Many people in the grappling business would have you believe that wrestling fans are never happy. In truth, we’re almost comically easy to please. All we want is a show where the storylines feel logical and not slapped together at the last minute, dialogue which sounds like something an actual human being might say, one or two proper high-quality matches per episode, some variety from week to week rather than having to watch the same opponents face off ad infinitum, and above all not to have our intelligence insulted. AEW Dynamite manages this most weeks, and it’s hardly Mad Men. Sometimes it’s not even MadTV. But for most of the last decade, WWE’s programming has failed to meet these baseline criteria. And that’s if you’re being charitable and assume they’ve even been trying to produce something good.
Recently, there has been a groundswell of optimism that the quality of WWE’s on-screen output is about to improve dramatically. This has been occasioned by the spectacular defenestration of WWE chairman Vince McMahon after allegations emerged that he used company money to bankroll NDAs relating to sexual harassment of female employees. McMahon retains his majority shareholding, but has ceded his role as CEO to the duo of his daughter Stephanie and Nick Khan, while son-in-law Paul Levesque, aka Triple H, has taken over as Head of Creative.
It is this latter move that has given fans hope that WWE programming may change for the better. Triple H was executive producer of the company’s NXT brand for almost all of its history, and though the show had lost its way in the leadup to 2021’s ghastly “NXT 2.0” reboot, for a number of years it was the best weekly wrestling show on TV, precisely because it cleared the low bar of adhering to the formulas stated above. With Triple H in charge of Raw and Smackdown, surely the future is bright, right?
Well, here I am, right on cue, to try and dissuade you of this notion. And I’m going to do so using the example of the only group of people more contemptible than hardcore WWE stans: liberal centrists.
You’ve seen them, haven’t you, these liberal centrists, writing their opinion columns, RTing Femi and Best for Britain, posting 37-tweet threads about why Britpop needs to make a comeback. They think of themselves as cultured, decent, pragmatic and, above all, scrupulously fair-minded. They are scathing about extremes on both left and right, which is why they’re incapable of criticising Boris Johnson without getting a dig at Jeremy Corbyn in there, just to show they’re being even-handed. They prize moderation in politics over all things, which leads them to extol the virtues of so-called “sensible moderates” in the UK’s two main parties. This leads to what I, and many others, call the Search for the Good Tory.
The irony of liberal centrism is that, though its adherents brand left-wingers “idealists” for believing that radical change is possible, they themselves are the biggest idealists in politics. Because they pride themselves on being fair, balanced and non-ideological, they need to believe that their opponents are good people with whom they just happen to have some disagreements over policy. In the UK, unfortunately, it’s difficult to maintain this perception, as the Conservative Party are a pack of cunts. Hence, when a Tory emerges who is able at some level to fulfil centrists’ idealised image of “proper, decent conservativism”, liberals will latch onto them and hold them up as “one of the good ones”.
Many British conservatives have fulfilled the role of the Good Tory over the last few years. Ken Clarke, one of the most right-wing Home Secretaries in my lifetime, was continually proposed in the Remainer Twittersphere as the potential leader of a national unity government to stop Brexit, back when it looked like that was a possibility. Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, three MPs who quit the Tories to join the short-lived centrist Change UK party, were depicted in the liberal press as fun-loving girlbosses. Rory Stewart, a peculiar Lawrence of Arabia figure with a military background, tends to come up a lot in the discussion. Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Nick Boles, Justine Greening, Sam Gyimah; the list goes on. It matters not that these figures have invariably voted for every piece of ruinous Conservative legislation that has passed through the House of Commons. Opposition to Brexit is an article of absolute faith for the flexible centrist pragmatist, so if you butted heads with the Conservative Party leadership over the issue at any point, someone somewhere has proclaimed you a Good Tory. (On the Labour side, this vehement Remainism has led to the grotesque rehabilitation of Iraq War propagandist Alastair Campbell, now considered by self-professed moderates to be a clear-eyed crusader for truth and justice.)
The almost aptly-named Ian Dunt’s recent article about right-wing congresswoman Liz Cheney, who has just lost her Republican primary heavily to an opponent who took issue with her criticism of Donald Trump for attempting to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, illustrates this dynamic rather nicely.
Here we see how low the bar is to be considered a Good Tory. You can wave through every part of the far-right Trump agenda, but go so far as to venture the thuddingly milquetoast opinion that a defeated president should leave office voluntarily, and the likes of Dunt will hold you up as a champion of democracy. (As regards the question of whether liberal centrists tend to extend the same charity to socialists with whom you’d imagine they’d have rather more in common, don’t be silly. As a wise man once said, “centrists will ally themselves with all manner of hard-right ghouls based on a single point of agreement, but disavow left wingers completely based on a single point of divergence.”)
The really striking thing about the Search for the Good Tory is how undeterred centrists are when their fly-by-night heroes let them down by falling in line behind their party leadership and/or conservative orthodoxy. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, liberal radio host James O’Brien was full of praise for Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and the fact they both turned out to be venal sleazebags who at every turn prized money over human life has done nothing to stop his quest to find a conservative he can venerate. Nor has it stopped Dunt. Having lauded the sensibleness and moderation of the “impressive” Tom Tugendhat – who earlier this year showed his liberal credentials by calling for the summary expulsion of every Russian citizen in the UK, regardless of whether they supported Putin – during the early stages of the Conservative Party leadership contest, Dunty found himself most put out when his new Tory saviour, upon his elimination, backed the hard-right Liz Truss rather than the more moderate (but still pretty hard right) Sunak. Never mind, I’m sure Dunt and O’Brien will attach their colours to a Penny Mordaunt or Dehenna Davison in due course. I daresay that if Boris Johnson had backed Remain in 2016 (as he himself admitted he almost did before deciding championing Brexit would be better for his career), he’d have been lauded as a Good Tory at some point too.
