Valley Voices

13 years ago, California had its own ‘Trump moment’

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, center, and former Gov. Gray Davis, next to Schwarzenegger, teamed up in 2008 to urge voters to support the extension of the state’s legislative term limits.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, center, and former Gov. Gray Davis, next to Schwarzenegger, teamed up in 2008 to urge voters to support the extension of the state’s legislative term limits. Associated Press file

After Donald Trump became president-elect, some across the country were surprised he got elected. Americans distrustful of Trump were just having what I would call their own “Schwarzenegger moment.”

Seeing the former “governator” in the news because he’s going to host Trump’s old “Celebrity Apprentice” was not shocking in that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a media star, but shocking in the sense that parallels between Arnold and Donald are almost too much to bear.

For those too young to remember, or for those who just blocked the episode from memory, 13 years ago, the voters of California elected Schwarzenegger to be their 38th governor in a recall election. He was sworn in Nov. 17, 2003.

Few felt Schwarzenegger was qualified, but that was beside the point. Folks were fed up with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. On Election Day, when Ah-nold won, many were like, “What happened?” He had zero experience in government and rode a wave of anti-Sacramento sentiment to the highest office in the state.

Like Hillary Clinton, Davis had clouds over his head – the energy crisis was raging at the time (remember rolling blackouts?) and the state budget was in disarray. Davis’ competency and truthfulness were in question and his lukewarm responses to those charges did not help.

Some other similarities:

▪ The personal wealth of Schwarzenegger (he plowed over $10 million of his own money into the race) was like Trump’s infusion of personal cash into the presidential race.

▪ In the days before Twitter, Schwarzenegger famously announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He blamed Davis by name for the state’s problems and purposely paraphrased a scene from the movie “Network”: “We are mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Adding: “I know they’re going to throw everything at me and say I have no experience and I’m a womanizer and I’m a terrible guy … (but) I do not have to bow to any special interests. I have plenty of money. No one can pay me off. Trust me, no one.” Sound familiar?

▪ Davis could not survive the juggernaut posed by Schwarzenegger’s relentless references to “The Terminator,” as Clinton did not survive Trump’s attacks and her email scandal. Arnold was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote – 48.6 percent actually. The recall ballot had 135 candidates and gave the election to whoever won the most votes … whether a majority or not.

▪ Strange coalitions of voters appeared this year, as they had in 2003. Forty-five percent of Latinos and fifty-nine percent of women voted for Schwarzenegger to replace Davis. In Florida this year, roughly one-third of Latinos supported Trump, despite his messages to build a wall and his xenophobic zeal.

Schwarzenegger won re-election to a full term in 2006, but things went downhill quickly and his reign in office did not end nicely. Jerry Brown was elected in 2010 and returned some sanity, stability and “normalcy” to the office. The governorship in California had been bent, but not broken.

In 2003, the governorship became a reality show, as the presidency is becoming at the national level. Many will watch – similar to how we kept a fascinated eye on Arnold, first lady Maria Shriver and the first family years ago.

I believe Trump is thinking there could be more to pass on to his children than just Trump-branded hotels and golf courses – perhaps he can pass on the White House. It is certainly not unheard of for fathers to want to pass on the presidency to their children (think John Quincy Adams or George W. Bush taking over the family business and building a dynasty), so we may be in for more Trumps to come.

Maybe look for Ivanka Trump as a nominee. Would it not be interesting to see her run against Michelle Obama in 2024 or 2028?

If I would have said aloud in early 2007 that Barack Obama would be a two-term president followed by Donald Trump, it would have sounded ridiculous. America’s “Schwarzenegger moment” has just begun.

David Schecter is vice provost and professor of political science at California State University, Bakersfield. He welcomes comments at dschecter@csub.edu.

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