The similarities between Donald Trump and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are so obvious that comparisons started rolling in as soon as Trump announced his candidacy for president last year.
Like Schwarzenegger in California’s recall election in 2003, Trump fit the profile of a political outsider with money and a showman’s touch. The two men preoccupied the media and drew large crowds.
Yet as Trump’s campaign has ascended in recent months, a more enduring likeness is coming sharply into view.
Like Trump, Schwarzenegger’s rise reflected the restiveness of an electorate primed in 2003, as it is today, to embrace an outsized personality with a populist appeal. Schwarzenegger laid bare not only that such a candidate could win, but once in office, how short of his initial promise he could fall.
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“As a phenomenon, I think they’re similar,” Rep. Darrell Issa, who helped finance the recall election, said of Schwarzenegger and Trump. “As an elected official they may be similar, too, in that Arnold found it was much harder to get things done than he had planned.”
In his campaign for governor, Schwarzenegger carried a broom up and down the state and promised to “sweep out the bureaucracy” and special interests from Sacramento.
“We are here to clean house!” he shouted at a rally at the Capitol two days before the recall election.
Once in office, his promise to “blow up the boxes” of bureaucracy faltered, and he ultimately withdrew a major reorganization plan. Schwarzenegger fulfilled a campaign pledge to cut the state’s car tax. But the act significantly widened the state’s budget shortfall.
Spending cuts proposed by Schwarzenegger met resistance from liberal Democrats, while his willingness to raise taxes as the recession battered California outraged rank-and-file Republicans.
While Schwarzenegger was falling out of favor with the GOP, more conservative elements of his agenda suffered overwhelming resistance from California’s powerful labor unions – the same special interests Schwarzenegger predicted he could best.
The unions clobbered Schwarzenegger in his failed effort to pass ballot measures in 2005 to weaken teacher tenure, restrict union dues collection and cap state spending. Four years later, several budget-related ballot measures he advocated were defeated, too.
“I am not the only one in the Capitol that makes decisions,” Schwarzenegger acknowledged in 2006. “You have to recognize that the way it works in that building, there are certain powers and certain kinds of forces that pull, and certain things get done and certain things don’t get done.”
Schwarzenegger was not without successes. He enacted changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system and a multi-billion package of public works programs. He championed ballot measures that created an independent redistricting commission and a top-two primary system.
After turning to work more closely with Democrats, he signed California’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction law, Assembly Bill 32.
“Instead of standing for Republican principles and fighting for a Republican vision, he wanted to be loved and play footsie with the Democratic leadership in Sacramento,” said K.B. Forbes, who served as spokesman in the recall election for Republican Bill Simon, who ultimately dropped out. “He compromised on everything. So that’s what you get.”
By the time Schwarzenegger left office in 2011, the state’s budget deficit was more than $25 billion. Schwarzenegger’s public approval rating had fallen to a record low, matching that of former Gov. Gray Davis, the Democrat he replaced in the recall.
I didn’t realize, you know, until he was well into being a governor, that he didn’t know how to run government.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican who planned to enter the recall election but supported Schwarzenegger when he decided to run, said his assessment of Schwarzenegger at the time was that “he was a good businessman, which he was, and he was much more charismatic than I am, so he’d be a good governor.”
But Riordan said, “I didn’t realize, you know, until he was well into being a governor, that he didn’t know how to run government … And it’s sad, because Arnold’s basically a very good human being.”
In contrast, Riordan said, Trump is “very, very scary.”
“I think Trump is more, I don’t know the word ‘evil’ is the right word, but you know, claiming that he can get things done without even batting an eyelash – more than Arnold was,” Riordan said. “If either he or Hillary (Clinton) is the next president, I think I’m going to buy a deserted island and start a new country.”
Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, and an expert on presidential politics, said the Trump and Schwarzenegger candidacies are both products of an electoral process that exaggerates the influence a president or governor can have on a divided government.
“It encourages this fantasy that one man will make all the difference,” he said.
In his rise to front-runner status in the Republican nominating contest, Trump, a television personality and real estate developer, has captivated voters frustrated by dysfunction in Washington and by candidates supported in recent years by the Republican Party’s professional and donor classes.
The crowds at his rallies recall Schwarzenegger’s in 2003, both for the common song on their soundtracks – Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It” – and for the frustration evident in their audiences. Californians had weathered an energy crisis and saw the state’s financial condition worsening. The month before Davis was recalled, more than two-thirds of Californians said the state was headed in the wrong direction, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, speaking at an event in Sacramento on Thursday, said Schwarzenegger rallies attracted thousands of people he had never before seen in a Republican crowd.
