Fear and narcissism in New York

In trying to transfer his heroic, powerful image to Bush, Schwarzenegger reveals the deep anxieties of the GOP.

Published September 1, 2004 4:28PM (EDT)

Dangerous confusion threatened the Republicans on the second day of their convention. In an interview aired on NBC's "Today Show," President Bush was deferentially asked about the war on terrorism. "I don't think you can win it," he replied. For hours afterward, his campaign issued bulletins that he hadn't meant it. Finally, Bush appeared at a speech before the American Legion, a conservative veterans' group, in Nashville. "We will win," he declared. Vice President Cheney helpfully appeared on a right-wing radio talk show to explain: "The president certainly never intended to convey the notion that we can't win."

By breaking his own iron law -- "I don't do nuance" -- Bush had blurred himself into the negative image of John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Nuance leads to ambivalence, which can lead to inaction, and who then can be an action hero?

Bush's mistaken nuance set the stage for the larger-than-life persona of Conan the Barbarian, Predator, the Terminator, Commando and, not least, Kindergarten Cop. "This is like winning an Oscar, as if I would know," said Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, as the delegates cheered as fans.

Schwarzenegger is the only political figure in America who is married to the Kennedys and is an old Bush family retainer. His ability to operate in several dimensions at once has been intrinsic to his rise. In 1988, he campaigned for the elder Bush. "They call me the Terminator, but when it comes to America's future Michael Dukakis is the real Terminator," he said. For that contribution, he was rewarded with the chairmanship of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and he appeared at the White House, where he directed Gen. Colin Powell in a push-up drill on the South Lawn.

Schwarzenegger's policies as governor -- pro-gay, pro-choice on abortion, pro-environment -- have little in common with Bush's, and he has no chance of carrying California for Bush, who is anathema in the Golden State. Billed as a principal speaker on "People of Compassion" night, he understood his role as supporting actor was greater than merely backing any policy; it was to transfer his image to Bush and the party.

Schwarzenegger has an aesthetic sense that passes above the heads of the Republicans. To them, it seems he's appealing to simplicity, strength and old-fashioned patriotism.

But he puts a strange emphasis on the body politic Kultur. The puritanical delegates responded to him with an emotional intensity to themes they can't fully grasp. No matter how scripted Schwarzenegger may be, he remains pure in his underlying message. He makes the case for the narcissism of power through the power of narcissism.

No one is more narcissistic than a bodybuilder. He builds his reputation standing before mirrors and panels of older men, flexing his muscles to see who has the largest.

Schwarzenegger offered the Republican Convention totemic worship of virility borne out of fear of its fading. It was an act he has been perfecting for decades. In its essence, he offered a sexual identity panic speech.

The governor recounted his tale of being a "once scrawny" little boy in postwar Austria, frightened of the bullying "Soviet boot ... I was not an action hero back then." But he would "daydream for hours" about becoming an American, inspired by watching movies starring John Wayne. Too bad he was not "transfixed," as he says, by Gary Cooper (or James Dean). At last, in 1968, Arnold came to America, in the midst of a presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey was "saying things that sounded like socialism." Suddenly, another figure appeared before him. "Then I heard Nixon speak ... Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air.

"I said to my friend, I said, 'What party is he?' My friend said, 'He's a Republican.'

"I said, 'Then I am a Republican.'"

On one level, Schwarzenegger is the wild and crazy guy from Mitteleuropa who gets the cultural cues wrong, like seeing Nixon in 1968 as hip. Yet the incident reveals an unerring identification with and will to power.

Once ashore in his convention speech, he offered the flattery of the immigrant to the native. His rhetoric of gratitude seems to be boilerplate: "Everything I have, my career, my success, my family, I owe to America." But this is the immigrant as Nordic god. What could be more flattering than to have Mr. Universe declaim his love for you and desire above all to be like you?

Having established his citizenship, Schwarzenegger felt entitled to articulate the Republican credo -- of power over weakness. "If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope for democracy, then you are a Republican." Thus the immigrant blasted internationalism. "If you believe that we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican." Thus he declared the Democrats soft. "And to those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men."

So beyond unilateralism, jingoism and social Darwinism lies sexual apprehension. Those who aren't with the program are queer. But the anxiety is even deeper than that of homosexuality. "Girlie man" is a peculiar accusation for being effeminate. It reveals fear of women and their complex values. The name-calling is a frantic effort to suppress nuance, which the action hero fears he may harbor within.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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