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Opinion

Op-Ed: Is Trump the next Schwarzenegger?

Then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of the GOP debate in Simi Valley, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2015.
(Los Angeles Times)

Joel Pollack, a writer at Breitbart.com, recently offered a seductive political analogy to illuminate what high-profile staff changes at the White House portend. “Donald Trump’s decision to part ways with Steve Bannon can be understood as an effort to save his presidency after Charlottesville,” he wrote. “It may turn out to be the beginning of the end for the Trump administration, the moment Donald Trump became Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Both President Trump and former California Gov. Schwarzenegger ran as celebrity outsiders, promising to reform a corrupt, wasteful political system. Both won against establishment Democrats with the support of opportunistic conservatives, though neither was a doctrinaire conservative in his own right.

“But after struggling with intense media criticism, and after losing a key referendum on reforms to state government, Schwarzenegger gave up on his agenda, and abandoned the political base that had brought him into office,” Pollack wrote. “He re-invented himself as a liberal.” And with Bannon gone, he concluded, “there is no guarantee that Trump will stick to the plan.”

This prediction will, of course, be received quite differently by Trump supporters (with fear) and by his liberal opponents (with pleasure). To those on the left, another Schwarzenegger probably doesn’t sound half bad.

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The action hero never carried the same racial baggage as the reality star.

The Breitbart right is correct to anticipate changes it won’t like. Bannon, who has returned to his former position at the website, believed Trump was a useful vessel for his preferred agenda. So far, however, Trump has used Bannon more successfully than Bannon ever used Trump. The president appears to be abandoning “America First” thinking on national security, escalating the war in Afghanistan after years of insisting that it was a waste of blood and treasure.

But the president is unlikely to “become Arnold Schwarzenegger,” in part because for all his similarities with the former governor, right down to the multiple groping allegations against the two men, the action hero never carried the same racial baggage as the reality star.

And last week put that difference in stark relief.

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Like so many figures who rode a wave of right-wing populist resentment to power, Trump’s rise has been suffused with open bigotry and deliberate attempts to stoke ethnic tensions and exploit white anxiety. Long before Trump declared that some very fine people marched alongside the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., he was denigrating Mexicans, Muslims and Black Lives Matter.

In contrast, Schwarzenegger ran the rare right-populist campaign that eschewed attempts to exploit racial or religious divisions (and not coincidentally, the only right-populist campaign I can think of where the candidate was an immigrant with a foreign accent). Things could have gone a different way in a state as diverse as ours. Indeed, some years prior, Gov. Pete Wilson used white identity politics to win reelection.

After Charlottesville, Schwarzenegger made the sort of forceful comments against racism you might expect from a national leader. Fulfilling his iconic cineplex promise “I’ll be back,” the governator reemerged in political headlines last week by releasing a video that doubled as a fundraiser for the Museum of Tolerance.

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He criticized Trump, telling the president that he has “a moral responsibility to send an unequivocal message that you won’t stand for hate and racism,” then turned his attention to neo-Nazis. “Your heroes are losers,” he declared. “Growing up I was surrounded by broken men, men who came home from the war filled with shrapnel and guilt, men who were misled as a losing ideology. And I can tell you that these ghosts that you idolize spent the rest of their lives living in shame. Right now, they’re resting in hell.”

When Trump marshals language that biting, he directs it at Rosie O’Donnell.

White nationalists indulge a delusion: that the conflicts and problems that plague us would melt away in a white ethno-state where people of different races did not mix. But if they traced their own lineage back to Europe, they would find whole countries full of white people who slaughtered one another for centuries in the name of nationalism or religion. Their forebears escaped persecution by other white people by fleeing to this melting pot.

If white supremacists had their own ethno-state it would be worse than what their ancestors fled. It would be filled with a self-selecting cohort notable for extreme hatefulness and a psychological inclination to blame others for their problems.

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Schwarzenegger is fighting that delusion, having seen the harm that it causes.

So long as the delusion persists, however, irresponsible demagogues will exploit it. Bannon helped teach Trump how. And while Trump may give up on Bannon’s ends, he is unlikely to abandon those means, much less become another Schwarzenegger.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook

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