×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How Arnold Schwarzenegger Previewed Donald Trump’s Political Future

A catchphrase-spouting celebrity outsider leaps to the top of the political heap, unleashing angst among the pundit class that initially refused to take him seriously. Donald Trump? Well, yes, but also Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, and his “Predator” co-star Jesse Ventura, the onetime wrestler who held the same office in Minnesota.

Trump’s success in the Republican presidential race has triggered an anthropological dig to unearth parallels and root causes. Some trace it, for example, to talk radio. Others have pointed to 2008 and Sarah Palin, whose stint in reality television followed her vice presidential bid, or Barack Obama, given the wild enthusiasm generated by his first campaign — and by opponents’ attempts then to label him a “celebrity” as a means of dismissing him. And of course, colorful businessman Ross Perot left his mark on the 1992 race.

Yet the closest parallel to Trump (his political twin, if you will) is Schwarzenegger, who projected an image of strength and a gift for sound bites crafted by writers and honed in the editing room, then perfected via the talk-show circuit — Leno and Letterman, not “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation.” It’s no accident that Schwarzenegger confirmed his 2003 gubernatorial bid on “The Tonight Show.”

As some have noted, there’s an obvious symmetry in the “Conan the Barbarian” star replacing Trump as host of NBC’s “The Apprentice.” The two even share the line “You’re fired,” which Schwarzenegger delivered while dispatching a terrorist in “True Lies.”

Several political scientists have identified Trump’s appeal as evidence of an authoritarian streak in American politics, “leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat, and impose order,” as described in an exhaustive Vox piece. In that vein, Schwarzenegger (and now Trump) wooed voters by presenting himself as someone who would shake up the existing system, and steamroll structural impediments to achieving rapid progress.

At the core of all this, though, is an inability, or failure, to distinguish the celebrity exterior from reality. For all the talk about heightened consumer sophistication in the digital age, seeing is still believing, allowing Schwarzenegger and Trump to seamlessly migrate their personas from movies and TV — the action hero, the triumphant CEO — directly into politics.

“For all the talk about heightened consumer sophistication in the digital age, seeing is still believing, allowing Schwarzenegger and Trump to migrate their personas from movies and TV directly into politics.”
@blowryontv on Twitter

Perhaps that’s why John Oliver, in a 20-minute dismantling of Trump on his HBO program “Last Week Tonight,” referred to “the character of Donald Trump,” drawing a subtle distinction between the qualities projected via his media footprint and the actual person.

For many, however – and almost certainly many of those drawn to Trump’s candidacy – the two incarnations are inseparable. And as with Schwarzenegger – who has joined the fray in the current race, endorsing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, using (what else?) a movie line in referring to him as “an action hero” – the media coverage has been practically giddy due to those overlapping spheres, providing cover to approach politics with the swooping graphics and gladiatorial sizzle of an NFL playoff game, with ratings and Web traffic to match.

Five years ago, as Schwarzenegger’s time in Sacramento was ending, your humble correspondent coined a term for this fluid exchange between entertainment and politics: “celebutics.” It spoke to a blurring of those lines, in a reality TV/YouTube age where merely being famous increasingly became ample proof of one’s legitimacy and worth.

Historically, California has gained a reputation as a national trendsetter — culturally and technologically, if perhaps no longer quite so much politically — although not always in the most flattering ways. To quote a very old joke, the popular perception of the Golden State is similar to granola: a place filled with nuts and flakes.

In this context, though, the guy who played the Terminator really did offer a glimpse of the future. Because at least in this strange political moment, we are all Caleefornians now.

More Voices

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content