An Alternate Reality Exercise

[ Posted Monday, October 30th, 2023 – 15:41 UTC ]

Mike Pence surprised everyone this weekend, when he abruptly announced he was ending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination during a speech Pence gave in Las Vegas. The surprise wasn't that Pence's presidential ambitions were doomed -- anyone with half a brain could see that from the get-go -- but that Pence had actually realized it himself, this early in the process. Personally, I knew from the day he announced that Mike Pence was never going to win the Republican nomination -- not even if Donald Trump had suddenly decided not to run. Even without Trump in the race, Pence would still have been doomed. His flavor of Republicanism is a thing of the past, he has an incredibly bland and smarmy personality (he really deserves to have Trump hit him for being "sanctimonious," much more than Ron DeSantis), and he enraged the MAGA crowd by not following the Dear Leader's order to somehow wave a magic wand and overturn the results of the 2020 election on January 6th. Add all of that up and it equals a big defeat from the Republican voting base, plain and simple. So watching the coverage of the development on yesterday's morning political-chatfest shows wasn't any real surprise (other than the early timing of it). What was a surprise (for me, at least) this Sunday morning was to see Arnold Schwarzenegger being interviewed (for some unfathomable reason) on NBC's Meet The Press.

Since I am already in a rather fantastical frame of mind, trying to dream up two Hallowe'en nightmares for tomorrow's column (and carve pumpkins for both!), and after reading a quick review of Arnie's appearance this morning, I started pondering alternate political universes. So you'll have to excuse me for the purely speculative nature of today's column. Here is my flight of fancy in a nutshell: consider, if you will, what would have happened if Schwarzenegger had been eligible to run for president.

This would have meant passing and ratifying a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution, of course. Arnie is not a "natural born citizen," as the Constitution demands for the job. He was born an Austrian, in Austria, and was naturalized as an American citizen much later in life. So the highest American political jobs open to him were either governor or senator.

In a crazed and freewheeling recall election, Schwarzenegger did actually get elected governor of California. And then he ran for re-election and won that race too, in a normal gubernatorial election cycle. This was all much to California's embarrassment (especially that second win). We were the laughingstock of the country for Arnie's entire term. Late-night comedians had an absolute field day, calling him "The Governator" and "Ahhh-nold" (and much worse). His accent was fair game to be mocked, especially his unique way of pronouncing his adopted state's name ("kahl-ee-FOR-knee-uh"). His celebrity status was used as fodder to mock his political stances. As I said, for us Californians it was an era of shame -- how could such a progressive state elect such a buffoon to lead us? Twice, just to rub salt in the wound.

But, looking back at it, Arnie didn't do such a bad job of it all. We've had Republican governors that were far worse, that's for sure. Arnie tried to push his pet conservative issues, and failed badly with most of them. But he started out as a fairly liberal or centrist Republican, who was both mostly accepting of gay people and abortion. And he did realize that he had to moderate his views and compromise with California Democrats in the legislature in order to get things done. He even appointed a Democrat as his chief of staff. He was married to a member of the Kennedy dynasty, as well. He did shamelessly and relentlessly use his celebrity persona and outsized personality to gain media attention, to great effect. And the state survived his tenure and went right back to electing Democrats to the top job ever since.

It's mostly forgotten now but there was actually a push to amend the Constitution to let Arnie run for president (the "Amend for Arnold" movement). It didn't go much of anywhere, but it did exist. And I have no way of proving it now, but when he first announced his run for the governor's office I shocked all my liberal friends by predicting: "Arnie's going to win if Gray Davis goes down -- people love his tough-guy movie-actor persona, they'll vote for him in droves." And when he flirted with becoming president, I predicted the same thing would happen nationally: Arnie would win in a landslide. Obviously, this was all years before Trump rode down a golden escalator into the heart of the Republican Party.

Schwarzenegger wasn't "Trump before there was Trump," instead he was actually "Ronald Reagan all over again." A movie actor becoming president wasn't some far-fetched idea, after the 1980s. And -- just like Reagan -- Arnold had been the chief executive of the most-populous state in the Union to give him political experience. Arnie left the governor's office in 2011, which meant (in the alternate Universe where that constitutional amendment had actually been adopted) he could easily have run for any of the races from 2012 onwards. Would he have beaten Barack Obama in 2012? It's impossible to know, but I think it would have been tough for him (Obama was an incumbent, after all). But what about 2016? Or this year?

What would a Schwarzenegger-versus-Trump contest have been like? Well, it certainly would have been entertaining! That much seems undeniable....

At the time, Trump was a celebrity who pretended to be a tough guy on television. Schwarzenegger made his movie career portraying really tough characters (see: the Conan and Terminator franchises). He was a bodybuilding champion (see: Mr. Universe), while Trump pretended to be a professional wrestler once or twice, for laughs. Trump's television show showed him trying to be some sort of hard-ass corporate executive, while Arnie churned out movies where he kicked a bunch of bad guys' asses. It's pretty easy to see who would have won a tough-guy pissing contest, in a debate.

