The Reptile Within
Lessons from the California recall
Marc B. Haefele
Black is beautiful;
so is tan. But white is the color of the Big Boss Man.
The election is long over, but you still remember the sheer, Antarctic
whiteness of the crowds surrounding Arnold Schwarzenegger. They
encircled him in white habitats: suburban airports, big-box home-building
supply stores, county fairgrounds. It was orchestrated triumphalism.
Once, bumping into a Hispanic-tinged throng east of L.A., Schatzi
was forced to improvise: I love Mexico. I made four movies
in Mexico. That didnt happen often. His new administration
looks like it will reflect this accentuation. Of all the 10 or
so appointments announced at this writing, only oneAgriculture
Secretary A.G. Kawanurais non-Anglo. Somehow, the campaign
slogan JoinArnold became uninclusive. Two-thirds of California
Latinos voted against Arnie. More than 70 percent of blacks did.
Most of bothmore narrowlyalso voted against the recall
that turned Gray Davis out of the second term hed won just
11 months earlier. But most Californians voted for it and nearly
half voted for Arnold. The rest of us are still shaking our heads.
Progressive pundits urge us not to blame the outcome on Golden
Staters chronic kookiness. That ignores the politics,
they say, meaning the Republican coup the recall represents. Yes,
but folks, the politics of California are intrinsic to the states
kookiness. Nevertheless, our kooky politics also tend to be proleptic:
Ronald Reagans two terms as governor foreshadowed his presidency.
Prop. 13s 1978 local tax freeze was aped in dozens of states.
Granted that elsewhere, a gubernatorial recall isnt as easy.
But now it is a lot more possible.
Arnolds win also suggests that,
as whites become themselves a minority in many U.S. urban areas,
it may paradoxically be easier to get elected to statewide office
by ignoring the minority vote. The October recall race awakened
widespread minority apathy, and not just among the African Americans
who seemingly had the least at stake: in the classic L.A. immigrant
ghetto of Boyle Heights, for instance, I saw only one banner hung
for Democrat Cruz Bustamentea sort of Hispanic Tom Dewey,
true, but nonetheless the first Latino gubernatorial candidate since
the 1800s. Indeed, a higher portion of blacks than Latinos voted
for Cruz. Otherwise, this was a triumph of California suburbia as
the urban hinterlands delivered for Arnie just as they did their
best to deliver for George Bush in 2000. Again, this is a pattern
that could apply to many similar closely divided states: Florida,
say, or Illinois. If the minorities feel sufficiently disenfranchised
or cant identify with either candidatehere, the Aryan
Arnie or the virtually autistic Gray Davis or his colorless Lt.
Gov. Bustamentethey will opt out. In this case, the high,
60 percent turnout mostly reflected nonminority voting.
Perhaps to evade a perception of this
political albinism, Schwarzenegger had the sense to cast his net
in another direction: toward the liberal environmental voter. Uncounted
moderates who voted for him, and many who didnt but were optimistic
in the wake of his win, cited the trenchant if vague environmental
position paper posted on his website. The paper declared that Arnold
would resist federal incursions on forest lands and ocean pollution
standards; it promised to halve air pollution and develop a statewide
hydrogen economy. It was the sort of declaration you imagined might
be passed by the Berkeley City Council, but of course, Arnold probably
didnt see it until it was in print. The paper was the work
of 51-year-old Terry Tamminen, a clean-water activist long the darling
of liberal, Democratically inclined SoCal coastal environmental
groups. But Tamminen was long and closely associated with Bobby
Kennedy, Jr., who was in turn associated with Maria Shriver, and
When Bobby asks you to do something, you do it, as one
mutual acquaintance put it. But the ideological sacrifice paid off:
Tamminen is now Arnies appointed state EPA chief. If the manifesto
didnt actually win the election, it certainly made it easier
for many moderates to vote Republican.
Elsewhere in the campaign website,
however, it is noted that Arnold will seek Bush administration help
for the states still-mighty $8 billion shortfall. Its
unclear just how bucking the administrations conservative
line on the environment is going to help those negotiations. But
as one famous 20th-century statesman put it, There are things
one says when one has no responsibility but forgets as soon as possible
when one has. Mussolinis adage could be useful to Schwarzenegger
in months to come. But the recall suggests that, at least in larger
states, environmental values are important to the majority of voters.
