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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.

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