Old-time pro-wrestling territories were a sort of platonic ideal of American small business. Then the McMahons came along, and WWE took over.
Photo by Michael Vadon/Flickr
Most wrestling fans remember Linda McMahon, who last week became President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the Small Business Administration, in a wheelchair, stony-faced and immobile. It was the height of WWE's McMahon family psychodrama, in 2001, when nearly every big story had a member of the family inserted into it, in a feud meant to capitalize on the fact that everyone knows rich people are detestable and weird but nobody wants to admit it. The McMahons acting so openly weird, even if it was just a storyline, had the feel of taboo to it, like we were seeing the curtain pulled back on what a certain upper crust were really like.
At the risk of sounding uncharitable, Linda was born to play the role of a vegetable. She seemed extremely uncomfortable delivering lines in front of the camera. She was wooden, her face refusing to emote in front of a live crowd, her line delivery never reacting to context or emotional heft. So when she became the caricature of a nervous breakdown, drugged up, her husband making out with Trish Stratus in front of her in some warped combination of sexual fantasy and revenge, it was perfect. She nailed it. She just sat there, soaking up the sympathy from the audience, never moving, for weeks.
The woodenness of her acting and the years-long role as Vince McMahon's put-upon wife belied the fact that Linda was and is a ruthless, unscrupulous corporate hand. After stepping down as CEO in 2009, she ran for Senate in Connecticut, twice, on the back of her business expertise, a tacit admission that she was proud of her work in WWE (though the fact that this included allegations that she tipped off WWE's doctor about a federal steroid investigation helped sink her election bids).
So while Vince gets the lion's share of the credit for WWE's triumphs and depredations (as the men in powerful couples so often do), Linda is also responsible for the company's rise from a large but not particularly special regional pro-wrestling organization in the territory days to the nearly monopolistic global corporation it is today.
The story, broadly sketched, goes something like this: Vince's father, Vincent McMahon Sr., held to the code of honor in pro wrestling's territories which held that each promoter should keep to his own region. You could have your own champions, you could stick around in the NWA and have access to its traveling world champion, whatever. But you did not expand out from where you were based, and that meant limited cable deals, discretely drawn touring borders, and the like.
Vince Jr. had other ideas. Against his ailing father's wishes, after taking the reins of the company in 1982 he almost immediately began poaching talent from other territories and prepared to go national. That someone else (probably the Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions) would've done the same had the McMahons not succeeded in getting there first is irrelevant; this is the pro wrestling world we have. There is pro wrestling before Vince McMahon's decision to break with 80 years of pro wrestling tradition, and there is after.
And in the wake of that decision, the fully expected occurred, as territory after territory folded, unable to compete with WWE due to a combination of adhering to the obsolete code of honor which dominated the business, Vince McMahon's deeper pockets after Hulkamania broke, and his early start in the pay-per-view business. Eventually, there were only two national territories going—WWE and WCW—with a small upstart called ECW trying to get in; WWE bought both of them, too, and soon enough it was just McMahon lording over a bunch of squabbling independent promotions and the larger Japanese fed, who were content to stick to Kyoto and Tokyo.
This is the rich irony of Linda McMahon heading the Small Business Administration, an agency whose mission statement is "to aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns" and "to preserve free competitive enterprise." That she is in this high-profile position is due to WWE's ravenous appetite for putting other small businesses (read: wrestling territories) out of business. Further, that she actively, aggressively lobbied state governments to loosen regulations governing pro wrestling, allowing WWE to solidify its grip on the market when it might otherwise have stumbled enough to allow competitors to gain traction.
It isn't too much to say that old-time pro-wrestling territories, before they died at the hands of the McMahons, were a sort of platonic ideal of American small business. They seemed content to do "enough"—enough money, enough space, enough noise. They were chummy with their employees; ask anyone, they'll tell you how great it was to drink with the promoter and tell stories.
But the territories also kept those employees down as independent contractors, a practice WWE still largely adheres to. They were places of sexual abuse, havens for grifters and thieves, vortices of local political power and jockeying. Which is not to say that every small business is the same, but that many fall short of our idealization.
And like all small businesses, one of them would grow and eat the others, wholly and completely. The lie we tell ourselves—a fantasy so deeply held that it makes marks of us all—is that small businesses stay small and honorable. They don't. That's not how capitalism works. Apple was once three guys in a garage. CNN was once a twinkle in the eye of a weird Atlanta businessman. Whole Foods was just a natural-foods store. Even VICE, the place you're reading this right now, was once a small magazine up in Montreal.
So in the sense that today small business is a phase to go through rather than an ideal to aim for, Linda McMahon running the Small Business Administration makes complete sense. We're in a period when small-business creation is at a low ebb, and big businesses have never been so big due in part to the sort of aggressive deregulation and breakdown of anti-monopolistic policies that McMahon has lobbied for and benefited from. If the internet directed derisive laughter at her appointment, it's not because they dislike carnies, not really. It's that they only like the right kind of carnies, carnies who flatter them that it's all apple pie and corner stores, and that any of us can be a success. She may be the wrong kind of carnie and the McMahons may be loose with the truth, but Linda McMahon's appointment is honest about the world in a way we've not seen in a long time.
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