Democratic Underground  

Conan the Populist?
September 6, 2003
By Craig Roberts

Arnold Schwarzenegger took his campaign to California's Central Valley last week, showing up in a Fresno shopping center to anoint himself the leader of a populist revolution. "We have the obligation to rise up and take back the government ourselves," he told the cheering masses, "This is not a right-wing takeover. It has nothing to do with that. It is a people's takeover." Arnold says he speaks for the people, and there are apparently many Californians who believe he does.

One has to wonder why. Has Arnold fought for the people in the past? Has he been an outspoken voice for the interests of people like you and me? Has he courageously stood up to the powerful in defense of regular folks? Has he been willing to sacrifice his personal interests to promote the interests of the rest of us? Has Arnold always been there when we needed him?

True, he often has been such a hero in his movies. But his movies aren't real. You say you know full well his movies aren't real? Well, Schwarzenegger's entire candidacy is based on the assumption you don't. The only reason not to dismiss Schwarzenegger's candidacy outright as no more credible than those of Gary Coleman or the porn star is because people are either incapable or unwilling to make a distinction between reality and cinematic fantasy. Being a Hollywood action hero is not the same thing as being a hero of the people.

It seems to me the only people for whom Schwarzenegger is a true voice is that group of people we call idiots. Schwarzenegger can legitimately be seen as the voice of a people who don't take their responsibilities as citizens or the fiscal plight of California seriously. A people who don't distinguish between real heroes and movie heroes. Who demand politics be entertaining before they are willing to participate. A pathetically infantile and ignorant people, wholly undeserving of the glorious political traditions and institutions they have inherited.

Certainly Schwarzenegger doesn't claim to speak for an informed and responsible people. The public for whom he speaks "doesn't care about figures" and doesn't require him to provide any specifics on how he will address the State's fiscal crisis. Arnold is promising the people everything short of free ice cream, and he promises to fulfill all his promises without raising taxes. You would never think he was running for Governor of a State which is so financially strapped it would need Alabama to cosign if it applied for a car loan.

To even maintain the current level of services, much less fulfill promises to expand services, Schwarzenegger would have to raise taxes. If he is determined not to raise taxes, then he will have to cut back services. More than half of the spending from California's general fund goes to education, and most of the remainder goes to medical services and corrections, so what is he going to cut? These are the hard questions with which the politicians in Sacramento have been struggling for years, and informed and responsible voters struggle with these questions as well.

But not Arnold's people. They don't want to be bothered with such complexities. They just want to take their State back and stuff. They just want to vote for Arnold because Arnold is cool and Arnold makes democracy fun, and because voting for Arnold upsets all those people who think they are smarter than them. Stupid smart people.

So Schwarzenegger, more or less by his own admission, is the candidate of the stupid and shallow. Will the stupid and shallow actually go to the polls on October 7th? Will they be able to find the polls? Do they understand calendars? These are questions which are hard to answer given the unprecedented nature of the recall election. Both pollsters and gubernatorial hopefuls are having a hard time defining what a "likely voter" is in this environment. Statewide, there hasn't yet been a significant surge in voter registration resulting from the recall, but the Fresno Bee reports there has been an "unexpected windfall" in registration of Republican voters in Fresno County and "people who rarely or never vote say they will this time - because of Schwarzenegger."

Chilling as that statement should be to any red-blooded American, it doesn't mean those people are actually going to vote. It's easy to say you're going to vote for your favorite superhero right after he has spoken at your local shopping center and you still have stars in your eyes, but maintaining that conviction for a whole month and actually taking the half hour to go all the way down to the polling station, wherever that is … and by then the new fall TV season will have started …

Am I being arrogant in my dismissal of Schwarzenegger's candidacy and my characterization of the type of citizen who might vote for him? Am I ignoring the real basis for his appeal, which is his renowned superhuman ability to get things done? Must we not recognize and respect the accomplishments of this determined and seemingly ultra-capable übermensch, who has set such high goals for himself and achieved them all through discipline and unwavering focus?

High goals? There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a championship bodybuilder and we can all respect the persistence and hard work which Schwarzenegger must have put into building his physique to the remarkable level he once attained, but professional bodybuilding is hardly the noblest of sports. Setting aside its weird narcissistic elements, everyone knows the sport has been saturated with drugs and chemical stimulants and that nobody is competitive in the sport without employing artificial means to grow muscle mass. This may be changing, but it was certainly true during the era when Schwarzenegger dominated the sport, and he has admitted to using such artificial means, including anabolic steroids, to reach his goals as a bodybuilder.

