All his life, Arnold Schwarzenegger has embodied dominance. Mr Olympia, Conan the Barbarian, the Terminator, the Governator – on screen or on a podium he was the biggest, the strongest, the mightiest. Whether wielding a sword, a shotgun or a governor’s pen, as a film character or himself, he exulted in success – in victory.
“Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of the women.” “I’ll be back.” “If they don’t have the guts, I call them girlie men.” He was, and seemingly always would be, the Austrian Oak.
A preternatural degree of confidence, focus and ambition propelled him from the forest village of Thal to triumph in bodybuilding, Hollywood and US politics. The accent and a name once deemed unpronounceable did nothing to slow him. Even the jokes, such as Clive James comparing him to a brown condom full of walnuts, only bolstered the mystique.
But as Schwarzenegger approaches his 70th birthday on Sunday he confronts a relentless, insidious foe not even he can vanquish: time. Schwarzenegger, after all, is human. And the clock, unlike alien predators and rival cyborgs from the future, cannot be stopped. As it ticks, his supremacy ebbs.
“He just wants to be number one, in whatever context. He would do anything to sustain it. But the ageing process … it’s never welcome,” said Barbara Outland Baker, a former girlfriend. “I think deep inside him there is some discomfort: ‘What am I supposed to do with this journey? I only want to be number one. If not number one, what am I supposed to do?’”
Schwarzenegger remains famous, popular and busy – manically busy. Early mornings you can spot him in Santa Monica, belting up Ocean Avenue on his bicycle, flying through red lights for his cardio. He still pumps iron, acts, travels and champions political candidates and causes.
“He is like a Terminator machine in terms of ceaseless going, going, going, striving, striving, striving,” said Bonnie Reiss, global director of an institute that bears his name at the University of Southern California.
Striving, but no longer conquering. Schwarzenegger’s recent films have fizzled at the box office. He stumped in vain for John Kasich in last year’s Republican primaries. Chatter of him running for Senate or mounting some type of political comeback has faded. The former action hero who ran California is no longer number one.
He has invested his remaining political capital in the worthy if arcane issue of redistricing reform – curbing the gerrymandering which bedevils local and state elections and fuels partisanship. He is ginning up money and attention for a case which will reach the Supreme Court in October.
“He’s a gadfly. He doesn’t really have much of a constituency in the Republican party,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. “California Republicans don’t talk about him any more. He’s essentially a non-person.”
Schwarzenegger used to be political royalty. He married Maria Shriver, John F Kennedy’s niece, and as an outsized GOP outsider brushed off sexual harassment allegations dubbed “gropegate” and won California’s governorship in 2003.
It was a rocky tenure. He mocked Democratic opponents as “girlie men”, clashed with unions and other powerful interest groups and watched the recession ignite a fiscal crisis. He averted meltdown and won re-election by rebooting his administration, moving to the political centre and grinding out legislative gains. Upon leaving office in 2011 he tainted his legacy by commuting the jail sentence of the son of a political ally. His divorce from Shriver amid revelations of an affair and secret son with their housekeeper further dented his reputation.
For all his political accomplishments – he mobilised California in the fight against climate change – the loss of executive clout must hurt, said Outland Baker. “He really likes fame and power and the movie industry can’t provide the same level of real fulfillment,” she said. Their relationship ended in 1974 but they remained in touch and he gave an interview for her 2006 memoir, Arnold and Me: In the Shadow of the Austrian Oak.
Schwarzenegger, who became a US citizen in 1983, dreamed of the White House. But an effort to amend the constitution, the so-called Arnold amendment, failed to lift the ban on foreign-born candidates. A huge blow, said Outland Baker: “You want to be the best, the top, if you’re Arnold. If he could run, he would try.”
The ascent of another celebrity-turned-GOP politician to the Oval Office, however, has conjured an unexpected role, one with a global spotlight and rapt audience: needler of Donald Trump.
The two used to be on good terms but Trump’s rise triggered a feud. It erupts in slug and counter-slug every few weeks. The president branded Schwarzenegger a “total disaster” and “pathetic” as host of Celebrity Apprentice, which he used to host himself. He told a national prayer breakfast gathering: “I want to just pray for Arnold … for those ratings.”
Schwarzenegger has swung back with gusto. “Hey Donald, I have a great idea,” he said in a video posted on social media. “Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV because you’re such an expert on ratings and I take over your job and then people can finally sleep comfortably again.” When Trump’s approval ratings sank he gloated: “The ratings are in, and you got swamped.”
Speculation abounds over Trump’s motivation for the trolling.
“A competition with someone he thinks is worthy of being an opponent,” suggested Joel Fox, a tax policy consultant who collaborated with the Governator. “I think he finds Schwarzenegger threatening because he has this deep insecurity about his manhood,” said Pitney, the analyst.
Whatever the reason, the Terminator star has become a “subtle irritant” and agent provocateur to the world’s most powerful man, said Michael Blitz, co-author a 2004 biography titled Why Arnold Matters: The Rise of a Cultural Icon. “Arnold may not be able to pump much iron anymore but he remains a persistent virtuoso of pumping irony into the bizarre state of American politics. He is the has-been who still is.”
Schwarzenegger is well equipped for battle in this nexus of politics and celebrity, said Reiss, of the Schwarzenegger Institute. “Trash-talking and head psyching was part of the bodybuilding world,” she said. The future governor honed his taunting skills against a bodybuilding rival, Lou Ferrigno, the future Incredible Hulk, in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron.
Trump and Schwarzenegger convert the feud into publicity, said Outland Baker: “They have enough in common that they probably understand the psyche of each other better than the rest of us.”
Schwarzenegger had more to gain, said Fox, the policy consultant. “If the president wants to engage with Arnold, it’s advantage Arnold.” The former governor has used the attention to spotlight climate change and an after-school programme, both causes close to his heart.
Trump-trolling aside, Schwarzenegger works hard to sustain his brand against the ravage of time. It conspires to downsize him, literally: his official height, 6ft2in, has been disputed over the years by doubters who claim he is closer to 5ft10in.
He still works out at Gold’s gym in Venice, trundles around Los Angeles in his (biodiesel) Hummer and travels widely to promote climate change measures, bodybuilding contests and movies.
The bankable star of action flicks such as Predator, Commando and Total Recall, and comedies such as Twins and Kindergarten Cop is long gone. Recent action outings such as The Last Stand, Escape Plan and Sabotage misfired. Pivoting to smaller, quieter films – Maggie, Aftermath – won over some critics (Arnie can act!) but audiences stayed away. He plays a hitman in the upcoming comedy Why We’re Killing Gunther.
Schwarzenegger still brings stardust and policy mastery to events promoting the environment, bipartisanship, voting reform and youth programmes. France recently recognised his climate change efforts with the Legion d’Honneur.
A packed, rewarding life for most mortals – but Arnie? The meaning of life, he one said, was not “simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer”.