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That Time We Elected a Celebrity

Donald Trump wouldn't be the first. But there are important differences between Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2003 campaign and Trump's in 2016.
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Arnold Schwarzenegger during the  Hahnenkamm race on January 23, 2016, in Kitzbuehel, Austria.  (Photo: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

Arnold Schwarzenegger during the Hahnenkamm race on January 23, 2016, in Kitzbuehel, Austria. (Photo: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

This year, 2016, is not the first year a substantial portion of the country was poised to elect a wealthy celebrity businessman with a distinctive speaking style as chief executive. As Kaleb Horton reminds us at Vanity Fair, it's been just a little over a decade since Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully ran for governor of California. And there are important similarities between those two campaigns that remind us that, yes, this sort of thing can happen.

Both candidates were, essentially, entertainers who had masterfully crafted public images of themselves over long and successful careers. Both were unconventional candidates with essentially no prior experience running for office. They had odd speaking styles and didn't sound like politicians usually do. They had throngs of enthusiastic followers who sometimes seemed like they couldn't distinguish between the candidate and the roles he had played. They were each initially dismissed by the political classes for their inexperience and repeatedly proved the punditry wrong. Each had ostensibly moderate business-oriented proclivities, some affiliation with the Republican Party, and at least suggestions of an authoritarian streak. And each was willing to drop an occasional swear word.

But there are very important differences between the two races that underscore just how much more of a departure from the norm the Trump campaign is. To name just a few:


While he'd never run for office before 2003, Schwarzenegger had been active in politics for many years. He'd raised money for several Republican candidates and served as a surrogate for George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign. President Bush then appointed Schwarzenegger head of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. He'd championed and campaigned for a statewide initiative for after-school sports. What's more, a group of moderate California Republicans who'd worked closely with the previous governor, Pete Wilson, actively recruited Schwarzenegger to run for office. They promised him money and support if he was interested in running statewide.

None of this is atypical in politics. And none of it is similar to Trump's rise. Up until last week, Trump had basically no support from the party establishment. No one sought him or saw him as a champion of their cause. He simply imposed himself.


The California recall election that brought Schwarzenegger to power in 2003 had no party primaries. The recall replacement process in California contains no official way for the party to winnow its choices, and the ballot contained 135 candidates. This is ideal for a candidate like Schwarzenegger, who was very well known and popular, but quite possibly too moderate to survive a traditional party primary among California's very conservative Republican primary electorate.

Again, this is totally different for Trump, who has managed to thrive in several primaries so far despite facing electorates that are more conservative than he is on many issues.


Schwarzenegger, like Trump, was highly skilled at exploiting his fame on the campaign trail. But the former also clearly had an understanding of public policy. He could speak at length and in depth on a variety of issues. (See this example from a 2003 debate, at around 39:45, discussing health insurance reform.) Trump has never demonstrated anything like that, repeating identical one-sentence slogans in response to every request for policy specificity since the presidential debates began.


Schwarzenegger emphasized a certain humility in much of his campaign, asking people to help his historic effort. Take one of his advertisements, "Trouble," in which he says: "In my life, the goals that I have set for myself I have been able to achieve. But this is bigger than me. I need your help. Together, we can bring California back."

Suffice it to say this is not the tone Trump has struck in his campaign efforts.

It's notable that Schwarzenegger campaigned largely as he portrayed himself. He remained a center-right Republican, pleasing his party at times and disappointing it at others. He sought to leverage his popularity to champion some direct democracy initiatives, with mixed success. His unusual political background gave him some freedom to maneuver and cut deals with the Democratic legislature, but he was still largely bound by the political system and mainly muddled through like most governors.

How would Trump behave in office? We actually have much less of an idea than we did with Schwarzenegger. Trump has given no indication he's capable of working with a Congress controlled by his own party, no less one controlled by another. His policy stances are remarkably vague. He could well end up a similar sort of chief executive as Schwarzenegger, but that's probably the best of many, many possible outcomes.

It's also worth noting that this sort of thing is still incredibly rare. It may well be that we're at the beginning of the era of the celebrity candidate, and that the 2024 election will see Katy Perry trying to unseat Kanye West from the White House. Chances are, though, politics still belongs to the politicians.