to reflect it?

This is the great question. I was not trying to say “wrestling made politics this way.” It was not “Vince McMahon Unmade America,” it’s “Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America.” The experiences with Vince trained Trump to be the kind of rally speaker he is and have the kind of fungible reality strategy that he has. But I’m not trying to say wrestling made politics what it is now. What I’m trying to say is that the models Vince has used to take power are the same models that have been used to take power in politics and in business. The point of this book is that you can’t understand politics right now if you don’t understand “kayfabe.”

I don’t think anyone can argue after having read this book that wrestling was not a useful model for understanding what’s happened to the rest of society. Once you’ve said “I’m a liar and a bad person,” in the way society’s currently structured, there’s really little way to punish that person. I would like to see people like that stopped, but it’s a much tougher proposition than merely fact-checking and saying, “You’re bad.” That’s unfortunately still the strategy for so many people. I think understanding how Vince has succeeded is one of the first steps to understanding how those who want to fix this society can approach those tasks.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.