And it’s with our soon-to-be-ex-Prime Minister that we pivot back to WWE. Or, to put it another way, many writers have compared Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, and Donald Trump to Vince McMahon, so why not square the circle? Johnson and McMahon’s trajectories in 2022 have much in common, in that both have been forced out of executive positions against their will, long after they should have been given the boot. Johnson’s administration was sleazy and corrupt even by the standards of the Conservative Party, and the scandal that precipitated the mass ministerial resignations that made his position untenable (his bestowing of a deputy chief whip position on the appropriately-monikered alleged sex pest Chris Pincher) probably doesn’t crack a top ten of his misdemeanours in office. Similarly, Vince being shit-canned for using company money to silence women feels rather like Al Capone getting sentenced to eleven years in Alcatraz for tax evasion, considering all the stuff the former WWE CEO has gotten away with in the past. In both cases, the timing was based on pure expediency for would-be successors to effect a power grab (and, for Vince, in order to save some of his bacon by hanging on to his shares). And in both cases, credulous pundits lined up to trumpet their hope that his successor would be more moral, more decent, more sensible. A Good Tory, if you will.
Triple H has certainly wasted no time putting his stamp on WWE. More programming time has been given over to in-ring action since he took over creative, which has met with fan approval. Not only has he moved a batch of his longtime NXT favourites to the main roster, but some of these are people he has rehired after the previous regime future endeavoured them (Dakota Kai, Karrion Kross, Dexter Lumis). And at long last, the banned word “wrestling” can once again be spoken on World Wrestling Entertainment television, and you can tell Michael Cole is thrilled about it.
Yet there are two compelling reasons why we should be reticent to herald a brave new world just yet. The first is very simple: this is Triple H we’re talking about. A consummate and devious backstage politician, the Game has a long track record of engaging in complex Machiavellian schemes designed to shore up his own spot at the expense of up-and-comers, as detailed in this excellent piece by the inestimable Handwerk Reviews. Who’s to say that the man who spent decades as a Vince McMahon lieutenant won’t, a few tweaks excepted, carry on where his father-in-law left off? He’s certainly shown himself to be just as ruthless. The axe has already been swung at the soon-to-be-defunct NXT UK, which hitherto had proven so curiously immune to roster cuts that I’d begun to suspect it was a Producers-style tax write-off. I can’t definitely prove the mass layoffs were a Trips call, but considering the move’s stated purpose was to pave the way for an NXT Europe project that has long been part of his grand plan for world domination, it seems highly likely. Elsewhere, the nausea-inducing United 93-esque camerawork of Kevin Dunn and his team remains in place (for now). And is Triple H’s rapid elevation of his favourites not simply the sort of thing McMahon had become increasingly prone to doing with his flavours of the month? For Karrion Kross, read Theory.
The second reason is that WWE is fundamentally dysfunctional at a corporate, interpersonal and – dare I say – psychic level. As Manchester United have shown by bringing in hotshot manager Erik ten Hag only to begin the season with embarrassing defeats to Brighton and Brentford, changing the man at the top cannot fix a rotten organisation. Modern-day WWE is less a professional wrestling promotion than a content-producing behemoth, emitting almost ten hours of first-run television programming every single week, not to mention all the Network documentaries and YouTube videos. It’s very hard to ensure high quality when everyone is so stretched. This isn’t butter scraped over too much bread, it’s an attempt to cover an entire bakery with one of those tiny pats of Flora you get at the hotel buffet. As a result, the number of genuinely over acts in the company is at an all-time low, as 2022’s execrable Royal Rumble matches demonstrated. Even the BFG’s ears couldn’t have detected some of those reactions. Summerslam was really entertaining, but so what? Even at its worst, WWE has enough talent at its disposal that it’s been able to stumble its way into an excellent pay-per-view. NXT at its peak was a beautifully formed and carefully curated hour of TV, but main roster isn’t NXT, and it’s not going to be now that the man responsible for NXT is calling the shots, for the same reason dogs don’t usually get fed sirloin steak. And, let’s not forget, Triple H has only recently recovered from a heart attack that almost killed him. It’s hard to imagine he’s operating at 100% of his capabilities, especially juggling his role as Head of Creative with the post of Head of Talent Relations.
Nevertheless, if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this essay, it’s that whoever succeeds a hated fallen ruler need only change a few things to be proclaimed a breath of fresh air. The new broom doesn’t need to do much sweeping. Even our outgoing PM, in the first months of his term in office, was the subject of an opinion piece by the political editor of the Guardian – Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, no less – which asked the question: “Liberal, nuanced, cautious: is this the real Boris Johnson?” That went well, didn’t it? So you’ll forgive me for being sceptical that Triple H, long trumpeted as the great hope for change in much the same way that the likes of Rory Stewart and Tom Tugendhat were praised by the Ian Dunts and James O’Briens of this world, is anything more than the wrestling equivalent of the Good Tory. And just as liberals will only stop losing when they drop their idealised view of their ostensible opponents on the right and accept that the today’s deranged anti-woke crusaders embody what conservatism is, and always has been, wrestling fans would do well to recognise that WWE, for better and for worse, will always be WWE.