People have mentioned George Wallace or Sarah Palin, but Donald Trump — a celebrity populist frontrunner for a major party’s nomination without any kind of true political experience — is without modern precedent.
Except for one. Arnold Schwarzenegger — a celebrity who parlayed his name and his instincts into political success on a large stage, who talked trash at his "loser" and "girly men" opponents, and who blew away insiders' confident mockery.
Schwarzenegger even inherits Trump's throne on NBC's The Apprentice this year. (The speculation is that his tagline will be, “You’re terminated.”)
But in a series of recent interviews and in the former governor's first public statement on the subject, Schwarzenegger and his former top aides distanced themselves from the Republican frontrunner. Though all acknowledged the power of his outsider celebrity, they said they worried that he was using that power for in service of what one, Rob Stutzman, described as a "darkness," in contrast with Schwarzenegger's inclusive politics.
Schwarzenegger himself declined to talk directly about Trump, but in a statement he praised the power of outsider candidates — but suggested a more inclusive path than the Republican has taken.
"Some fantastic public servants are running this year, but I also know that coming from outside the system can be a great asset, because you can take on challenges that many insiders don't — whether because they're part of the problem or because they know how hard it is and you're the only one naive enough to go for it," he said in the statement, emailed through a spokesman. "The key for outsiders is to surround themselves with a wildly diverse team to have great debates, study, study, study, and create a vision that serves all of the people, not just the parties or the special interests."
A former press secretary, Aaron McLear, was blunter: Schwarzenegger "is an eternal optimist who uses politics to bring people together to solve problems instead of divisive rhetoric and proposals that push us further apart."
Schwarzenegger and Trump are old acquaintances, and Stutzman recalled the Californian teasing the New Yorker about his hair at a 2004 fundraiser. This cycle, however, Schwarzenegger has not returned the favor: He has donated the maximum legal contribution to John Kasich, Trump's most full-throated critic in the Republican field.
Still, the two men share a political path. The story of Trump's rise is — to a degree not always understood — a story about American celebrity. Trump isn't a particularly successful businessman or a figure in the pages of the Harvard Business Review. But he plays one on television, which is far more important. The real estate business demands an element of showmanship, and that is Trump's element — honed in the New York tabloid press and then on a primetime reality series that made him the best known business figure in America.
Schwarzenegger was a celebrity on a different level. He had come from nothing to invent one industry — bodybuilding — and then risen to the top of another, the movies. He was one of the best known people in the world. And his entry into the governor's race was, given his Terminator image, if anything even more absurd than Trump's.
For both Trump and Schwarzenegger, fame was a way in — but the instincts that made them famous, and that were honed by years in the spotlight, have been central.
"They've applied the lessons they learned from their previous careers to attracting attention on their campaigns," said Dan Schnur, who — like every Schwarzenegger aide or ally I spoke to — stressed that the comparison ended there. Schwarzenegger appointed Schnur chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Trump has broken the rules of contemporary politics, making bigoted remarks and stirring conspiratorial suspicion about Muslims in ways that had previously confined to the fringes and to inaudible "dog whistles." Schwarzenegger never crossed those particular lines, but he certainly played by his own, different rules, sometimes flatly refusing to engage in typical legislative compromise, others theatrically inviting legislators to smoke cigars with him in his “smoking tent.”
"Arnold is the most phenomenal promoter of self that has ever existed in modern America," said Stutzman, who served as Schwarzenegger’s deputy chief of staff. Stutzman recalled Schwarzenegger's control, and feel, for his own persona. "We'd have these conversations about how to appropriate himself, and he had a great personal sense of nuance and when too much was too much, and when to crate a little bit of scarcity for a bigger moment."
But Schwarzenegger typically stepped back after crossing the line, said Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger's former chief of staff (who spoke to BuzzFeed while smoking a cigar, a habit she said she picked up from her former boss).
"While Arnold could say some pretty outrageous things when attacking ‘the system,’ he always pulled himself back when he went over the edge [and] he spent much more energy inspiring people to believe that things really can get done, so he had the right balance," she said.
"Donald Trump does not pull himself back when he goes over the edge — he doubles down, no matter how negative."
Trump has also been wildly improvisational, and at times flatly dishonest, about policy, and dismissive of traditional policy expertise — a sharp difference from Schwarzenegger, who made a public show credentialing himself by studying policy and had been engaged in traditional policy issues before he ran.
Schwarzenegger had built an educational nonprofit and led the drive for a statewide initiative to fund after school programs, a former adviser, Adam Mendelsohn, pointed out.
“By the time Arnold was running for governor, he had accomplished more in public service than most politicians,” he said.
Still, even the governator’s admirers say that the self-confidence and refusal to play by the rules of the game that came with celebrity — and that have been both his and Trump’s political advantages — have their limits. And not everyone who cheered Schwarzenegger’s rise relish the idea of his finger on the nuclear button.
“The responsibilities that come with being governor of California are very different with those of the president of United States, most notably as the commander in chief of the military and total control of our foreign relations,” one of the former aides said.
Schwarzenegger appointed Dan Schnur chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. A previous version of this story misstated Schnur's role.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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