Both men had serious flaws in the "sexual misconduct" arena, so these likely would have cancelled each other out. Long before the "Me Too" movement, Arnie was accused (before he was elected) of sexually assaulting a number of women. His response? To state that he would "have myself investigated" if he became governor. He did win, and no investigation ever manifested itself. One of his mocking nicknames became "The Gropinator," but it didn't harm him much politically. Neither did admitting to having a child out of wedlock with his maid, for that matter (although that one is hard to say definitively, since he didn't admit it until a few months after he was out of office).

The reason it is such an interesting "What if?" scenario (at least for me) to imagine Arnie facing off with Trump is that it would have been a fair fight -- something which simply cannot be said about any of the other Republicans who have run against Trump. None of the others, either back in 2016 or in 2024, have that same shoot-from-the-hip instinct. None of the others have been able to engage in schoolyard-insult matches with Trump the way Arnie could have. When he first became governor, riffing on a Saturday Night Live sketch about two posturing bodybuilders, Arnie disparaged the Democrats he had to work with in the state government as "girlie-men." Imagine what insults he would have come up with for Trump, just for one second, to see what I mean about it being a "fair fight" between the two -- in a way it just hasn't been, when Trump takes on hapless Republicans like Marco Rubio or Mike Pence.

All I know is that Arnie might just have wiped the decks with Trump back in 2016, and he might easily have gone on to win against Hillary Clinton. And our nation would have been better for that outcome by far than what actually did transpire.

Schwarzenegger could have tapped into the hunger in the Republican ranks for entertainment. This is Trump's chief value to the MAGA voters -- which is a fact many in the mainstream media still have yet to figure out. It simply does not matter what Trump says, what positions he takes, what errors he makes -- as long as it triggers "liberal tears." As long as lefties hate what Trump says and/or tries to do, his base is just fine with it all -- no matter what it is. Arnold Schwarzenegger had already proven he has the ability to do this, but without losing all touch with reality in the process.

Arnold mostly governed as a realist. He learned what was possible with the California legislature and what was not. He tried to circumvent them by holding a special election for four ballot measures, and they all failed. He was never all that hard-right to begin with, and over time he has become more and more progressive. And he has continued to use his celebrity power to try to shift the course the Republican Party now finds itself on.

In the midst of the COVID crisis, Arnie was a strong advocate of masks ("If you don't wear a mask, you're a schmuck") and vaccinations ("Come with me if you want to live"), for instance -- which took some guts, when Trump was out there telling everyone the opposite. Arnie called Trump "a failed leader" and "the worst president ever" after the January 6th insurrection attempt. Schwarzenegger more recently recorded an astounding 12-minute video denouncing fascism that truly has to be seen to be believed. He is not afraid to take on Trump's dangerous idiocy, to put this a different way.

Now just imagine that Arnold on a debate stage with Trump. Imagine Arnie giving the Republican base voters who just want to be entertained by their politicians exactly what they crave but without all the viciousness and stupidity. It's really not that hard to imagine, isn't it? If Arnie had taken on Trump in 2016, he might have steered the Republican Party to a much better place than the reactionary MAGA swamp they now inhabit. Arnie has the same quality as Trump of being able to use some clever phrase or quip to delight his followers -- no matter what issue he's talking about. He could have used this to blunt some of the worst impulses of the party instead of fanning the flames of White nationalism and other bigotry, as Trump has.

Don't get me wrong -- I am not saying having Arnold as president would have been better than having Hillary Clinton. I'm sure as president Arnie would have done all kinds of things which would have enraged me. But I cannot help but think how this year's presidential contest would have been far different if Arnie were in the fray with Trump. Unlike the terminal dweebiness of Ron DeSantis, Arnie would have provided an easy path for the MAGA base to switch their allegiance -- to another entertaining politician who wasn't afraid to say outrageous things to get under Democrats' skins. Unlike every other Republican in the current race, Arnie has entertainment value. And in the age of Trump, that's not a thing to be lightly dismissed.

So just like I predicted two decades ago, what if we somehow lived in an alternate reality where a constitutional amendment had been passed to let The Governator run for president? Either we would currently be smack in the middle of Arnie's second term, or right about now he would be absolutely wiping the floor with Trump in the primary race. And we'd all now be saying "Hasta la vista, baby!" to Trump -- that's my humble guess, at any rate.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “An Alternate Reality Exercise”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    This was all much to California's embarrassment (especially that second win). We were the laughingstock of the country for Arnie's entire term.

    Really? The laughing stock of the country? Hardly. I thought his performance was pretty impressive.

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    one of my biggest issues is how both the good and the bad of politicians are routinely exaggerated.

Comments for this article are closed.