This morning Arnold Schwarzenegger released a seven-and-a-half-minute video about last week’s attack on the Capitol. Speaking from his experience growing up in Austria in the wake of Hitler’s defeat, he compares last week’s siege to the Kristallnacht and suggests a parallel between the social and psychological condition of post-WWII Austrians — such as his father, a policeman in the German army who returned as an abusive drunk — to disillusioned Trump supporters: “Growing up, I was surrounded by broken men drinking away the guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history.” Schwarzengger writes about this festering discontent in his autobiography Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story; rereading these passages today immediately brought to mind an incisive (and frankly hilarious) viral post from 4chan’s toxic /pol/ board about post-riot condition of MAGA/Q disenchantment.
In the video Schwarzenegger is flanked by the flags of the United States of America and the Republic of California. He draws part of his authority from his political office as the former Governor of California, a Republican whose star burned brightest during the Iraq War, his time in office nearly coinciding with the dates from the invasion to Obama’s troop withdrawal. In recent years, he’s settled into the role of a “moderate,” moving to the left of many in the developing Biden administration on issues such as climate change and gerrymandering; that his concerns about xenophobia, cultural prejudice, and authoritarian populism have manifested about two decades too late is, I guess, better late than never.
The other authority that Schwarzengger flexes in his video derives from the screen. Schwarzengger has had unparalleled awareness of how his roles intersect with his personal biography: his story as an immigrant conquering bodybuilding, Hollywood, and politics intertwines with his outsider conquest of various jungles, planets, timelines, and shopping malls, something fellow Screen Slate contributor Patrick Dahl and I explored in our 2014 piece Strong-Thing (“Better than the fucking Clock.” -Michel Auder). This narrative trajectory begins with his breakout leading role in Conan the Barbarian, in which Schwarzengger plays a (white) slave who eventually ascends the burn down the (Black) ruler Thulsa Doom’s throne. In the centerpiece of today’s video, Schwarzenegger draws Conan’s sword to emphasize a point: “The more you temper a sword, the more powerful it becomes. … Our democracy is like the steel of this sword.”
This metaphor is juvenile and not entirely cogent. However, that the sword of Conan carries special significance for various racists, fascists, and autocratic sycophants is surely not lost on the ever-canny Schwarzenegger. The film, which people of all political persuasions may agree rules for various reasons if so disposed, is nevertheless an explicit appeal to right-wing ideologies. Its opening epigraph quotes a saying of Nietszche then-recently popularized by Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy upon exiting prison: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Director/co-screenwriter John Milius, the quintessential far-right New Hollywood provocateur, is surely among Liddy’s fans. According to Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, when producer Dino De Laurentiis entered the project late in development, he tried to have the star removed on the grounds that “He’s a Nazi.” “No, Dino,” Milius is said to have replied. “There is only one Nazi on this team. And that is me.”
In J. Hoberman’s recent book Make My Day: Culture in the Age of Reagan, David Denby is quoted as saying Millius “doesn’t have the consistency or the visual skills to be a good fascist filmmaker,” and while it gives one pause to consider the implication that Mr. Denby believes there can be such a thing as a good fascist filmmaker (a dead fascist filmmaker?), it’s also unkind to argue that Conan lacks consistency or visual aptitude. Indeed, Schwarzenneger swinging this very same broadsword on the beach as the wind caresses his flowing barbarian locks is one of the most indelible images of the 1980s. We can appreciate it the same way we might continue to appreciate the work of indie musician Ariel Pink, who caused commotion on the internet after appearing at the insurrection — an unfortunate person whose music seems to mostly resonate with people who don’t share his confusing-to-trash politics. (As a fascist, Pink lacks the consistency and aptitude of Milus.) VHS-washed images of Schwarzenegger on the beach have occupied common space with fuzzy, lo-fi, hypnagogic pop music and vaporwave aesthetics — things that seem to have come crashing to a messy head this week along with artist Ryder Ripps falsely claiming credit for the CIA’s hip rebranding. That the week that accelerationist art and aesthetics may have deflated concludes with Schwarzenegger brandishing Conan’s sword to talk down a right-wing insurrection feels, sure, appropriate. May it stand as one of the essential media texts of this moment, striding tall with Conan’s steel above the celebrity selfie singalongs to “Imagine.”