TRUTHDIG--In a May 2011 Newsweek column, the late film critic Roger Ebert exposed the bottom line behind Hollywood’s unquenchable appetite for remakes and sequels. “No movie executive has ever been fired for greenlighting a sequel,” he wrote. “Once a brand has been established in the marketplace, it makes sound business sense to repeat the formula. … [N]othing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread.”
Although Ebert’s musings are nearly 5 years old and were confined to the cinema, they apply to politics today—especially to the campaign of GOP front-runner Donald Trump. Far from being a unique candidate who has broken all the traditional rules of electioneering, as he is often portrayed by the mainstream media, Trump, too, is a remake.
Some commentators looking for historical antecedents have compared Trump with corporate executive and failed 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie. Others have likened him to Andrew Jackson, our intemperate seventh president, and to the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long. Still others have drawn parallels between Trump and Italian strongmen Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi. Some have even asked if Trump is the new Reagan.
From my perspective, however, Trump is the sequel to none other than the 38th governor of the great state of California: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I’m not the first observer to proffer a Trump-Schwarzenegger comparison. Reporters such as Seema Mehta and Kaleb Horton, writing respectively for the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair, have crafted earlier takes on the subject. Their work is good journalism and well worth reading.
But as a longtime California resident and one who served as an administrative law judge during Schwarzenegger’s governorship, I have a more personal understanding of the link between the two men that harkens back to the political malaise that gripped the state in 2003 and paved the way for Arnold’s ascension.
In my research for this column, I came across a New York Times op-ed published in late September of that year about the special election that had been set for October as a result of a citizens’ petition drive to recall Schwarzenegger’s predecessor, former Gov. Gray Davis, from office. The election had been a hot topic among my colleagues ever since Schwarzenegger announced over the summer—on “The Tonight Show”—that he would throw his hat in the ring. Most of us thought the idea was laughable.
Todd Purdum, then the Times’ Los Angeles bureau chief and now a senior writer at Politico and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, cautioned otherwise in the op-ed. The recall, in his view, was neither a laughing matter nor some kind of idiosyncratic California affectation. Instead, Purdum wrote, it was part of a ground-shifting trend sweeping the nation, marked by widespread voter disaffection with economic stagnation, spiraling budget deficits, crumbling industrial infrastructures and disillusionment with feckless establishment politicians.
The column’s headline asked: “As California Goes, So Goes the Country?” And while Purdum carefully steered away from offering a definitive answer, he leaned toward the affirmative, referring to the “germs” of dissatisfaction and distrust that were “pulsing through the bloodstream of American democracy.”
Two weeks after the article’s publication, Davis indeed was removed and Schwarzenegger was chosen by a landslide margin to replace him. The once-unthinkable had happened, as the muscle-bound seven-time Mr. Olympia, serial misogynist and buffoonish action-movie star with no prior experience in elected office suddenly became the leader of the nation’s most populous state, and in effect, my boss.
I have never laid eyes on Trump, but seeing his quest for the presidency through the prism of Schwarzenegger’s rise brings back painful memories, and casts the likenesses between the two men and their pursuit of political power in bold relief.
Although Trump was born in the U.S. of German-Scottish heritage and Schwarzenegger immigrated here from Austria at age 21, they share strikingly similar backgrounds, styles and outlooks.
Both were reared by tough, archly conservative fathers. Fred Trump was a prominent New York real estate developer, whose company was sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for discriminating against African-Americans in apartment rentals. A 1927 New York Times article listed a “Fred Trump” as among those arrested in a Memorial Day street brawl between police and the Ku Klux Klan. In a 2015 interview with the Times, Donald branded the report “totally false.”
Schwarzenegger’s father was a small-town police chief. In the years leading up to World War II, Gustav Schwarzenegger joined the Nazi Party and applied for membership in the SA, the party’s paramilitary wing. While Arnold has never flirted with similar affiliations, he expressed admiration for Hitler’s oratorical and leadership abilities in the rough cut of the 1977 bodybuilding documentary, “Pumping Iron.”
By all accounts, Schwarzenegger and Trump are fantastically wealthy, and each has benefitted enormously from our bloated celebrity culture. Trump paved his road to fortune and fame by expanding his father’s real estate empire and as a reality TV host on the hit series, “The Apprentice,” which morphed into “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Schwarzenegger, who became a household name playing Conan the Barbarian, among other iconic roles, is slated to take over as MC of “Celebrity Apprentice” later this year. Rumor has it that he’ll replace Trump’s catchphrase—“You’re fired”—with his own signature send-off: “You’re terminated.”