So it is now OK for Republicans platonically to embrace them. Which
raises a more delicate point. As a reporter, I ran into Schwarzenegger
and Davis now and then over the past decade. What struck me about
Davis was his Aspergers Syndromelike ineptitude and
isolation. What struck me about Arnie was his size.
In the 1980s and early 90s, Schwarzeneggers
personal publicity machine gave his height at variously 6 foot 2
and 6 foot 4. This was so widely reprinted that I was surprised
to find myself looking rather down on the renowned muscle manId
guess hes well under 5 foot 9. Dapper, prepossessing, I thought.
A pleasant body language and a conscientiously gentle handshake.
And oh yes, he lies about his height to the tune of around half
a foot. If you lied about something as obvious as that, I wondered,
what else might you fabulate? Were still wondering. Was his
1977 story of the gym-loft gangbang true, or was this years
What of the gropes, the bullying, the
sadistic humiliations he said he was responsible for? Did this have
to do with inferiority about his low-average height? Or was it,
as some suggest, an aspect of his bullying essencea need to
dominate, to objectify women in particular. Is this one reason the
Kennedy clans been so fond of Arnie? In this he is not unlike
Teddy and JFK at their worst. But Arnies sexual misbehavior
has been much more frat-house than White House. And it runs completely
against the image of the confident strongman who confronts the powerful
and protects the weak. This is perhaps why Schwarzenegger pulled
the bizarre stunt of seeking an investigation of his own past activities,
as though one could hire a P.I., rather than a philosopher, to sort
out his unexamined life. Of course, cynics maintain this so-called
investigation could be intended to intimidate his former victims.
So what was this all about anyway?
Mike Davis, Californias secular Cotton Mather, noted that
Gray Davis had actually enhanced prosperity for the Schwarzenegger-voting
demographic. Davis blames the recall on the reptile within
of millions of outwardly affluent but inwardly tormented commuter
consumers, their car radios tuned to AM hate radio.
But minus that rancor there would have
been no recall, so rancor there had to be. Right radio was a key
(along with millions spent by Republicans in the recall petition
drive), but not the whole answer: California Republicans, unlike
the Democrats, know how to run initiatives. They learned in the
early 90s how to reach the comfortable voters inner
reptile in their recalls of rogue GOP legislators. This time, the
GOP raised enough rancor to recall a Democratic governor who hadnt
even been accused of corruption. But the referendum process is not
thoughtful (as New York Citys Democrats recently proved when
they overwhelmed with pure party-line arguments Mayor Bloombergs
attempt to eliminate urban partisan politics). At its most triumphant,
Californias 93-year-old referendum-recall process seems deeply
rooted in the venerable institution of the lynch mob. This may be
why the most successful referendum in state history was not Prop.
13 but the death penalty initiative that passed in 1978 by nearly
75 percent. The initiative-recall process, in the California Republican
strategy, is now the institutionalized revenge of the middle masses.
Yet minus a Schwarzenegger, there would also have been no recall.
This is the irreducible Kalifornia Kook part of the whole thing:
apart from his middling business career (no more distinguished than
yours or mine would be if our income gurgled in eight-figure gushes),
Arnolds major accomplishmentsalternately saving and
destroying modern civilization; overthrowing the corrupt hierarchies
of Mars and prehistoric Earthare fictional. But no one noticed.
His fabulations pulled the voters toward that magic world where
Right wields a broadsword or an Uzi, which was exactly where they
wanted to be. His impulse disorders, which seemingly left his fingerprints
on half the women in his reach, enhanced for much of the demographic
the celluloid image of the asocial strongman.
Its been 17 years since Jean
Baudrillard spoke of the paradoxical confidence we place in
someone on the basis of their failure or their absence of qualities
(emphasis his). Now weve moved a step beyond that. Real leadership
and social qualities, such as Gray Davis had in small measure, are
an actual political debit. Only by the fakery of Hollywood and the
campaign media, and acquiescence to this fakery by an entertainmentized
media, can we enter into Schwarzeneggers 21st-century version
of Democracy. There may be only one Arnold. But dont think
it can only happen here in California. <
Marc B. Haefele has reported
on Southern California for 22 years. He is news editor of the
Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government
every Friday on KPCC Pasadena. He appears regularly in the opinion
pages of the Los Angeles Times.
Originally published in the December
2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review