The ascension of Arnold salvation, apocalypse, or trigger for a resurgent left?
He ran and ran, all the way to the Governorship of California. Like a scene from Forrest Gump the ex-patriot Austrian shook off his callipers, built up his muscles, and lived the American dream. Former Governor Gray Davis has become a footnote and the memory of a pernicious recall campaign, unleashed by a Republican millionaire, has evaporated. This was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s moment and, arguably, America’s most high-profile election for a generation. During the election the media focus was on the shouts of “I’ll vote for you Terminator,”1 and it was possible to forget that Arnie was the official Republican candidate. Indeed, former Republican Californian Governor Pete Wilson was the mastermind behind Schwarzenegger’s campaign, a campaign whose success is not as straightforward as it might appear. There were 135 candidates — knowing nothing about most of them, surely most people would pick a name they recognised. There was no left candidate with equal name recognition — Mike Farrell (of M*A*S*H, SAG, and antiwar fame) stayed away, and Martin Sheen, often touted, said “its nice to be asked but no thanks.” Then there’s the novelty factor of a global star who claims he will “kick butt” with stuffy old Californian politicians — a novelty that won Arnie slightly less votes than were actually polled to kick out Davis. That’s an ironic figure that is often forgotten in the furious analysis of the Terminator’s celebrity, as is the fact that Arnie shared the Republican vote with Tom McClintock. Put the whole picture together and you are left with a number of unanswered questions — crucially, we still don’t really know who “Arnie” is.
Don’t mention the war
Column inches across the globe suggest Hollywood’s left activists can commend themselves on their public profile during the war. Arnie’s publicists, who predicted around Oscar time that “franchise Schwarzenegger” guaranteed extensive coverage of the race for Governor, adopted Martin Sheen’s notion that “celebrity can bring publicity for your other concerns.”6 They were right — could Gray Davis claim that his election was headline news for public and commercial broadcasters in places such as the UK, France, Australia, Norway, and even Brazil? Star power has this year played an equal role in transmitting an anti-Bush message and a pro-Republican rhetoric from the West Coast to the world.
For some in the Republican Party, Arnie’s a rags-to-riches icon, an adopted American (isn’t everyone?) on whose shoulders the future of right politics now rests. Witness the mobbing he received on various walkabouts, pre- and post election, as evidence of the basis of their belief. From the point of view of the Bush administration, Arnie makes a perfect candidate for a well-trodden political path. Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan held the highest office in California before their succession to Washington. (Arnie won’t go “all the way” however — not being born on American soil scuppers that plan.) Both also, and for different reasons, succeeded or fell upon their ability to play the media game. There is an obvious parallel between the qualities of Arnie’s onscreen persona and the mythology of Bush Jr’s Presidency. Schwarzenegger’s brand is identified by physical dominance over adversaries (Commando, Conan The Barbarian, The Running Man), backed up by technological superiority (Total Recall, Terminator 1, 2, and 3), wielded in a relentless charge to victory (Predator, Terminator again). Meanwhile, Bush is responsible for immense mobilisations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Nuclear Missile Defence programme, and phrases like “rest assured we will not be deterred from bringing our enemies to their knees.”8
All this could have been said of the last actor of Republican ilk to govern California. Even if Schwarzenegger’s abundant right-wing credentials onscreen outweigh those of any predecessor, Ronald Reagan’s patriotism, machismo, and countless clichés were of equal volume. After watching one of Arnie’s blockbuster rivals, Reagan commented: “Boy, I saw ‘Rambo’ last night and I’ll know what to do next time.”9 How many of Arnie’s Cineplex outings evoked a similar response? However, Reagan never remained silent on the question of war. He was outspoken in support of Vietnam: “I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority.”10 Vietnam to Reagan tallied with his career-long moral crusade, and his words are markedly different from Arnie’s failure to comment: “The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will.”11 As California’s governor in the 1960s, Reagan presided over a largely segregated educational system, his attitudes to multiculturalism and race leading him into direct conflict with the ethnic populations of L.A.’s poorer suburbs. The riots that took place during his term in part fueled the rise of the Black Panther Party and allowed one of its leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, to lambaste Reagan to voluminous applause in universities across the state.12 Reagan’s fervent Christian morality led to links being made — correctly or incorrectly — between him and a number of fundamentalist organisations indulgent in unpopular activities. Reagan never came out in support of gay marriage or adoption, never suggested that the children of illegal immigrants deserve equal educational rights, never lamented the damage caused by heavy industry to the environment, and never organised electoral house-to-house conferences in L.A.’s poorest communities.
It is a broader context stretching over a decade that explains why Arnie’s apparent softer line is little more than populism. Two concurrent developments have been significant. The first took place in the White House. After Reagan’s Gordon Gecko-style administration there followed Bush Sr’s “new world order.” In 1989, America was the world’s richest country but also had the widest income gap between the richest and poorest 5% of population.15 National debt accelerated to $350 billion16 and the first Iraq war left the US with 57% of global arms debts.17 In California’s cities, the urban poor were bitter. In Los Angeles, expanded media corporations embarked on an unprecedented exchange of funds that only exacerbated the problem. Republican refusal to accept the notion of a multicultural America or support affirmative action helped breed the L.A. riots of 1992. This event did as much as anything to open the door for Bill Clinton.