And have we become a people which so worships the "six-pack" that having a great-looking body is seen as such a laudable accomplishment? There are perhaps many more people in the world who could have achieved what Schwarzenegger achieved as a bodybuilder, if they didn't have more important things to do than spend six hours every day in a gym.

And what about his film career? Schwarzenegger certainly succeeded in making himself a Hollywood star, although he isn't packing them in the way he used to. But nobody would say he succeeded in making himself a great actor. To say Schwarzenegger is more successful as an actor than somebody like Russell Crowe or Phillip Seymour Hoffman is to define that success in very narrow, materialistic terms.

But no one thinks Schwarzenegger's dream of Hollywood success ever involved aspirations to achieve great things as an artist. His acting career was never about art, it was about the same things his bodybuilding career was about: drawing attention to himself, feeding his gargantuan ego and making a lot of money. Not that these are necessarily bad things, but let's not get too over-awed by his ability to achieve "high goals."

There is no denying Schwarzenegger is a man who can set goals for himself and work hard to attain them, but he is not unique in that. The same thing could probably be said of Governor Davis or any California assemblyman. And when we talk about achievements, can we compare success as a star of Hollywood action movies with success at reconciling bitterly divided Democratic and Republican legislators to pass a major welfare reform? Cruz Bustamante may not have buns of steel, but he's accomplished a few things in his life.

And how much easier is it to attain your own selfish goals when you cut yourself loose entirely from your family, focusing exclusively on your own life with no loyalty to your parents or anyone else? Schwarzenegger never let his family get in the way of his relentless striving for self-aggrandizement, as was demonstrated in how he coldly (and now famously) rejected his mother's plea that he return to Austria for his father's funeral. Arnold was busy preparing for an upcoming competition, and besides, as he told his grieving mother, "it's too late, you know, he's dead…There's nothing to be done and I'm sorry, I can't come…" By contrast, a young Bustamante, the eldest of six children, was sweating in the fields around Fresno working as a farm laborer to help his father support the family.

It is clear Bustamante is a man who understands, as I assume most of us understand, that he is not the center of the universe and that being a good person means looking out for the interests of others as well as yourself, and sometimes being willing to give of yourself unselfishly even when that conflicts with what you may want for yourself. And that is precisely what the former Mr. Universe has never understood. And that is precisely why Schwarzenegger is uniquely unqualified to be a representative of the people.

Cruz Bustamante doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would ever be egomaniacal enough to suggest he speaks for the people. Bustamante simply is one of us. He was born and raised here in California, growing up in a working-class family. When he was younger he worked hard at the same kinds of job you and I might have worked at, and as a mature man he has given his time and energies to public service, slowly advancing in a career not powered by relentless ambition but quiet competence. You don't find much of the heroic in Bustamante, he's really nothing more than a sincere and dedicated public servant. And that makes him more than Schwarzenegger has ever been, at least while three-dimensional.

Schwarzenegger has always made it clear that everything he does he does for Arnold. He is passionately, hopelessly in love with Arnold. "I knew I was destined for great things," he wrote in his autobiography. "People will say that kind of thinking is totally immodest. I agree. Modesty is not a word that applies to me in any way - I hope it never will." In the film, Pumping Iron, which is getting him in a lot of trouble lately, he says, "I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years or like Jesus for thousands of years." If the voters of California care about Arnold half as much as he says he cares about them, October 7th will be a perfect opportunity to give the poor man a desperately needed lesson in humility. The last thing he needs is for the whole State to serve as enabler as he makes the creepy transition from egomania to megalomania.

But the scariest thing about the Schwarzenegger candidacy is this: maybe the qualities I find most distasteful - his selfishness, his egomania, his single-minded focus on his own aggrandizement - are actually the qualities that make him attractive to the people of California. Maybe that is the true source of his appeal. Perhaps he is truly the voice of the people because he represents an ideal of successful self-absorption that resonates with Californians.

Now there's a thought to keep you awake at night.

But I'm not ready to give in to such dark thoughts - at least not until October 8th. I believe for the most part the people of California are a people who take seriously their responsibilities as citizens, and are worthy to be called Americans and worthy to live in the most beautiful State in the Union. They may get excited when Arnold the movie star comes roaring through their dusty Central Valley towns, but I believe they have no intention of actually voting for the jerk. I believe they're having fun spooking the politicians in Sacramento with the specter of the Terminator, but understand the State's plight is too serious to elect a pathologically self-absorbed Hollywood actor as Governor. I believe on October 7th the people of this great State will make a sober and intelligent decision which reflects a mature understanding of their own interests, the interests of their children, and the interests of their community. These beliefs allow me finally to get to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.

Craig Roberts is a lifelong resident of California.

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