So I voted for the first time this year.
The Philippine national elections felt much more high stakes than usual. I’m sure a lot of that is just a matter of age. It’s the first election I’m experiencing as an (alleged) adult in my 20s, which means I’m seeing the events unfold with more context and understanding than as a child. But also, there’s no denying a lot of the rightfully heated emotions coming into this election.
You might have heard about the situation on John Oliver but allow me to summarize. The vast majority of controversies around this election surrounded one Bongbong Marcos running for president. Bongbong Marcos is none other than the son of infamous political dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The tales of Ferdinand Marcos’ corruption and abuse of power scar my country’s history. For over two decades, Marcos clung to power by installing Martial Law on the Philippines and meeting any opposition with violence. All the while, he and his family siphoned off funds from the country, leaving the nation in dire financial straits that it continues to struggle with to this day. The Marcos family threw parties while the people suffered.
All these things have been well-documented through the decades. In fact, Marcos’ reign of terror is so far reaching that I find references to it in places I wouldn’t have expected. While combing through 1992 WCW, I noticed Jesse Ventura on commentary used Marcos’ name as shorthand for corrupt chicanery, often in reference to referee calls that he didn’t like.
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The Marcoses themselves have never been shy about their wealth either. Although they maintain their stance of innocence all these years later, their lavish and extravagant lifestyles speak volumes. Imelda Marcos’ collection of over 3,000 pairs of shoes is world famous, as are the lavish celebrations the family used to host at Malacañang Palace. Just this year, while filming an interview at Imelda’s home, cameras glimpsed what appeared to be Femme Couchée VI, a long-lost work by Pablo Picasso. While there’s no real way to determine the painting’s authenticity, I know I sure wouldn’t be surprised if that family got their hands on the real deal.
For all these reasons, one can see why so many took such a passionate stance against the return of a Marcos to the highest seat of power in the country. The already tense political divides that any democratic nation deal with were further enflamed by the potential rise to power of someone whose family caused one of the country’s most significant and damaging collective traumas—quite an accomplishment given that we’re a nation that has been passed around by the world’s most notable colonizers for centuries.
Bongbong Marcos won.
The victory didn’t come out of the blue. It came as the result of decades of manipulation and misinformation as the Marcos family re-entered the public eye, then suppressed and revised the historical accounts of their original reign. It’s yet another example of how the rich and powerful abuse their money and position to manipulate mass opinion.
The Garbage Business
Now onto Vince McMahon.
I’m not here to tell you that Vince McMahon’s actions are on the same level as a political dynasty that’s victimized a country for decades. The stakes involved with the recent spat of McMahon insanity, while still significant, pale in comparison to what I just outlined. Rather, I want to point out that McMahon’s methods of handling controversy feel familiar to me. Even in his most delusional state, I doubt Vince would tell you he’s on that level either. After all, Vince McMahon, as he once famously said in response to accusations that one of his wrestlers was guilty of murder, is in the garbage business.
That’s something that has shielded Vince McMahon from public scrutiny for years now. The general distaste that the public has for professional wrestling as an industry means that its top figures rarely receive the same kind of critical eye from those outside its bubble. To many average people in the world, pro wrestling still is that garbage business that Vince called it decades ago—one not worth saving or improving as the medium itself is unsavory and broken.
At the same time, the inherently duplicitous nature of pro wrestling has provided Vince McMahon cover from controversy. After all, in an industry where everything is fake, who’s to say what really is the truth at the end of the day. Surely the man at the top of the field, in charge of the most dominant professional wrestling company of all time, would be the one with full authority over the delineation between reality and fiction.
It’s that dominion over a product meant to leave viewers constantly question what is true and what isn’t that has allowed McMahon to revel in his own filth. Whatever allegations one might hear about Vince McMahon, such as the alleged misappropriation of company funds to silence WWE employees with whom McMahon had an affair, they all fall in line with the public image of evil incarnate, TV heel, Mr. McMahon. And when the truth blends so seamlessly with fiction, it’s easy to discredit it all as kayfabe garbage nonsense.
Life Sucks and then You Die
People online have already memed all the many times in WWE history that the Mr. McMahon character spoke a little more truth than expected. The many, many instances of McMahon’s character exploiting and harassing his female employees immediately spring to mind, of course. But I don’t think Vince ever toed that line quite so smugly as he did on the May 11, 2000 edition of WWF Smackdown.
In my opinion, the famed “Life sucks and then you die” promo represents the peak of Vince McMahon’s mic work. It’s an iconic moment that lays out in less than five minutes just who the Mr. McMahon character is.
