How amazing. Until a few years ago – 2016, in fact – if you asked people for the most absurd example of the politico-showbusiness complex in the 21st-century United States, they would have said Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recall election as governor of California in 2003, his candidacy being announced on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was re-elected in 2006, and just about maintained a cheerfully Reaganesque public image of a moderate Republican – uneventfully standing down in 2011 to resume his movie career.
We all took the mickey out of the governator. But, right now, he is America’s moral governator with real moral authority. It was the governator who uploaded a video telling Americans to stay home during the Covid crisis. And now it is the governator who has issued a clarion call for decency on YouTube with his admittedly cheesy but genuinely stirring, heartfelt and relevant rebuke to the Trumpians and their desecration of the Capitol – a desecration that even now many Republicans and many sophisticates on the right cannot bring themselves to condemn fully.
In his mature Reaganesque style, Schwarzenegger addressed the nation from a presidential-style desk, with the stars and stripes and Californian flag in the background, and a photo of himself in his bodybuilding pomp. With Hollywood-style music on the audio track, he denounced the complicit enablers of Trump’s fascism – culminating in a hilarious flourish of Conan the Barbarian’s sword.
That should have been ridiculous. It should have been silly. But, compared with the seedy rightwingers and Fox News alternative-fact merchants and the giggling cynics who said Trump didn’t matter, Schwarzenegger’s sword was rather glorious. I found myself thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – and, yes, however preposterous, there was something honourable about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan sword.
Schwarzenegger called the vandalising of the Capitol (and the killing of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick) America’s “Kristallnacht”. Like many others, I have seen it as America’s beer hall putsch (and who knows if that may not turn out to be the closer analogy?). But, for the time being, Schwarzenegger is absolutely right. And from personal experience, Schwarzenegger was able to address the openly Nazi stylings of the Capitol attackers, with the “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts, because he grew up in an Austria that, in contrast to Germany, went into fierce denial about its role in the second world war. Schwarzenegger spoke about his angry, depressed and abusive father who beat his children. (Schwarzenegger did not speak in detail, but throughout his governorship much press research went into Gustav Schwarzenegger, the Austrian police chief and Stalingrad military veteran who applied for Nazi party membership in 1938 before the Anschluss, but was not found to have been responsible for war crimes or abuse.)
Schwarzenegger’s video today, however schmaltzy and hokey in style, was a real reminder to the fatuous callow right that Nazis and nazism are not just death-metal icons or gamer fantasies. They really did exist, with America-first cheerleaders such as Joseph Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh encouraging their fellow citizens to look the other way. And he also showed us that the immigrant experience can bring wisdom.
Arnold’s video is exactly what we all needed.