Schwarzenegger vs. Trump: A Styrian Oak Resisting The Donald

The big news of the week was that James Robart, a Washington federal judge, lifted the travel ban for seven Muslim countries, whose nationals are now allowed to re-enter the US with their visa and green cards. It was a major victory for the rule of law, though it won’t do much to change the shock and awe type policy orientation which marks Trump policy for the next few years.

On a more entertaining note, Trump (2017) had ridiculed Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California, bodybuilder, movie actor and entertainer on his Celebrity Apprentice show for his low ratings compared to what Trump himself was able to accomplish. Schwarzenegger (2017), himself a person without a small ego, lashed back against the President by proposing in a videotape to switch roles between him and Trump. Trump knows the TV entertainment world so well, while President Schwarzenegger would allow people to”sleep comfortably again”. Who is this bodybuilder/movie star/real-estate investor/governor/entertainer?

I had read Schwarzenegger’s (2012) autobiography in parts and watched a few of his old bodybuilding videos explaining what bodybuilding was, while endlessly promoting it (a small selection of videos here). His strong Austrian accent betrays his heritage, which he always sought to escape. Having also spent most of my childhood in Austria, I may be able to speak about an important personality characteristic that lifts him above the average Austrian and make him have such a strong ego that gets engaged in public conflicts, as is the case with Trump.

Schwarzenegger was born and raised in Thal, near Graz in Austria, in 1947. His father worked for the local police in postwar Austria. At that time, the British had occupied the southeastern part of Austria (it was divided in 4 between 1945 and 1955 under allied occupation, which ended with the state neutrality treaty- the most crucial founding story of the second Austrian republic). The war had just ended. The country was destroyed. Most people had rather meager incomes, as did his parents. His mother administered the family income, which was exclusively earned by his father. His father wanted him to become a police officer like himself, and his mother wanted him to go to trade school, though he was satisfied with none of it.

Showing an early entrepreneurial talent he would work part-time besides school at a young age, so he could buy the equipment for bodybuilding. He was first inspired to take up bodybuilding after visiting a gym. He had also watched a movie about the US, which had big highways, bridges, buildings and roads. He was so mesmerized by the large size of objects in the US that he really wanted to live there, while everything else in Austria became too small for his taste. He began bodybuilding at age 14 and realized that it would get him the entrance ticket to immigrate to the US, which happened promptly at age 21 shortly after he won the Mr. Universe. A talent scout in the US became interested in Schwarzenegger and invited him to train and compete in a US championship (very instructive is a recent 2016 interview with Schwarzenegger, where he laid out his dream to immigrate to the US).

Schwarzenegger’s immigrant dreams are most clearly expressed via his undiminished praise for America. Consider, for instance, this recent interview in his own Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California, where Schwarzenegger (2017) said that the US was going through challenges (i.e. a Trump administration) but he was optimistic it could get out of the bind, because America was the promised nation. That is where immigrants want to go to, not China, Russia or the Middle East. In some sense, being a naturalized American he is more obsessively American than native-born Americans themselves. One can glean it from his passion and desire to make a better life than what was possible in Austria. The kinds of cultural, social and economic gains he made were unique to his US immigrant experience and would not be possible in Austria. In Austria, very few people cared about bodybuilding, movie-making (there is a small domestic movie industry, but it’s entirely local and irrelevant internationally) or entertainment (entirely self-referential and local). There is a political life in Austria, but it is also heavily focused on domestic policy, because the country is too small to have much political weight. Austria hosts the UN, claiming its status as a neutral country, but Schwarzenegger’s feet were too big for the small shoes that Austria offered him.

There was also a political element in Austria that Schwarzenegger had deeply disliked. Consider his 2004 speech at the Republican National Convention, where he passionately explained why he became a Republican:

I finally arrived here in 1968. What a special day it was. I remember I arrived here with empty pockets but full of dreams, full of determination, full of desire. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the NixonHumphrey presidential race on TV. A friend of mine who spoke German and English translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left.

But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering the taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican.” And I have been a Republican ever since.

