Arnold’s been many things: a comically muscular Conan, an unstoppable Terminator, an unlikely governor, and an even unlikelier Never-Trump Republican. None of it has made much sense, but it’s never needed to.
“Now you see this sword? This is the Conan sword.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, international icon, unfadable action hero, and semi-distinguished former Republican governor of California, sits behind a massive desk, framed by both the U.S. and California flags, sternly addressing a fractured nation via Twitter and, indeed, brandishing the very blade he used to decapitate Thulsa Doom in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. And why not, at this point. f*ck it.
It is January 10, four days after an unruly mob spurred by outgoing president Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, killing five and further fracturing the nation perhaps beyond repair. Or perhaps not. “Now here’s the thing about swords,” Conan continues. Not Conan—Arnold. Sorry. “The more you temper a sword,” he says, “the stronger it becomes.”
Why not. f*ck it. He describes how to temper a sword in some detail; he explicitly intends this as a metaphor for American democracy. He lambastes Trump as “the worst president ever.” He pledges his support for incoming president Joe Biden. Stirring political-address music hums in the background. “To those who think they can overturn the United States Constitution, know this,” concludes Arnold Schwarzenegger. Slight pause. Here we go. He has roughly 500 famous action-movie catchphrases he could fire off in this moment, and it’s almost disappointing when he resists this temptation for the first time in his whole entire life and opts instead for the relatively staid “You will never win.” God bless America and so forth. The Governator has spoken.
What is most striking about Schwarzenegger’s Twitter address is not the Conan sword, nor his explicit likening of the Capitol riot to the galvanizing 1938 Nazi rampage known as Kristallnacht, nor his genuinely moving recollection of his childhood in Austria in the early 1950s. “Growing up, I was surrounded by broken men drinking away the guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history,” he says, before alluding to the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his own father. “Not all of them were rabid anti-Semites or Nazis. Many just went along, step by step, down the road.”
No, what is most striking is that all of this blends seamlessly together: the Nazis, the Proud Boys, Schwarzenegger’s wrenching personal history, the hokey B-movie sword. Past and present, fact and fiction, grave history and macho farce, Arnold the human and Arnold the semi-distinguished politician and Arnold the unfadable action hero. He’s been blurring these lines for 40-plus years; he long ago blurred them entirely out of existence. Ten days later, another Twitter video: Schwarzenegger getting the COVID-19 vaccine and very much back to business catchphrase-wise, reeling off two in quick succession. For the young lady wielding the syringe: “Put that needle down!” (I didn’t get this one right away.) And post-vaccine, for the rest of us: “Come with me if you want to live.” (Duh.)
In 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a relatively serene 73-year-old occasional movie star (he last appeared in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate) and extremely chaotic political commentator. His reign as California governor (from 2003 to 2011) was tumultuous and ideologically convoluted; he replaced Trump as host of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice in 2017 but bailed after one season and sparred with Trump thereafter over various ratings. He now conducts himself as an avatar of sword-tempering bipartisan decency, though his 31-year marriage to Maria Shriver collapsed in 2011 amid ignominious tabloid scandal, and during his initial 2003 governor campaign, multiple women said he touched them in a sexual manner without consent. (In 2018, with #MeToo ascendant, he conceded that he’d “stepped over the line several times.”) Multiplex heroism, shaky George W. Bush–era conservatism, uneasy reality-TV pragmatism, harassment, abysmal sexism, and a late-period turn toward vehement anti-Trumpism. It’s all him. It’s all inextricable.
And so once again we take a quick spin through Schwarzenegger’s filmography and bibliography, because doing that is always fun, and it behooves us in this moment of maximum American self-antagonism to further ruminate on how this particular sword was tempered. It turns out “put that needle down” is a paraphrased deep cut from 1996’s wacky comedy Jingle All the Way, in which he yells, “Put that cookie down, now!” at Phil Hartman. It makes no sense, and doesn’t particularly help anybody, to dredge that one-liner back up now, in the middle of a raging global pandemic and burgeoning American cold civil war. Then again, it makes exactly as much sense as anything or anyone else does.
I can offer you no summary of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s origin story more poetic or instructive than the Wheel of Pain montage from Conan the Barbarian, his pro-bodybuilder physique slowly swelling to cartoonish (and real-world) Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia proportions, his murderous action-hero resolve slowly hardening, the stirring music forever swelling in the background. The remarkably gnarly Conan gave him his first true breakout role, his first unworthy adversaries (including the camel), and his first catchy campaign slogan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Ridiculous. Uncouth. Indelible. A fiction so bizarre in its specificity that it instantly morphed into unassailable fact.