The Volokh Conspiracy

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Arnold Schwarzenegger's Appeal to Russians, as Persuasion

A lot of our readers are persuaders by profession. What do you think of Schwarzenegger's video?

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I watched this video (see also this news story), and thought it was very effectively crafted. (I'm sure it was also heartfelt on Schwarzenegger's part, but sincerity by itself isn't enough.) I thought the opening about the Russian weightlifter hero of Schwarzenegger's childhood was especially effective, as was the connection back to him in the end. Nothing counterintuitive, to be sure; one is told to try to build a connection with the audience, and make clear that you're on their side even if you're attacking someone connected to them.

I just thought this was particularly well-executed, in part because the story was so concrete and vivid. Even the little touch about the 14-year-old Schwarzenegger's handshake with the Russian weightlifter (Yuri Vlasov), and how Schwarzenegger (now 74) still had a child's hand that was out of proportion to the powerful Vlasov's, struck me as affecting. Same with the story of how he kept Vlasov's photo in his room as an inspiration, despite his father's objections.

I think Schwarzenegger's forthright admission of his father's having been in the Nazi army in World War II was also effective. To Russians generally, and I expect especially to Russians who have been listening to Putin's propaganda, those wounds remain fresh. It was necessary for Schwarzenegger to "draw the sting," as trial lawyers say, of his Germanness (Russians understandably wouldn't much distinguish the Austrians from Germans here) and of his family connection. But I thought he did this especially well, and turned it around against Putin. Indeed, he painted a story of changeā€”of the father's Nazi past being replaced with the son's respect for Russia and desire for peace, and implicitly of the dark days of World War II being replaced by a more peaceful time. And that, I think, helped send the message that a similar change in Russia was possible as well.

Of course, much depends on Russian public attitudes, of which I know little. I assume Schwarzenegger, as a memorable movie action hero, is big there (as he apparently once was); but I'm not sure, and I'm also not sure how his visible age will affect that message. As I tell the students in my Persuasion class, one thing to remember about persuasion is that it's often unfair, and you can't expect it to be fair. At 74, one is surely entitled to look old, but that may well unfairly undermine one's persuasiveness in certain contexts, or unfairly strengthen it in others. (Indeed, perhaps it's unfair that one's persuasiveness should be strengthened by the fact that one was an athlete and a movie star; but, again, none of this is about fairness.) And of course I can't speak about the degree to which such appeals to the Russian people will indeed affect the actions of those who can actually control events.

Still, my tentative reaction is that this is quite effectively done, speaking as someone who is a student of persuasion, entirely apart from the merits of the matter. What do you think?