Source: Wikipedia

Austria was “socialist” in the eyes of Schwarzenegger. I find the comparison somewhat facile given that even the most progressive Democrats are still somewhat more conservative than conservative Austrians. But the point hit home for the cheering American audience. Austrians would never understand why the state does not take the responsibility to address social problems, while US discourse would legitimate more private sector involvement even if that meant not enough poverty reduction or fulfilling other social goals like universal health care. What Schwarzenegger was looking for was an outlet to make money and to make it big, and it is true that the US would provide him an outlet, which he would have been denied in Austria.

In Austria, there is this concept of the “Neidgesellschaft” or society of envy. If you worked harder than a colleague and gained a promotion, it would be looked down on and be part of gossip among coworkers. In that context, there is not much individual advancement. US culture cannot be accused of envy. From my own experience, I was academically a quite reasonable student in Austria, but did not make much out of it. The teachers gave me high marks, though their main attention was on the “problem students” with low marks, and the other students didn’t care or labeled me a ‘nerd’. When I came to the US, the teachers in high school all the way to university had recognized my academic talent and nominated me for all kinds of class best awards and scholarships. By the time I got to UPenn that honor went to other gifted students, who were even more accomplished on outside performance criteria than me. In any case, the recognition for success in US society is unique enough to have the most excellent performers be recognized. (Needless to say, the disadvantage in US culture is the massive tolerance for inequality, which has become so counter-productive that it led to the election of a crazy right-wing billionaire for president.)

In addition, Austria has what is called an “Obrigkeitsstaat” or hierarchical state, which enforced strict division between the emperor, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the working class. The boundaries are not as strictly enforced as the Indian caste system, but a class system remains a class system. Careful observers of Austria will now object that we no longer have a monarch in Austria, but remember Crown Prince Otto’s death in 2011, where the entire political establishment attended his funeral, even though they were supposed to not have ruled for almost 100 years at that point. There is plenty of Obrigkeitsstaat-mentality left in the Austrian society. Another example would be the Austrian use of titles and education qualifications that are attached to one’s name in every correspondence both written and spoken. No such entrenched formality exists in US culture, where people of all ages are addressed with their first name. That facilitates social mobility at least on a cultural level (if not economic level) much more than in European societies. I would often recognize returning home from travel in Europe, when random strangers would start talking with me in the airport in the US. In Europe, it doesn’t happen that often because of the clearer status differences, which increases suspicion to interact with strangers.

Back to Schwarzenegger: at age 21, he got to the US and continued on his stellar bodybuilding career. What is notable is his enormous stamina and willpower to train and work hard every day to grow his muscles and compete in tournaments. He used his bodybuilding and mail-order business revenues to finance real estate. The rental properties (both business and private housing) made him a millionaire. The real success, however, happened when he switched from bodybuilding to acting in movies. He got the role of Conan the Barbarian, apparently a great role for him, because his English was still heavily accented, he didn’t have to speak much and it required a muscular person swinging around the sword. He had long expressed his desire for acting, which was a clever move given that a bodybuilding career has physical age limitations (he retired in 1975 and made a brief comeback in 1980 to win the Mr. Olympia). Schwarzenegger’s most successful movie series was Terminator, where he seemed to have immortalized himself with his famous line, “I’ll be back.” As a clever self-promoter, similar to Trump, who slapped his name onto all kinds of buildings as a branding effort, Schwarzenegger would make sure that he could recycle his famous movie lines in other movies, public interviews or other presentations (see this Youtube compilation).

Whatever movie profits he made, Schwarzenegger kept on reinvesting them into real estate, stocks, bonds and other financial products, thus ensuring that he would have a solid cashflow under any circumstances. If the American Dream meant making a lot of money, he certainly achieved it with different estimates of his net worth ranging from 200 to 800 million dollars. Such a fortune is not impossible in Austria, but unrealistic given that he came from a family with modest financial background. Notice in this list of the superrich in Austria that all of them made their money from a big corporation they have founded and directed (or inherited). There is no movie actor or bodybuilder or any kind of one-man shows among it. You can earn a decent salary as an Austrian actor, but they usually don’t tend to become superrich as Hollywood stars.

