Arnold Schwarzenegger spent decades defending American democracy on screen through a hail of gunfire, but the 73-year-old star has proved his words can be just as mighty as his weaponry.
The Hollywood A-lister and former Republican Governor of California has compared the riots at the US Capitol to the Nazi-era attack on Jews known as Kristallnacht, accusing the outgoing President Donald Trump of attempting “a coup by misleading people with lies” and giving a rousing defence of democracy that has resonance around the world.
In a heartfelt speech posted to his social media channels, Arnie talked about his own experience growing up in the shadow of World War II and compared it to current events in America.
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President Trump is a “failed leader” who will soon be as “irrelevant as an old tweet”, he added, and Republicans who “enabled his lies and treachery” were “complicit with those who carried the flag of self-righteous insurrection into the Capitol”.
President Trump and his supporters have repeatedly tried to overturn November’s election of Joe Biden as the next US President with baseless claims of voter fraud, culminating in a riot at the US Capitol on Wednesday which led to five deaths, including that of a police officer.
“What we need right now from our elected representatives is a public servants’ heart,” Schwarzenegger said. “We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power, or their own party.”
His speech culminated in a call to put democracy first and support President-Elect Biden, a Democrat. But it began on a more personal note.
“I grew up in Austria and I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass,” he said. “It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of [modern-day white nationalist group] the Proud Boys.
“Wednesday was the day of broken glass right here in the United States. The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol. But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideas we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed the American democracy, they trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.
“I grew up in the ruins of a country that suffered the loss of its democracy. I was born in 1947, two years after the Second World War. Growing up I was surrounded by broken men drinking away their guilt in the participation of the most evil regime in history. Not all of them were rabid antisemites or Nazis. Many just went along, step by step, down the road. They were the people next door.
“Now, I’ve never shared this so publicly because it is a painful memory, but my father would come home drunk, once or twice a week and he would scream and hit us and scare my mother.
“I did not hold him totally responsible because our neighbour was doing the same thing to his family. And so was the next neighbour over. I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes. They were in physical pain from the shrapnel in their bodies and in emotional pain from what they saw or did.
“It all started with lies and lies and lies and intolerance. So being from Europe I’ve seen first hand how things can spin out of control.
“I know there is a fear in this country and all over the world that something like this could happen right here. I do not believe it is but I do believe we must be aware of the dire consequences of selfishness and cynicism. President Trump sought to overturn the results of an election, and of a fair election. He sought a coup by misleading people with lies. My father and our neighbours were misled also with lies. And I know where such lies lead.”
Clutching a longsword he said was from his 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian, Schwarzenegger said the US will emerge stronger from the period.
“Our democracy is like the steel of this sword. The more it is tempered the stronger it becomes… I believe as shaken as we are by the events of recent days we will come out stronger because we now understand what can be lost.”
His words have been met with praise online.
Former Belgian Prime Minister and European Union Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said: “Arnold is right. Europe’s dark past shows the terrible dangers of far-right populists and their lies.
“We came together in Europe and said never again, I hope the US can do the same under Joe Biden.”
Songwriter and activist Billy Bragg called the speech an “incredibly powerful statement” especially “his reflections of his childhood in post-war Austria, on what it is like to grow up in the ‘ruins of a country that had lost its democracy’. Worth 7 minutes of your time.”
President-Elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the next US President on January 20. While Trump has promised an “orderly transition” of power, fears remain that his supporters will repeat the violence seen at the Capitol.