The Reptile Within
Lessons from the California recall.
December 1, 2003
Dec 1, 2003
7 Min read time
Lessons from the California recall.
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 didn’t happen often. His new administration looks like it will reflect this accentuation. Of all the 10 or so appointments announced at this writing, only one—Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawanura—is 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 both—more narrowly—also voted against the recall that turned Gray Davis out of the second term he’d 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 state’s kookiness. Nevertheless, our kooky politics also tend to be proleptic: Ronald Reagan’s two terms as governor foreshadowed his presidency. Prop. 13’s 1978 local tax freeze was aped in dozens of states. Granted that elsewhere, a gubernatorial recall isn’t as easy. But now it is a lot more possible.
Arnold’s 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 Bustamente—a 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 can’t identify with either candidate—here, the Aryan Arnie or the virtually autistic Gray Davis or his colorless Lt. Gov. Bustamente—they 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Arnie’s appointed state EPA chief. If the manifesto didn’t 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 state’s still-mighty $8 billion shortfall. It’s unclear just how bucking the administration’s 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.” Mussolini’s 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 Asperger’s Syndrome–like ineptitude and isolation. What struck me about Arnie was his size.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, Schwarzenegger’s 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 man—I’d guess he’s 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? We’re still wondering. Was his 1977 story of the gym-loft gangbang true, or was this year’s denial?
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 essence—a need to dominate, to objectify women in particular. Is this one reason the Kennedy clan’s been so fond of Arnie? In this he is not unlike Teddy and JFK at their worst. But Arnie’s 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, California’s 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 voter’s inner reptile in their recalls of rogue GOP legislators. This time, the GOP raised enough rancor to recall a Democratic governor who hadn’t even been accused of corruption. But the referendum process is not thoughtful (as New York City’s Democrats recently proved when they overwhelmed with pure party-line arguments Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to eliminate urban partisan politics). At its most triumphant, California’s 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), Arnold’s major accomplishments—alternately saving and destroying modern civilization; overthrowing the corrupt hierarchies of Mars and prehistoric Earth—are 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.
It’s 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 we’ve 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 Schwarzenegger’s 21st-century version of Democracy. There may be only one Arnold. But don’t think it can only happen here in California.
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December 01, 2003
7 Min read time