Arnold Schwarzenegger marched into the Orange County Register’s lobby wearing cowboy boots and confidence.  He was mobbed in the lobby by women who wanted him and men who wanted to be him.  He cheerfully signed autographs.  He then came up to our offices to meet the editorial board.

The celluloid dream became a physical reality for the hour of his interview.  It was 2002, and Schwarzenegger was promoting a boutique ballot initiative for a new spending program: $450 million per year for after-school programs for kids, so they could have a chance like he did to enter sports such as bodybuilding.  He promised our editorial board that no new taxes would be needed, because the new program would reduce juvenile crime, and so help the state economy while lowering police and court expenses.  It was a practice campaign for his run for governor the next year.

Fast-forward to 2009, and that $450 million had to be paid with part of the record $13 billion in tax increases the governor signed into law.

Like that 2002 campaign, everything about Arnold is a celluloid illusion, even more than it was for JFK or Reagan.  In his movie Last Action Hero, the image of Arnold is conflated with the real Arnold, as a young boy and Arnold move back and forth across the screen between the movie and “reality.”

It’s a synthetic example that could come from the pages of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, published in English in 1994, one year after Last Action Hero appeared.  Baudrillard writes, “The universe, and all of us, have entered live into simulation, into the malefic, not even malefic, indifferent, sphere of deterrence: in a bizarre fashion, nihilism has been entirely realized no longer through destruction, but through simulation and deterrence.”

From the beginning, Arnold has molded his image and career like a piece of Silly Putty.  He transported himself to America from Austria in the midst of four times being crowned Mr. Universe.  The titles were for bodybuilding, a made-up sport that, like the Miss Universe pageant, includes preening in skimpy swimsuits before judges, but without the talent contest.  Arnold won this and other competitions by injecting himself with copious steroids, then legal.  The “real” Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger was replaced with the simulated Arnold via a berserker pumping-iron-and-needles regimen.

After switching to movies, he became the authentic-simulated action hero and top international box-office draw from the mid-80’s to early 90’s.  Along the way he schmoozed with free-market economist Milton Friedman and married into the American Habsburgs, the Kennedy-Shrivers, straddling both sides of the political pit.

Baudrillard writes of “the desert of the real,” a phrase made popular by the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which reality and simulation are blurred as they were in many of Arnold’s early flicks.

Just as Arnold’s film career was flaming out, in 2003 California voters recalled pathetic, hesitant, panicked Gov. Gray Davis.  Arnold ran in the replacement election, promising to “terminate” the state’s budget deficits and “blow up the boxes” of waste in state government.

Californians didn’t vote for Arnold, but for the Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, John Matrix, Dutch, Ben Richards, Capt. Ivan Danko, Jack Slater, U.S. Marshal John “The Eraser” Kruger, and Mr. Freeze.  He—or they—won easily.

Even though the former Mr. Universe’s misfeasance and malfeasance have brought record state deficits that make Greece look frugal, outside of California he remains the Last Action Hero.  People I speak with across America still think it’s not his fault.  How could the Terminator go wrong?  I argue with them, in my editorial-writer’s way.  But they have a point.  It isn’t Arnold’s fault, because there is no Arnold.

In January, he will leave his California office to go global, becoming EPA secretary or U.N. environment representative, or taking some other post associated with his malefic obsession with the unreality of global warming.

Welcome to the Desert of the Arnold.