Trump's Schwarzenegger Problem
Celebrity politicians who rely on public affection can come unglued when it fades.
January marked the first time in American history that a president-elect launched a Twitter feud with his celebrity replacement on a reality TV show.
"Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got 'swamped' (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT," Donald Trump tweeted after the 2017 debut of Celebrity Apprentice, the show he long hosted before obtaining new employment. "So much for being a movie star…But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary."
Schwarzenegger, who governed California from 2003 until 2010, had indeed backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP primaries, and then anti-endorsed Trump in the general election for a reason dripping with irony: groping allegations.
"For the first time since I became a citizen in 1983, I will not vote for the Republican candidate for President," the former Mr. Universe said in a statement last October, the day after a tape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about how his celebrity status allowed him to "grab" women "by the pussy" without fear of being refused.
Schwarzenegger, you will recall, was accused of far more than just bragging about having his way with the ladies: Days before his first gubernatorial election, the Los Angeles Times published testimonies from a half-dozen women that he had groped and humiliated them, accusations that prompted the actor to apologize and concede that he had "behaved badly." Within hours of the Terminator's self-distancing from the GOP nominee, Trump supporters were circulating images of Arnold pawing the nether regions of a babe on his lap.
Still, anyone who has watched the classic documentary Pumping Iron could have predicted that Schwarzenegger would find a clever way to respond to Trump's Celebrity Apprentice taunts. Sure enough: "There's nothing more important than the people's work, @realDonaldTrump," the new host tweeted out. "I wish you the best of luck and I hope you'll work for ALL of the American people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings."
Get to the chopper!
In any B-grade action movie, this is the part where the antagonist says, "We are not so different, you and I." For in fact Trump and Schwarzenegger have even more in common than hosting the same television show, taking the same unusual career path from celebrity to executive office, and surviving the same type of sexual allegations.
Each man was a rank outsider in the field he would come to dominate: the bodybuilder with a thick accent in Hollywood, the Queens hustler in Manhattan real estate and high society. Each would live their lives surrounded by liberal Democrats, including sometimes at home. And each exceeded skeptics' expectations at nearly every step, in large part due to a conscious cultivation of consumer fan bases.
It's that last commonality, as applied to politics, that provides the cautionary tale. For Schwarzenegger's connection to and reliance on "the people" ended up derailing his governorship, and Trump is already exhibiting signs that popular affection may be his Achilles heel as well.
It's hard to remember now, but the California governor came into office quoting Milton Friedman and vowing to "blow up the boxes" in Sacramento. He hoped to use his populist appeal to route around the Democratic legislature. In November 2005, he called a special election to vote on eight propositions that would have reduced the power of public sector unions (à la Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker half a decade later), capped public spending, and more. After an intense and expensive campaign—including one year of the governor being dogged at each and every public appearance by union protestors, while his popularity plummeted—all eight propositions failed.
The people had spoken. Hasta la vista, Uncle Milton.
From then on, as Los Angeles magazine would later put it, "Schwarzenegger lurched 180 degrees to his left." Bullet-train boondoggles, state-run stem-cell institutes, tax increases, emissions ratchets, mandatory sexual harassment training—it was Democratic wish-list time. The governator left the state with roughly the same godawful fiscal mess he had promised to clean up.
Trump has already demonstrated a reality-bending obsession with popularity since becoming president. His press secretary's first act was to berate journalists for not believing the administration's bogus claims about the size of the audience at the inauguration. Within days the president was vowing to investigate his own groundless claim that as many as 5 million people voted illegally last November.
And if his popularity continues to dive? Stick around!