Global ranking Name Citizenship Net worth (USD) Sources of wealth
64 Dietrich Mateschitz  Austria 14.5 billion Red Bull
144 Johann Graf  Austria 7.8 billion Novomatic
393 Karl Wlaschek  Austria 4.2 billion Billa
638 Heidi Horten  Austria 2.8 billion Horten AG
771 Helmut Sohmen  Austria 2.3 billion> BW Group
1190 Wolfgang Leitner  Austria 1.65 billion Andritz Group
1367 Reinold Geiger  Austria 1.41 billion L’Occitane en Provence

Source: Wikipedia

Making movies, being famous wasn’t enough for Schwarzenegger. While being in the US, he married Maria Shriver, the daughter of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, who were members of the Kennedy clan, at one point the most powerful political family in the US. Schwarzenegger said he was very inspired by his in-laws’ spirit for public service and giving back, which is what ultimately also motivated him to run for governor of California. Looking back it is hard to ultimately prove whether it was only his dedication to public service that had sparked his political interest. Given his big ego and desire for advancement (remember the 12 year old child in Graz imbibing the glitzy images of New York’s huge buildings and streets during a movie screening?), he must have also been seeking for a new outlet to realize his passions, his need for attention and domination, an alpha-male characteristic that reminds us of Trump. Wendy Leigh, a biographer of Schwarzenegger, quotes his obsession for power,

“I wanted to be part of the small percentage of people who were leaders, not the large mass of followers. I think it is because I saw leaders use 100% of their potential… I was always fascinated by people in control of other people.”

Source: Borger and Campbell (2003)

Schwarzenegger, typical for his show-biz orientation, decided to announce his candidacy for governor of California during an interview with Jay Leno in August 2003. The state’s electricity and budget crisis opened the political opportunity for Schwarzenegger to run for governor. There wasn’t any doubt that he would win the election. Yes, there were political opponents, who tried to bring him down for his sexual molestation of women, another similarity with his nemesis Trump. In a profoundly Puritan US, a sexual molestation charge is quite serious and damaging to a political career. But the governor at that time was also highly unpopular, and Schwarzenegger had a name recognition like no one else given his background as a Hollywood actor. Despite lacking any formal political experience, Schwarzenegger was elected governor in the recall election of 2003.

It wasn’t the case that he was able to solve California’s chronic budget problem better than his predecessors, especially as he had to manage a great recession which reduced tax revenues. The political system in California made tax increases difficult, requiring a two-thirds supermajority to approve them. The income tax is progressive but limited to a few very wealthy individuals, which suggests more space for untapped revenues. Schwarzenegger oversaw the 2008-9 recession, where he massively pushed for spending cuts while the opposition Democrats wanted tax increases, so not much got done and he left office in 2011 with a low approval rating.

The one area of success as governor was his environmental initiative, which he signed in 2006 under heavy opposition of the oil lobby. He lowered the permissible carbon emissions in factories and prohibited contracting with companies that refused to submit to these carbon rules. Schwarzenegger’s major cause is to fight climate change, which is an issue that many people can get behind. It isn’t something that Trump or most other mainstream Republicans receiving checks from the oil lobby would sign up for.

The one area of controversy in his governorship for Austrians was when he signed the death penalty order for a prison inmate (Stanley Williams) in 2005. Typical of most other Republicans, Schwarzenegger wanted to show that he was tough on crime, but Austria had long ago removed the death penalty, which the EU also sees as a requirement for entry. Peter Pilz, a Green politician in the Austrian parliament, lobbied parliament to revoke his Austrian nationality for “damaging the reputation” of the Republic of Austria. It didn’t go anywhere. I think the judges were more than happy to have such a powerful exponent of their country hold such a powerful political position in the US. Another controversy emerged when people of Graz (his hometown) began protesting the continued naming of the local football stadium after Schwarzenegger. It was a newly built stadium in 1995, which local officials had named after Schwarzenegger, but when the death penalty was decided on during Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor, local protesters wanted to have his name removed. Schwarzenegger heard of the criticism in his former home town and he sent a letter to the city government in Graz, prohibiting the use of his name for the stadium, thus resolving the controversy. His name was removed from the stadium shortly thereafter.

