While a pro-Trump political slant for the soon to be relaunched XFL is nowhere close to official yet, history tells us that Vince McMahon making a move in that direction would not exactly be very surprising. The WWE chief’s products have blatantly pushed right wing politics for years, and while everyone’s familiar with pro wrestling’s particular brand of rah rah patriotism, there was a time not so long ago when WWE went further than that. During the first five years or so of George W. Bush’s presidency, for instance, Bush-ian rhetoric was internalized on WWE programming and the promotion’s storylines more broadly took on a conservative slant blatant enough to match McMahon’s own views. If he really wanted to, McMahon could even try to take some credit for Bush’s 2000 victory.
In 1999, when WWE launched SmackDown on the now-defunct UPN broadcast network, the company found a new thorn in its side in the form of L. Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council. At the time, WWE’s television product continued to target kids with its toy line and other merchandise while simultaneously being about as lewd as mainstream wrestling had ever been. With a new WWE show on the public airwaves, the PTC, which did not yet target cable shows, sprung into action, and WWE soon started losing sponsors. WWE toned down their shows in response, while also launching a lawsuit against the PTC, which had defamed the company in various public statements; that suit ended in a settlement that included a public apology from Bozell.
You will not be surprised to learn that it was not quite as simple as all that. While all of this was going on, a heel group named Right to Censor (RTC for short) appeared on WWE programming. Throughout 2000, WWE heavily pushed a nonpartisan voter registration drive dubbed “SmackDown Your Vote.” The Rock appeared at the Republican National Convention, where he spoke to reporters about Bozell, who had said that that whoever invited him must be “on drugs.” He also pushed the company narrative that the WWE audience could decide the election. Still, this was supposed to be an expressly nonpartisan project, despite Democratic nominee Al Gore’s running mate being Joe Lieberman, a PTC board member.
The “nonpartisan” bit was dropped the night before the election.
During an RTC match, play by play announcer Jim Ross noted that McMahon was saying that the fans were going to elect the next president and asked color commentator Jerry Lawler who he was voting for. “I…I…I tell you who…I’ll tell you who I’m not gonna vote for,” replied a nervous-sounding Lawler. “I’m not gonna vote for Gore and Lieberman! Let’s face it, Gore and Lieberman could be card-carrying members of RTC. They love to censor things!” Ross then issued a disclaimer that Lawler’s views were his own and not those of WWE, though he did add that “I’m not saying I’m endorsing those two gentlemen, either.” Lawler then backed off slightly with a half-joke: “OK, I’m just saying I’m gonna vote for Bush because I’m in Texas. How about that?”
They went back to the match, but Lawler continued to go off on the RTC even more hamhandedly than usual—shortly after he had already connected them to the Democratic presidential ticket. “I’ll tell ya, these Right to Censor…see? They love to censor people. They don’t want you to have freedom of speech, freedom of press. They wanna control everything about everybody’s life!” Ross then stressed again that the WWE was a nonpartisan organization who only wanted fans to exercise their right to vote. Lawler finally moved past it after that, praising McMahon for his eloquence in pushing “SmackDown Your Vote” earlier in the show. Then Ross equated the match’s result, which saw RTC wining the tag team championship, to the mass suicide at Jonestown, which was not exactly his usual type of hyperbole. In the November 13th Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer, pro wrestling’s longest tenured reporter, classified Ross’s chiding of Lawler as “that fake WWF apology, as if it wasn’t supposed to slip out.”
This all got dragged back up few months before the next presidential election in 2004, when Mick Foley, promoting “SmackDown Your Vote,” appeared on Air America Radio’s “Morning Sedition.” a show hosted by Marc Maron that featured Rachel Maddow as news anchor. The discussion came around to the WWE’s 2000 SmackDown Your Vote campaign, and how Lawler defied its stated nonpartisan goals. Foley responded by defending Lawler, saying that “I think he was going against Lieberman mostly, because Lieberman was aligned with the Parent’s Television Council, whose only purpose it seemed was to get SmackDown off the air at that time.” Foley also added that he felt as if Lieberman did a bad job vetting his associates, since Bozell was “a pioneer of smear tactics.”
Later that week, Meltzer recapped the Foley interview in the August 30th issue of the Observer. On the 14th page of an 18 page newsletter, in the middle of a recap that some readers might skip, Meltzer dropped a significant item. “There are people significantly high in the Democratic party who felt that could have swayed the election, although with race that close, everything on both sides could have swayed it,” he wrote.
Politics invaded WWE storylines most blatantly during the early days of the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. Yes, in 2002, post-9/11 patriotism was exploited by the formation of “The Un-Americans,” a group of Canadians (plus one Brit) who had all lived in the U.S. for years. But that was largely typical pro wrestling stuff, even if it was stupider than usual and even though The Un-Americans almost burned the American flag in Madison Square Garden 16 days before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was the Iraq war that really kicked the politicization of WWE storylines into overdrive.
