In the ’80s and early ’90s, there was perhaps no greater cinematic hate figure for liberals than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Since his first big hit in the politically dubious Conan the Barbarian (Roger Ebert wrote of the film’s James Earl Jones-decapitating ending, “I found myself thinking that Leni Riefenstahl could have directed the scene, and that Goebbels might have applauded it”) he became a Reaganite fantasy, disposing of foreign-accented villains who threatened the good ol’ United States of America with little more than automatic weaponry and an Austrian-accented quip.
Never mind that his father Gustav was a leading light of the Nazi party. Arnie, as he became known, was a patriotic pin-up, slaughtering America’s enemies with Teutonic efficiency in such interchangeable B-pictures as Commando, Raw Deal and Red Heat.
How things change. With a two-term career as governor of California behind him (and the inevitable “Governator” nickname), Schwarzenegger has embraced a different cinematic and political outlook. He briefly toyed with making more demanding films, such as the cop drama Sabotage and the post-apocalyptic thriller Maggie, but he has since settled into a lucrative comfort zone. His forthcoming appearance in the Netflix series FUBAR will see him play a retired CIA agent who is astonished to discover that his daughter has, unbeknownst to him, unwittingly followed in her father’s footsteps. Ribs will no doubt be tickled.
Yet it is not his cinematic or streaming endeavors that have seen Schwarzenegger attract the attention of those who would have happily denounced him as a far-right stooge in his heyday. It is the fashion in which the actor has used his YouTube channel to deliver a series of political messages that are as pugnacious in delivery as his admirers might expect — but on the other side of the political divide.
Arnie might describe himself as “Former Mr. Olympia, Conan, Terminator, and Governor of California,” and boast, “I killed the Predator. I told you I’d be back,” but his channel offers an eclectic variety of statements. The most recent describes antisemites as “losers” who will “die as miserably as they have lived” — perhaps at the fists of the Governator himself — and declares, “I know nobody is perfect… I can understand how people can fall into a trap of prejudice and hate.”
This is of a piece with his other high-profile statements. He denounced Donald Trump as “a failed leader” and “the worst president ever” after the storming of the Capitol, and he compared the events of January 6 to Kristallnacht. He sent a message to the Russian people after the invasion of Ukraine, saying, “I’m speaking to you today because there are things going on in the world that are being kept from you, terrible things that you should know about.” Arnie won acclaim from the anti-Putin journalists and politicians within Russia, one of whom, Lev Shlosberg, said, “Arnold Schwarzenegger has a unique ability to talk to anyone with persuasion, respect and on equal terms. Wits, power and justice. Have a listen. Think about it. Understand.”
All this has gone over well in his adopted country, too. At the end of last year, YouGov ranked Arnie the third most popular politician in the United States, behind Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Although the now-seventy-five-year-old bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician-turned-YouTuber has ruled out any presidential bid on the grounds that his Austrian heritage means that the law would need to be changed, the million-plus views of his political statements suggest that he has no desire to settle into an uneventful retirement.
Only a pitiable fool would bet against Schwarzenegger once again living up to his famous promise — or threat — and making a final comeback.