Abby Lunardini was special assistant to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for executive communications from 2006 to 2007. The opinions expressed here are her own.
With Arnold Schwarzenegger taking over Donald Trump’s former role on “Celebrity Apprentice” this past week, we’ve been treated to another round of comparisons between the movie star who became governor of California and the reality star who will be the next president of the United States.
The New York Times’ TV critic determined that “Mr. Trump’s imperiousness and (seeming) impetuousness had made him an ideal reality-TV boss, while Mr. Schwarzenegger’s cautiousness and rigidity make him a poor fit.” The Los Angeles Times critic, for one, begged to differ, concluding that “like his predecessor, Schwarzenegger is entirely comfortable hamming it up as an imperious bad guy” and noting that “Schwarzenegger’s Trump impression was so complete, he even had a younger blond relative, nephew Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, playing the Ivanka Trump role.” Best yet, Trump himself weighed in Friday: “Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got ‘swamped’ (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT.”
No doubt there will be a similar — if more consequential — debate about how the two compare as government executives. After all, both men were icons, moguls and political outsiders who were carried to victory in circuslike elections on waves of “throw the bastards out” fervor. So perhaps Trump, like Schwarzenegger, will turn out to be a pragmatic social moderate who uses his charm and business negotiation skills to forge consensus. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait suggested as much at the outset of the primaries, back when a Trump win was still a far-fetched hypothetical. “The prospect of Schwarzenegger governing America’s largest state struck many of us as just as ghastly as the idea of a Trump presidency seems now,” Chait sought to reassure liberals. But “by the end of his tenure, it was impossible to deny that Schwarzenegger had become a highly effective governor.”
As someone who occupied an admittedly narrow perch on the governor’s communications staff, I can attest that his effectiveness had a lot to do with his enthusiasm for understanding the workings of government and his willingness to partner with his political opponents. Trump doesn’t seem inclined toward either. And those who expect him to follow Schwarzenegger’s trajectory in office are succumbing to a temptation to defang the Trump presidency.
Yes, Trump sounds a lot like Schwarzenegger did after his victory in the 2003 election that recalled incumbent Gray Davis. Long before “drain the swamp,” Schwarzenegger showed up with a broom at rallies to “clean house” in Sacramento. Like Trump, Schwarzenegger often circumvented traditional news outlets, as an early adopter of social media and with the announcement of his candidacy on “The Tonight Show.” And, somewhat like Trump, he made headlines for his political name-calling. He famously referred to his legislative opponents as “girlie men ” (a catchphrase borrowed from “Saturday Night Live’s” Austrian-accented bodybuilders, Hans and Franz ) for refusing to stand up to special interests. This sparked the ire of California’s Democratic leaders, who considered it misogynistic, anti-gay and, well, just dumb. (Though, after this past horror show of an election season, it seems as quaint as “you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)
The similarities between Trump and Schwarzenegger, however, are surface-level.
Chait and others are wrong to claim that, “like Trump, Schwarzenegger came directly to politics from the celebrity world without bothering to inform himself about public policy.” Schwarzenegger was a dedicated student of policy and government. In contrast to Trump — with his legendarily short attention span and almost gleeful blowing-off of debate prep and intelligence briefings — Schwarzenegger prided himself on being the best-briefed person in the room. And he had an almost boundless curiosity about subjects as dry as workers’ comp reform and “rainy day” budget funds.
Having his “Conan” sword on display in the state capitol conference room gave him a pretty great icebreaker. But it wasn’t his celebrity that struck most of the people he met with. From California’s mayors to foreign heads of state, health-care chief executives, union leaders and climate activists — if someone was sitting down with him for the first time, you could see their surprise when they realized he knew exactly what they were talking about and had his own ideas on the subject.
Contrast that with virtually any time in the presidential debates when a follow-up policy question was posed to Trump. Or even to Trump’s March meeting with The Washington Post editorial board. “Reading through the transcript, there are a number of moments that can only be described as baffling,” Post political reporter Phillip Bump wrote afterward.
In his first term, Schwarzenegger translated his campaign agenda into nuanced policy initiatives that could only be described as “wonky.” He sought to bring some fiscal responsibility to spending, curb the unchecked power of the public-employees unions in Sacramento and create a less-partisan redistricting process. And he tried to push it all through with statewide propositions. That was bold. But the substance of the initiatives was not exactly easy for the average voter to understand. The initiatives also directly challenged the juggernaut of entrenched Democratic interests in the state — in particular the public-employees unions, which ran a bruising counter-campaign. And the voters rejected all of them.
It was, to be sure, a crushing blow. But in its wake, the governor showed humility, renewed respect for the complexities of government and an openness to working with his opponents.
He reorganized his staff, bringing on aides with long and distinguished government résumés. For chief of staff, he tapped Susan Kennedy, a respected Democratic political strategist who had worked for Davis . It is hard to imagine Trump or his transition team appointing anyone to a key administration role who had opposed him — from his own party, let alone a Democrat. According to reports, his transition team forbade it.
Schwarzenegger also reached across the aisle to form partnerships and even friendships with Democrats in the legislature, including some of those, such as House Speaker Fabian Núñez, he had called “girlie men” in the past. With Núñez, he went on to pass what remains the most sweeping climate change legislation ever enacted in this country.
That would be like Trump working with Sen. Chuck Schumer (whom he just called the “head clown ”) on an Obamacare replacement or with Sen. Tim Kaine (whom Trump called “a joke ”) on immigration reform. Of course, with Republicans in the majority in Congress, Trump won’t have much incentive to extend a hand to Democrats. But he also maintains chilly relationships with House Speaker Paul Ryan (whom he insulted as recently as October) and other potential Republican allies. And his New Year’s Eve message — wishing “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!” — doesn’t suggest a surge of magnanimity.
Although Schwarzenegger did not accomplish all he wanted to in office, given the challenges he faced with a cratering economy, a tough regulatory environment and entrenched special interests, his track record was solid. He ultimately rolled back taxes and implemented redistricting reform , made long-term infrastructure investments, brokered contentious funding deals for the state’s higher-education system, fixed California’s bond rating, and reformed its long-broken and bloated workers’ comp system.
These achievements were the result of hundreds of hours of policy work and negotiation. It also helped that Schwarzenegger is an infectiously likable person. (If you dispute this, I would pose the question: Who doesn’t like Arnold in “Kindergarten Cop”? No one, is the answer.) This, too, stands in contrast to a man whose “celebrity” was cemented by his ability to act like a jerk on one reality show.
But Schwarzenegger is not only a very different kind of celebrity than Trump, he is a different kind of populist. He is fundamentally generous of spirit, self-made, inclusive and optimistic. None of those traits had anything to do with his star power. But they allowed him to lead a big, messy, contentious state of 36 million people — to learn, admit mistakes, course-correct and keep moving forward.
That’s more than we can reasonably expect from Trump — or the new national reality show we’re about to watch.