Voters in 2003 “went to somebody that wasn’t elected before” because they were “tired of everybody else,” McCarthy said. “And I feel that movement across the country, that people are so frustrated.”
Trump promises to make America “great again.” As he pulled his registration papers to run in the recall, Schwarzenegger said he wanted to make sure every Californian had a “fantastic” job.
It encourages this fantasy that one man will make all the difference.
Samuel Popkin, author of “The Candidate: What It Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House”
In an analysis of the political climate in California at the time, a group of researchers including Mark Baldassare, president of the PPIC, called the gubernatorial election won by Davis in 2002 “one of the low points in the state’s political history,” with negative advertising and low voter turnout. Trust in government declined, they wrote, and it failed to rebound to previous levels following Schwarzenegger’s election.
“The backdrop, it is very, very important,” said Don Sipple, a strategist who worked for Schwarzenegger in 2003. “Very few people put enough stock on what is the political atmospherics, or the backdrop that allows somebody like Donald Trump to rise, or Arnold Schwarzenegger ... And that is abject, wholesale loss of confidence in status quo politics.”
Like Trump, Schwarzenegger used his celebrity and nonstop media attention to channel the public’s disaffection. Special interests? Schwarzenegger was “kicking their butts,” he said in his first year in office. Lawmakers standing in his way on budget talks were “girlie men.”
“There actually are a heck of a lot of parallels,” said Sean Walsh, who was Schwarzenegger’s communications director during the recall election. “A lot of it had to do with one-liners, and tapping into a base sense of voter frustration and anger and angst.”
He said, “The Trump campaign is like a giant reality TV show. And Arnold’s really was, too, in a lot of respects.”
The Trump campaign is like a giant reality TV show. And Arnold’s really was, too, in a lot of respects.
Sean Walsh, Arnold Schwarzenegger's communications director during the recall election in 2003
Such comparisons have proved annoying to many former Schwarzenegger aides, and a counter-narrative has emerged. In January, the website BuzzFeed carried the headline, “Schwarzenegger, Former Aides Distance the Governator from Trump.” This week, The Wall Street Journal offered, “Why Arnold Schwarzenegger Isn’t Donald Trump’s Forerunner.”
The former governor, his advisers said, was a more disciplined and less divisive candidate than Trump. A Schwarzenegger aide, Daniel Ketchell, said on Twitter that he was “shocked by how many times this distinction has to be made.”
Last year, when Trump said rapists and criminals were flooding into the United States and proposed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, he was compared to another former California governor, Pete Wilson. In 1994, Wilson championed Proposition 187, the initiative to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants that was later overturned by the courts.
Schwarzenegger delivered more mixed messages on immigration-related concerns. He offended many Latinos when he called a talk-radio station to praise the civilian border-control measures of the Minutemen, and he repealed a law signed by his predecessor allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. But he also came out in support of a guest worker program.
In contrast to Trump, Schwarzenegger was “more aspirational as a person,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for Schwarzenegger. Sipple said the difference is “one is sunny and the other is dark.”
“Arnold is the eternal optimist and lover of all things America,” Sipple said. “While Trump is ‘Make America Great Again,’ he’s kind of got a negative path to that goal.”
Schwarzenegger said in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1988 that Trump was one of the “people with a history of good business dealings” he followed in his attempt to educate himself in business. The two celebrities’ paths have occasionally crossed in years since, and in September, NBC announced that Schwarzenegger would take over for Trump on the network’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Schwarzenegger did not respond to a request for an interview. But on Sunday he distanced himself from Trump, endorsing Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president. At a rally in Ohio, Schwarzenegger praised Kasich for his economic record as governor and as a congressman, calling him an “action hero.”
George Gorton, who was among Schwarzenegger’s earliest advisers in 2003, recalled the hours Schwarzenegger spent poring over policy briefing books as the largest difference between Schwarzenegger and Trump, who has said he surrounds himself with smart people and has an “instinct” for foreign policy.
As governor, Gorton said, Schwarzenegger “did well in a couple of areas that he concentrated on,” and he was no less effective than some career politicians.
Gorton does not support Trump, but he said that if he wins, “it’s because people are so frustrated with the (candidate) choices, not just this election, but the choices back to back to back have not worked out.”
Trump, he added, “could possibly be the wild man we need.”