The context of it hardly even matters in the grand scheme of things. McMahon uses some of the standard heel shenanigans of the time—forcing Chris Jericho to defend the Intercontinental Championship thrice in one night—as a mere starting point for one of the most succinct and direct explanations of privilege to ever be broadcast.
McMahon starts small, opening by discussing listing simple everyday instances of injustice. Someone cutting in line, a parking space being stolen. Using these examples opens the promo perfectly. Everyone can relate to them; they’ve all felt that indignant sting. McMahon brings that emotion to the fore, hammering it home by punctuating every scenario with any reasonable person’s response: “That’s not fair!”
McMahon continues with the same structure throughout. He introduces a situation where an everyday person might feel slighted by the advantages and gifts that others around them possess. It’s McMahon’s clever escalation of topics that really takes the viewer on a journey.
After the everyday and simplistic, McMahon moves the promo into more personal space: the body. He accuses the women watching of having “cellulite hanging from [their] hips and [their] buttocks,” while the men cope with a “potbelly and…small genitalia.” The feeling of injustice grows. Now, instead of being in situations where someone forces themselves into an advantage, the viewers are reminded of the things that are out of their control. The viewers now aren’t just enraged, they’re also powerless. McMahon even hammers this point home at the end of the promo, when he reminds people that some people are “just born with inferior DNA.”
McMahon saves one of the most vicious salvos for the tail end of the promo.
“What about the money?” he taunts. “You scrimp and you save, you work yourselves half to death, and still, you can’t afford what you really want? ‘That’s not fair!’ It’s not fair that some people are rich, and you’re not!”
It’s at this point that McMahon really gives the game away. Because he’s right. It really isn’t fair that some people have money and others don’t. There’s no real system of merit that allows some people in the world endless resources while others have to struggle every day to meet the most basic of needs.
It’s not fair that Vince McMahon used his immense wealth to basically monopolize an entire industry for decades. He used that power to bend the pro wrestling industry to his will, and many, many people have been hurt and even killed in the process. And yet, McMahon and the WWE remain at the top of the pile, through sheer force of financial stubbornness. It doesn’t matter how bad the show gets or how many viewers tune in every week, the company’s already made its billions.
It’s the end of the promo that really makes it one of my favorites of all time though. Because even as the evil heel berating the audience, even at his most insulting, Mr. McMahon never actually lays the blame on the everyday man’s feet. Not a single time in the promo is there any moralizing about hard work or bootstrap pulling. There’s no good reason why some people have more and some people have less.
McMahon understands that on some level, I feel. Even if he doesn’t, his promo here shines a light on that harshest of realities—that the lines that divide us, that dictate our quality of life, are in the end constructed and arbitrary.
In the bluntest way possible, McMahon tells us, “You have to face the facts: that life is not fair.”
It’s a brilliant promo because Mr. McMahon has never felt more honest. Regardless of what Vince McMahon actually thinks, I believe that he believed every word. For those four minutes in New Haven, Connecticut, I think we saw a truth to Vince McMahon whether he wants to acknowledge it or not. It is as shameless as it is brilliant.
Honesty is a luxury that the rich can afford. It doesn’t matter who they reveal their true insidious natures too because there’s always something in the bank to throw at any problem that comes their way. McMahon flaunts this hard truth like a long lost Picasso hanging in his home. The crowd at Smackdown that night can boo McMahon all they want—and boy do they—but what does that matter to a man with all the money? They paid to see him, not the other way around.
It’s real and it’s infuriating. In many ways, it’s the perfect heel promo.
The Most Important Word Is “Together”
Twenty-two years later, and Vince McMahon appeared live on another episode of Smackdown. This time, he’s two days removed from an article in The Wall Street Journal revealing that he is under investigation for allegedly using $3 million of the WWE’s money to silence a number of extramarital affairs.
The segment couldn’t be any more different than the May 2000 one. Instead of being received as the most villainous man in pro wrestling, McMahon is showered adulation from the crowd. Kevin Dunn’s direction lovingly features close ups of members of the crowd cheering their lungs out, singing along to McMahon’s theme song, even bowing. The visual message couldn’t be any clearer: here’s our hero.
Many have already pointed out how seemingly innocuous and nothing McMahon’s promo from that point was. Just a trolling token appearance meant to ride the notoriety of the controversy and pop a rating. McMahon doesn’t really say anything notable. He makes no reference at all to troubles or controversy, no mention of taking time away or even the fact that he relinquished his corporate positions within the company. It’s a simple message to the crowd welcoming everyone to another episode of WWE Smackdown.