But Clinton’s economic policies were not so different from the Republicans’ — tax cuts for business and Federal spending cuts of $180 million. The introduction of universal health care was abandoned and the welfare system was “reformed.” The mid-’90s boom was based on finance capital and credit and business ventures. The speculative nature of the boom led to the collapse of dot.com and technology industries, hitting California hard. At the same time, Clinton talked about equality and generated a liberal public image. He appeared to have a civil rights connection. Alice Walker called him the “first black president,” and the New York Times and the Philadelphia Tribune said minority pressure groups saved Clinton from impeachment. When he went to war in Kosovo, it was justified with liberal rhetoric. Fidelity and family values may have been his Achilles heel, but to some supporters Clinton’s sexual impropriety was even some kind of antidote to the stringent morality of the right. Indeed, the issue spurred such Hollywood “bastions of fidelity” as Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson to action in campaigning against impeachment. It was watching his pal suffer the impeachment situation that put Beatty off being the Democratic counter to Arnie and himself standing in California.
Los Angeles is the third-largest city-economy in the world, after Tokyo and New York, and it exemplifies a changing American demographic. Between 1970 and 1998, its Latino population grew to outnumber the Anglo one by more than a million. That growth continues and is replicated in New York, Chicago, and Boston. It’s those Latino workers who have been thrown into turmoil by recent events. So, despite having voted for Proposition 187 (which prevents immigrants from access to all sorts of basic necessities and was backed by Pat Buchanan), Arnie now supports education for illegal arrivals in California. Despite being quoted as feeling physically sick at the thought of homosexual sex,18 Arnie suddenly wants legislation supporting gayrelationships. What his early campaign shots represent is a desperate attempt by the Republican right to appear at least lukewarm to those who are beginning, as a result of economic factors and Bush’s war abroad, to view Bush with the same contempt as they did Reagan.
What happens next?
Where do these underlying tensions lead? Can Arnie’s tenure as governor withstand them? Could he even save the President from the electoral defeat that many commentators on the left now predict?
President Bush is increasingly unpopular, as Iraq drags on and as protests greet him across the world — especially in the home nation of his greatest ally, Tony Blair. If Michael Moore‘s book sales success is anything to go by (Dude Where’s My Country continues to top the bestseller lists), there is a smouldering anti-Bush sentiment at home too, and beyond the Hollywood left. How long before the mask slips and Arnie begins to push home measures like Proposition 187 — the anti-immigrant bill that he backed so vehemently in 1994? Some already fear an attack on the growing Latino population — notably, Salma Hayek, who wants to homogenise the Latino vote behind a future and as-yet-unknown liberal candidate.20 How long before those who voted recognise that Arnie’s economic policies do not reverse the State’s energy and jobs crises, that they are in fact similar to Gray Davis’ polices, which were themselves a copy of Pete Wilson’s? How long before the population of the world’s fifth richest economy see their newly elected leader nail his colours to the mast — what happens when Arnie is forced out hiding on the question of Iraq?
- Army Archerd, “Now Arnold’s really pumped about politics,” Variety Friday 8th August (2003), 1. [↩]
- NBC News footage, shown on BBC News 24, October 10th, 2003. [↩]
- Sean Penn, quoted in Alistair Lyon, “Sean Penn says war in Iraq is avoidable,” Yahoo News, December 16th (2002). [↩]
- “Sheen leads ‘virtual’ Iraq protest,” www.bbc.co.uk, February 20th (2003). [↩]
- Transcript of speech by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon to Central Park rally against war on October 6th 2002, “Against Fundamentalism,” published in The Nation October 18th (2002), 1. [↩]
- Martin Sheen, quoted in Horizon Magazine (Enterprise Foundation), November 1999. [↩]
- Nikki Finke, “Deadline Hollywood”, LA Weekly, August 15th (2003). [↩]
- George W. Bush, speech to American Air Force squadrons, broadcast on ITN News Channel, February 2003. [↩]
- Transcript of U.S. Government-produced film in Gerald LaRoque, “The Media and Images of War,” Center for Defence Information, February 1994. [↩]
- Ronald Reagan, speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983, quoted in “The Bonzo Years: 1983,” www.bonzo.com [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Accounts in Eldridge Cleaver, Post Prison Writings and Speeches (New York: Random House, 1971). [↩]
- Stephen Prince, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-89 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 218. [↩]
- Rush Limbaugh, quoted in The Washington Times, August 23rd (2003). [↩]
- The Wall Street Journal, quoted in Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor (New York: Random House, 1990), 53. [↩]
- Business Week, November 25th (1992). [↩]
- Phillips, 133. [↩]
- London Evening Standard news reports quoted in Jackson Thoreau, “Woman says she was harassed by family man Schwarzenegger for two days to have sex,” sf.indymedia.org, August 12th (2003). [↩]
- Schwarzenegger Q&A session quoted by Jonathan Ross on “Friday Night with Jonathan Ross,” BBC ONE, September 12th (2003). [↩]
- World Entertainment News Network, August 30th (2003). [↩]