On April 14, 2003, just three weeks after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Chris Nowinski, the Harvard grad now known as a brain injury activist, debated Scott Steiner about the pros and cons of the war. Steiner had recently returned to WWE and bombed as a main eventer because he was no longer in the physical shape to have a main event caliber match, and as a result was being shunted wherever his big dumb scary womanizing character would fit most effectively. That included being the big dumb virtuous counterpart to Nowinski, a Harvard grad cast as a liberal elitist.
“I would like to reiterate and expound [on] the statements I made last week, with the contention that America is using its vast military superiority in order to bully smaller nations,” began Nowinski. “And I ask you: Where does it end? Do we invade and overthrow every government that doesn’t seem to share the worldview of our country’s administration?” At which point the crowd cheers. “Do we go invade Syria now? Or North Korea? Or do we only invade countries that have oil? Let’s face it, this war is unnecessary and ludicrous!” After noting that this speech was an expression of his First Amendment rights—something that Steiner actually agreed with, it was time for a rebuttal from “Big Poppa Pump.”
“Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one,” he began after conceding the free speech argument. “Even a master debater like yourself. See, we as a country, we didn’t start this thing. Terrorists started this. Terrorism started this when they hijacked planes [and] flew ’em into buildings on 9/11! Terrorism started this, and Iraq has been known to harbor, finance, support, and even train terrorism. They started it! Terrorism started it, not us! Terrorisms drew first blood on 9/11, and you can bet your sweet ass we’re gonna get even, and we’re gonna finish it.”
Steiner then turned to Supporting The Troops. “Bottom line is, there are thousands of Americans, men and women, who are fighting for our freedom, making the ultimate sacrifice,” he added. “They’re the real heroes, and I support ’em! So you, the Dixie Chicks, all those Hollywood numbnuts that don’t support our troops can go straight to hell!” At which point he was interrupted by huge cheers. “Or France, same difference! Just don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, because we ain’t gonna miss ya!” Before that could go any further, Nowinski brought out Three Minute Warning, a giant Samoan tag team best known for attacking a pair of “lesbians” for not fucking fast enough, to take out Steiner.
Steiner’s quip about France’s opposition to the war was designed to set up the debut of La Resistance, a “French” tag team who attacked him two weeks later. With Republican distaste for the French reaching ludicrous highs—French fries were renamed “freedom fries” in the Congressional cafeteria by GOP leadership while the French delegation to the United Nations were photoshopped to be literal weasels on the cover of the New York Post—it was clear what Vince McMahon expected of WWE fans. “We are coming to WWE to teach you Americans a lesson,” says Sylvain Grenier (actually from Montreal) in La Resistance’s first hype video, which is shot to place the team at a TV news desk. His partner, Rene Dupree (actually from Moncton, New Brunswick), added that “It seems you have a history of dominating and destroying cultures and nations that don’t buy into your propaganda.” The video then continues cutting back and forth on each point:
Grenier: “Well, it’s not gonna work with us!”
Dupree: “There’s no reason why you should fear us, just because we have different points of view.”
Grenier: “Our wealth of culture should not intimidate you.”
Dupree: “You’ll learn to accept, what you don’t understand.”
Grenier: “Don’t be afraid.”
Both wrestlers were too inexperienced to generate much excitement, with the team’s best days coming when Rob Conway—a New Jersey native who had settled in the Louisville area—joined the team. Billed as a “French sympathizer” and La Resistance’s resident master of disguise, he was clearly inserted into the team so it had solid, dependable, experienced performer that would help them have watchable wrestling matches. The act nevertheless failed to pick up steam, only shining when the “French” act was dropped and they scored a tag title win in Montreal.
The last of the really overtly political storylines came just after Bush was re-elected in 2004, when Muhammad Hassan (deeply tanned Italian-American Marc Copani) and manager Khosrow Daivari (actual Iranian-American Dara Shawn Daivari) debuted on television. The idea was that the two were Arab-Americans born in the States who pled with the fans to judge them for who they were and not by their appearance or religion. Sounds good, right?
It was not good. Each of the pair’s vignettes and eventual in-arena promos featured Daivari yelling Farsi translations and the two kept getting angrier with each appearance. Once Hassan started wrestling, he was a full-blown villain. The experiment went on for several months only to fly off the rails when Hassan avenged Daivari’s “martyrdom” at the hands of The Undertaker—that is, Daivari lost a match to him—by having a squad of masked goons reenact beheading videos by strangling The Undertaker with piano wire.
That would have been bad enough had it not aired on July 7th, just hours after the 7/7 terrorist attacked that rocked London. But that is when it aired, and while it was edited from the version of SmackDown that aired abroad, both WWE and UPN made the call not to cut the segment in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, this led to many complaints and a ton of negative coverage, to the point that Hassan was banned from the network and effectively killed off a few weeks later. The politics of WWE programming have been toned down significantly since then, although McMahon’s own views remain readily apparent.
Would it really shock anyone if the man behind all of this, who is one of the few people President Trump follows on Twitter and the spouse of a cabinet member, appears to be poised to launch a company designed to profit off the anger of Trump supporters? The question isn’t if Vince McMahon would do such a thing; we already know the answer to that. The question is how he’ll do it.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.