Renowned for their dogged work ethics, Trump and Schwarzenegger have touted their success in the private sector as assets for government service and as proof of their independence from special interests. Because he had no need to draw a taxpayer-funded paycheck, Schwarzenegger opted to serve as governor without a salary. In kindred fashion, from the outset of his presidential run, Trump has boasted that he alone among the candidates is self-funded and beholden to no one.
The pair also share grandiose and famously narcissistic character traits. “I knew I was a winner back in the late sixties,” Schwarzenegger wrote in his 1977 biography, “The Education of a Bodybuilder.” “I knew I was destined for great things.” On the stump in 2003, he promised every Californian “a fantastic job.” In his first State of the State address the following January, he promised not simply to move what he called the “boxes” of the state bureaucracy around, but to “blow them up.”
One-upping Schwarzenegger, Trump has made “greatness” and “winning” the twin pillars of his candidacy. In his official website, he’s described as “the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence.” Along the trail, he’s promised to be the greatest jobs president and the greatest commander in chief, and to hire only the greatest minds to work in his administration.
Mixing a blend of populism and hard-right scapegoating, Schwarzenegger as governor promoted moderate stands on the environment and gay marriage while savaging state employees with unpaid furloughs and threatening pay cuts in a failed effort to restore fiscal solvency and discipline. Trump, for his part, has sounded almost liberal when he has spoken about his early opposition to the Iraq War and his support for Social Security and Medicare, even as he has viciously targeted illegal immigration and Muslims as the cause of the country’s many maladies.
Both men are also adept in the art of intimidation and delivering stinging insults. During his storied bodybuilding career, Schwarzenegger was renowned for practicing “psychological warfare” to best his competitors. Once installed in Sacramento, he tried to employ the technique against his Democratic opponents in the state Legislature, openly deriding them as “girlie men.” At one point in 2009, he sent the president pro tem of the state Senate a metal sculpture of bull testicles to encourage him to fall in line with proposed social-service spending cuts.
The fifth principle listed by Trump in his widely read book, “The Art of the Deal,” is “Use Your Leverage.” “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” he wrote. “That makes the other guy smell blood and then you’re dead.” Trump’s legendary penchant for insulting opponents and critics to gain leverage was cataloged in a recent edition of “The Upshot,” the New York Times data-crunching feature, titled, “The 199 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List.”
But by far and away the most critical component of the Schwarzenegger/Trump axis is their appeal to return state and country to a mythical yesteryear. Schwarzenegger’s principal 2003 campaign slogan was “Let’s Bring California Back.” Trump’s omnipresent 2016 slogan is “Make America Great Again.”
In 2012, in a Truthdig column on the Supreme Court, I wrote about the pernicious effect of such appeals that I believe holds even greater currency now in the race for president:
For today’s tea-party-dominated Republicans, the glorified past is steeped in racial- and gender-based nostalgia. It is a vision of America drawn from simplistic and distorted allusions to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the infantile hyper-individualism of Ayn Rand and, on a more mundane level, patriarchal 1950s sitcoms like “Leave It to Beaver.” It is a vision in which clean-cut, white, Christian men hold all positions of responsibility and lead prosperous suburban lives with dutiful and well-coiffed spouses like June Cleaver at their sides. It is a vision in which racial minorities, to the extent that they are ever seen, happily accept their second-class citizenship.
In 2003, California voters made a horrible mistake electing Schwarzenegger, thinking he could return them to glory. Instead of restoring the state’s lost luster, he wrecked its finances, leaving it with a $28 billion budget deficit and skulking out of office in 2011 and back to Hollywood with an approval rating of 23 percent.
As president, would Trump do the same for the nation as a whole? Undoubtedly, but only if we allow him to write his own Hollywood ending and elect him in the first place.
(Bill Blum is a former judge and death penalty defense attorney. He is the author of three legal thrillers published by Penguin/Putnam (“Prejudicial Error,” “The Last Appeal” and “The Face of Justice”) and is a contributing writer for California Lawyer magazine. This column appeared first at the excellent truthdig.com)