SANTA MONICA, Calif.—In another world, Arnold Schwarzenegger might be an elder statesman in his party. The former Republican governor of California might even be a top ally of the entertainment president: They used to be friendly, and Schwarzenegger was Donald Trump’s successor on Celebrity Apprentice.
In Trump’s world, though, Schwarzenegger is a GOP apostate. Fresh off of playing the president of the United States in a new movie—the upcoming Kung Fury 2, which has a plot about “Thundercops,” time travel, and the Miami Kung Fu Academy—Schwarzenegger is coming into 2020 trying to sort out his role in politics in the year ahead. He thinks Republicans should follow his lead on environmentalism and redistricting reform. He thinks the whole country should follow California’s lead on integrating economic growth into environmental protection.
Forget about the Green New Deal, he told me: “There’s only one deal, and that is the California deal.”
For now, Schwarzenegger’s involvement in the presidential race is much like the rest of the country’s: as a skeptical and unimpressed viewer. A big part of why he thinks show business has consumed politics is the length of campaigns, and the need to keep up with attention spans. That said, he hasn’t been impressed with the Democratic candidates’ chops. “They should take acting lessons, all of these people up there on the stage,” he said. “‘Oh, it was appalling that you used to endorse this,’ and ‘How could you have done that? Oh my God, it was horrendous!’ They do this whole drama as if it really affects their life. And then they walk off the stage again and smile and laugh.”
Our full interview can be heard on the latest episode of Radio Atlantic. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: Environmentalism and increasing renewable energy is a major priority for you. What do you make of the Green New Deal?
Arnold Schwarzenegger: A slogan. Kind of a marketing tool. Something that is very well intentioned, but, I think, bogus. Because that’s what they always do—they call things different names and different people talk about it. But to me, the only thing that really matters is: How do we move forward with our goals? And this means that we stop increasing the amount of greenhouse gases and pollution that we put out there. The idea is to have the whole nation do that, and to have the whole world do that, and you don’t have to call them names. But I understand also that it makes you feel like there’s a new beginning now, because we’re calling it a different name.
But my point always was that there’s only one deal, and that is the California deal. We in California have shown that it can be done, and we have shown how to do it. And therefore, if the nation really wants to be serious in reducing greenhouse gases by 25 percent like we did, all they have to do is copy us. That’s what states are supposed to do, to be the laboratory for the federal government, and just have the federal government copy very good ideas done by various states.
Dovere: Do you get when people feel fatalistic about doing anything about climate change, and say, “Maybe it’s too late already?”
Schwarzenegger: I never go for that kind of an answer, because it’s no different than when you are 85 years old and you say, ‘Well, it’s too late. Why am I going to the gym and working out? Why should I do Pilates? Why should I go and do some exercise, do some cardio work or something?”
It may be late, but it’s not too late, because still that person that is 85 can, instead of wiping out at 87, maybe you stretch it to 90. You know, we have a gene that determines when you die, but you can alter that. You can destroy it and set yourself back by drinking a lot, smoking a lot, and eating shitty foods. And then you wipe out earlier. But you can also go and exercise and live a clean life and extend it by five years or 10 years the other way.
I think it’s just the political will. Do the various different leaders have the political will? Everyone always admires heroes. But when it comes to … stepping up to the plate and becoming a hero yourself, then sometimes people kind of freak out: “What does that mean? I have to make a commitment now. I have to go and fight the oil companies, have to fight the coal companies. I have to fight off this kind of lobbyist out there that is fighting for fossil fuels and having a lot of power. Oh my God. This is overwhelming.”
Dovere: So much of our politics is about celebrity these days—with Donald Trump, with the Democratic presidential race. Is politics now consumed by entertainment?
Schwarzenegger: It is, but we just have a wacky system. We have created, in a way, a show-business system where you have a presidential campaign that lasts two years, but it gets boring when you see the same people up there and arguing with each other—and not only arguing with each other, but real fake and terrible acting, I have to say.
They should take acting lessons, all of these people up there on the stage, because the acting is just so horrible when they attack each other like, “Oh, it was appalling that you used to endorse this,” and “How could you have done that? Oh my God, it was horrendous!” They do this whole drama as if it really affects their life. And then they walk off the stage again and smile and laugh and have a good time and probably drink some schnapps together. It’s show business, and it’s all about who got the ratings up and who got the ratings down.
Dovere: Gerrymandering is your other big political cause. But you’re a Republican, and redistricting reform in California has been bad for Republicans. What would you say to Republicans who say they need to keep the district lines in order to hold power to do the other things you might agree with them more on?
Schwarzenegger: It’s a selfish way of thinking because we know that the system is rigged and we know that it really hurts the country when Democrats and Republicans are so far apart with their ideology and they’re so stuck in the ideological corners that they can’t come together. So then nothing gets done.
So how do we stay competitive as a nation? The other countries move ahead. China moves ahead. The European Union moves ahead. India is moving ahead. The only way we can be competitive is if we collectively come together and say: “Here are the things that we need to do in order to fix the problem.” If you cannot be competitive, if you don’t have better ideas than the Democrats, then you’re going to lose. You can protect your job, as much as an Olympic champion can protect his medal and come back again and do it again. But he has to be the best. You cannot get shooed in because you already had a medal … because that’s the way the system works.
Dovere: A number of Republicans who don’t like Trump and the direction of the party have left. What makes you stay?
Schwarzenegger: Well, I think I’m a true Republican. If you look at Ronald Reagan or President Nixon or President Lincoln, these were people that were fighting for equality. I’m inclusive. I see myself as that. I see myself as a Ronald Reagan Republican, someone that is very, very good with protecting the economy, but also good at protecting the environment.
Dovere: Isn’t that kind of Republican gone?
Schwarzenegger: You don’t have to change your principles. The party changes; it can go one way or the other. My responsibility is to keep reminding everyone: This is what the true Republican Party is all about. And we should not just change because a new president came in and he maybe is a little bit different in his approach. I think that we should really, as Republicans, fight for total equality.
Dovere: Have the people who have left the party made the wrong decision?
Schwarzenegger: No; it’s like in training, you know, in bodybuilding. I mean, there were guys that were doing 20 reps of 20 sets to get the most muscular chest. And I was doing five different exercises of five sets, each of 12 repetitions. So who was right and who was wrong?
Dovere: What do you want your role to be over this election year?
Schwarzenegger: I want to be as supportive as possible to get things done. America is the most important thing, not a political position. And that’s why I have no interest in running, myself, for anything—for senator, for Congress, or anything like that. I think that I can do a lot of good from the outside.
Dovere: You have a movie coming out in which you play the president. Was that a tease for you?
Schwarzenegger: It’s fun to play something, at least, that you can’t be. This is why it’s fun to play a CIA agent like you do in the movies. The amount of cops I played—my father always wanted me to be a cop. So since we don’t have comprehensive immigration reform, and a foreign-born citizen cannot run for president, it’s fun to play.
Dovere: Does it make you think more about wanting to be president?
Schwarzenegger: Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think about it. It would’ve been fun to sit here and to have the power and to work with the world together and solve those problems and to take on those challenges. Yeah, of course I think about that. But at the same time, I also think about, Wait a minute, you can’t really complain about it too much, because everything that was accomplished in my life was because of America.