A Pep Talk to America From California, Where We’ve Been Through This Nightmare Before

If you’re horrified by President Trump, here’s how we got through Gov. Schwarzenegger — and what we learned

I woke up to jokes this morning from fellow Californians about how we need a wall separating us from the rest of the United States — and to make President Trump pay for it.

But we aren’t going to do that, because we’ve been through this before: After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger was our governor.

Today feels a lot like the October day in 2003 when Californians realized that a bodybuilder-turned-action star was our state’s new leader. There are endless parallels between Schwarzenegger and Trump, both outsiders with roots in entertainment, no political experience, problems with groping women, and vague promises to clean up government. Trump has been accused of courting white supremacists. Schwarzenegger’s father was literally a Nazi.

Both celebrities defeated somewhat dull, very wonky career politicians who were known more for their in-the-weeds policy expertise than their charisma. The California governor whom Schwarzenegger ran out of office in a freak recall election was so gray that his name was literally Gray.

In the cases of Trump and Schwarzenegger, the win felt a little anarchic: Did our fellow voters hate government so much that we would throw a wild card into the mix just to see what he would do? Had they thought this through? Did they just not care?

When Schwarzenegger won, I was furious. Policy aside, how had we chosen someone so unqualified? I was working as a reporter at the time, and was sent to interview people at a Santa Monica shopping complex that Schwarzenegger owned.

I asked a woman getting her hair done at a salon there why she voted for Schwarzenegger. She said she hoped he would roll back government waste. I noted that one of Davis’ biggest expenditures was expanded health insurance for children.

“Sounds flaky to me,” she said.

So this was the kind of person who had voted for our new governor. I went back to the office and wrote the most biased story I’ve ever written.

But something happened over the ensuing months and years. I covered the environment, mostly, and Schwarzenegger turned out to be a fairly decent environmental governor. He did a lot of things no one expected, like expanding California’s domestic partnership registry, signing a hate crimes bill, and blocking discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He reached out to the man he vanquished, Gray Davis, and treated him as something of a mentor.

He wasn’t a monster.

Not that I was sold. Sometimes, often, he put flash over substance. For example: Schwarzenegger was fixated on the idea of a “hydrogen highway” — a network of hydrogen gas stations that would provide an alternative-fuel route across California. You may have noticed it still hasn’t materialized.

He converted one of his Hummers to run on hydrogen, to make a symbolic point, but the vehicle only underlined the impracticality of the average driver relying on hydrogen. It could only go 50 miles until it needed to refuel, and there were only a dozen fueling stations statewide. He showed up at a rally driving the hydrogen vehicle, then left in a regular gas guzzler.

He sometimes seemed to care more about photo ops than policy. Sound familiar?

Here’s how we handled it, as Californians who didn’t like or respect him.

We were grateful for the things he got right. We called him out when he seemed to be full of it — on the hydrogen Hummer, for example. But we learned, slowly, that he was a nuanced person, like everyone, with positive traits we could encourage and negative ones we could discourage.

The stakes are much higher with soon-to-be President Trump. First, because he’s able to appoint Supreme Court judges and use the nuclear codes. And second, because he has said horribly racist things about groups of fellow human beings we love.

Our obligation to call out his flaws is profound, because his flaws are so profound. We are all responsible for paying attention, and watch-dogging the former host of “The Apprentice,” just as Californians did with The Terminator.

We can’t wall ourselves off or take comfort in California’s newly legalized recreational marijuana or go into a bunker where we only read the kinds of news outlets that totally failed to predict Trump’s win.

It seems insane to have to say this about the president of the United States, but we need to protest by any means necessary the first rumblings of Hitlerism, and make sure he never gets to carry out any of the bigoted, unconstitutional policies so many people are terrified he will.

 

Another thing I never imagined I would write: After living through his governorship, I would much rather have a President Schwarzenegger than a President Trump. I learned to respect things about the Governator, most of all his ability to surprise me, and take stands I didn’t expect him to take. I came to believe that for all of his issues, in his mind, he meant well. I hope the same might somehow happen with Trump.

We’re all good and bad, and hardworking and lazy, and stunningly capable and scarily inept. Many of the same people who voted for Davis voted for Schwarzenegger, and many who voted for Obama voted for Trump. We can’t honestly say that those people are open-minded champions of change in one election, and cruel bigoted animals the next. They’re all flawed humans, like all of us. Like Schwarzenegger. Like the president-elect. He’s our flawed human and we need to bring out the best in him.

Speaking of changing fortunes: When I was a kid, California was a swing state. What changed everything here was Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant law that turned the state’s thriving Latino population against Republicans for years to come. So you see where scapegoating immigrants get you.

Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, was the rare California Republican who got a pass. And he turned out to be a pretty popular leader, for a while, until his popularity waned. After he left office, he and Maria Shriver divorced and he admitted fathering a son with a household employee. For many people, that confirmed that he had been a pig all along. But he took care of his son financially, and loves him.

He said earlier this year he would not vote for Trump for president. This January, he will replace him as the host of “Celebrity Apprentice.”