The Austrians are hereby taking the moral high ground. Of course, the death penalty is wrong, though I doubt that such extreme reactions were warranted. But, clearly, there is a moral dark side to US crime policy, which manages to incarcerate more people than China despite its four times larger population and way more authoritarian government.

After Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor, he immediately headed back to his movie career, continuing to shoot movies, even though the age wrinkles were clearly visible in his face. He is turning 70 this year. There are still speculations about his political ambitions. He was interested in running for the US presidency, and he would have a good chance given that his foreign background and his celebrity status would make him an establishment outsider, which is what Americans are craving for so desperately. But that was the real problem, because the US constitution prohibited a foreign-born president. Speculations about a legal challenge were quickly quashed in 2013. Would he have been better than President Trump? No doubts can exist.

But Schwarzenegger had virtually accomplished all his goals, making a steep rise from his youth in Austria. But one could sense the restlessness in many of his actions. Success becomes like a drug. Once you have something, you want more because the old dosage is no longer sufficient. Schwarzenegger is no Stoic. Consider, for instance, his 3 minute video advertisement of the Celebrity Apprentice, the iconic TV show initiated by Donald Trump, where famous people compete for the favor of the show host. In this video, Schwarzenegger proudly recounted his career milestones, and it made it seem as if a TV host entertainer was simply the next highest goal to aim towards.

But how did he get to the Celebrity Apprentice? Schwarzenegger eagerly looked forward to a new entertainment venue beyond what he was used to. Schwarzenegger enjoyed watching the Apprentice. Once he found out that Trump was running for the presidency, his agent contacted Trump’s and said that Schwarzenegger could fill Trump’s role, which Trump passionately agreed with. One would think that Schwarzenegger was the perfect fit. He even had his own line. Not “you’re fired”, but “you’re terminated”. No one can steal this line from him with credibility!

One would think that being a US president would keep Trump so busy that he can no longer worry about his former entertainment life. But Donald remains Donald. He lambasted Schwarzenegger for the lower TV ratings, and Schwarzenegger had to hit back. The Donald against the Styrian Oak (or Austrian Oak in the US). Two people with large egos rubbing their shoulders to the great amusement of an amusement-seeking mass audience (and to the terror of seriously-minded people worried about the fate of the country). Schwarzenegger’s suggestion to switch jobs was brilliant even if meant in a joke. But the irony is quite strong here: Trump makes himself ridiculous by wasting his precious attention as commander-in-chief in commenting on a silly entertainment business, while Schwarzenegger’s reaction was comedic on the one hand, but made him more presidential than the president on the other hand. Meanwhile the charge against Schwarzenegger that he wasted his time with a social media war with Trump did not apply. After all, Schwarzenegger acts first and foremost as an entertainer, and he is entitled to engage in silly discourse, because that is what the definition of an entertainer is. Politics is for serious people, entertainment exists for the masses.

It is all the more ironic that the statesmanship then comes from a current entertainer and the entertainment comes from a supposed statesman. In that sense, the close similarity between Trump and Schwarzenegger disappears. Yes, the two men have their large egos in common. Yes, the two of them have shifted from entertainment to politics like chameleons. Yes, they have a strong sense for getting attention, power and control. But while Schwarzenegger is not a narcissist, Trump is. Schwarzenegger has the ego to climb to the top, but that desire does not distort his compassion, composure and dignity, especially when he focuses on public policy. His recent ten-year commemoration speech of the environmental law he signed as governor was on point and had none of the mocking, erratic tone that you would find in any Trump speech.

It appears to be that the semi-entertainer and semi-politician Schwarzenegger, a fellow Austrian emigre, taking on Trump is the next best hope or at least source of entertainment that we have in these deeply troubling times.

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