And yet, in this short segment I see an uncomfortable reflection of an all too familiar tactic. People have long drawn the comparison between McMahon and Donald Trump, for obvious reasons. Hell, their onscreen feud in 2007 actively invited those comparisons. I saw some on Twitter anticipating McMahon’s segment on Smackdown tonight to be an almost Trumpian rallying of the troops.
Instead, it hit much closer to home for me.
One of the shrewder tactics that Bongbong Marcos utilized during his presidential campaign was to refuse to participate in any public debates. He refused to engage in any real substantive way with his opposition because the groundwork for his victory had already been set. The Marcos family had already spent decades reshaping the narrative around their family and consolidating power within the government. All he really had to do was ride the wave to the presidency.
Here, McMahon does much of the same. He doesn’t need to address the controversy because to a large portion of the fandom — and the population as a whole — none of it even really matters. In fact, for most people, the controversy might as well not even exist at all. McMahon has been laying the foundation for this change in image for decades.
By removing himself from television, he’s effectively shed the character of Mr. McMahon from his person. He’s no longer corporate excess and unscrupulous trade practices embodied — that’s just TV, after all. No, instead, he’s humble old Vince McMahon, purveyor of all things good and fun in the WWE, a man who put his life and body on the line for our entertainment.
We’re already familiar with seeing McMahon receive massive babyface reactions every time he returns to TV. He’s a reminder of what used to be, a tie to the Attitude Era when wrestling was cool and more successful than ever. Our buddy Vince from the good old days.
McMahon had no need to interfere with that image. Anything else would go against the grain of the default.
As for what he actually said, there’s a key point that he drove home in this opening segment. All McMahon does is emphasize the signature slogan that plays at the start of every piece of WWE programming in 2022.
“Then, Now, Forever, and the most important word is Together,” he tells us.
Powerful men trying to cover up their faults love to push for togetherness. It’s such a vaguely positive thought that’s hard to dispute if you’re only approaching it from the surface level. At the same time, it brings the speaker down to the level of the audience so that they can all share in each other’s burden while painting any opposition and criticism as troublesome and divisive. It’s why Bongbong Marcos’ political slate referred to themselves as the “Uniteam” and it’s the same rhetoric Vince uses here.
Vince’s struggles are the struggles of the audience, Vince’s enemies are our enemies.
It doesn’t look it on the surface, but this promo from McMahon is no less masterful than the one from May 2000. Where “Life sucks and then you die” is a moment of pure clarity, this promo is an ingenious piece of obfuscation. Both promos on the opposite ends of the spectrum, equally effective.
I struggle to think on it any longer. Knowing how it all fits together and works, and the kind of crazy reach that WWE programming has even in the light of its dwindling viewership, I can’t help but feel frustrated. For a not insignificant portion of the fandom, this will be their only hint at the trouble over at Titan Towers. For others, it might even feel like vindication for their support of McMahon. The promo does so much with so little.
I look it all come together, and as much as I hate to say it, there’s only really one thought it leaves me with.
That’s not fair.
There Is More to Life than It Sucking and You Dying
At first, I wanted to end this piece there. I’m not the first person in the world to air grievances about Vince McMahon and I certainly won’t be the last. But the more I sat on it, the more I kept thinking about how leaving things on that note felt wrong. Or at the very least, it bummed me out a little too much.
If we strip away everything else, McMahon’s promo from May 2000 was still exactly that—a promo in a pro wrestling story. That meant that as honest and hurtful as the content of it was, that’s only because there was the implicit promise of catharsis to come afterwards. McMahon can say these awful things that are true, but we’ll feel better about it once The Rock or Stone Cold comes around to beat his ass. Of course, that’s only true with the structure of a story. But all stories only have structure because of an unchangeable fact—time keeps moving.
Even with these two promos, twenty-two years apart, we are reminded of that. The evil Mr. McMahon can one day be cheered by the same audience he berated. Last week, I would have told you that Vince McMahon’s secrets die with him and he maintains a death grip on the company until his dying days. This week, that’s not quite as certain as it was.
There’s never any guarantee that good things will happen, and that’s why we work to bring them about. In the case of the WWE and Vince McMahon, there are those that keep a meticulous track of histories that they won’t tell us about on TV. Painstaking as the effort may be, there do exist those committed to holding the company’s feet to the fire — if not by forcing any massive changes, then at least by preserving the records of the company’s missteps. Now with the story breaking in the Journal, these stories are opened up to a whole new range of interested parties that could potentially take on that burden as well.
These are the things I will try to take away from Vince McMahon’s appearance on Smackdown last week. They’re not perfect comforts, and they won’t change the world, but they’re also not nothing. For better or worse, the world doesn’t sit still for anybody.
Life may be unfair, and it does often suck, but it does also change.