California As Prophet: Moving Toward A Better Future As Trump’s America Flails?
Trump has already been awake and tweeting for hours.
After the Rolling Stones played their first U.S. concert at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino in June 1964, Mick Jagger remarked, “California isn’t like the rest of America, is it?” No it wasn’t, and no it still isn’t 50 years on in its unique and important role as the anti-Trump antidote and a beacon of hope for the rest of an America falling apart spiritually, politically and physically.
If demographics are destiny, it is no accident that California has become the bluest of blue states.
There is not a single Republican in statewide office. Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. The two U.S. senators and 40 of its 53 U.S. representatives are Democrats, although Republicans and many voters in the 13 remaining red districts work constantly to undermine the state’s progressive movement.
In the months since Trump stole the election with an assist from Russia, California — with the sixth largest economy in the world (slightly larger in size than France) and the clout that comes with such a lofty position — has become a laboratory for the anti-Trump resistance in aggressively pushing legal, legislative and political strategies to counter Republican policies while moving on (as opposed to merely talking about) the kind of Democratic policies that the party’s national leadership seems incapable of endorsing as it wanders in the political wilderness.
Climate policy is a prime example.
Although Trump may appear to control climate policy and is methodically disabling the Environmental Protection Agency, California has become the leading environmental regulator in the U.S. In August, the EPA opened a review of auto emissions standards at the request of major automakers in what is widely viewed as a prelude to loosening the target standard of nearly doubling average new car fuel economy by 2025. But California has long had the unique authority to write its own air pollution rules because of the legendary smog that once hung heavy over Los Angeles. Some 12 other states now follow its tough standards, so it is in effect staging a regulatory mutiny that is likely to succeed, if not grow.
“We’re standing firm. We’re prepared to sue. We’re prepared to do what we need to do,” says Mary D. Nichols, California’s electric-car-driving air quality regulator. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
It may not be Calexit (as in Brexit), the name of the campaign for California to withdraw from the union, which is unlikely to succeed. But the state’s slow-motion secession both culturally and politically has accelerated since Trump took over and is “a sea of defiance and a potential source of unending legal and legislative challenges,” as The New York Times put it.
Democrats in the California legislature have hired Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, to represent them in anticipation of legal battles to come with the Trump White House.
“We will definitely not sit by idly as the Trump administration tries to deport immigrants, throw people off health care, ignore climate change and steal our water,” said Scott Wiener, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors who was elected to the State Senate last November. “It’s about playing defense to whatever the administration throws at us — but also offense in terms of continuing California’s push for progressive social change.”
That social change is driven by California’s extraordinarily diverse population.
As California’s population nears 40 million, making it by far the most populous state, Hispanics (38.9 percent) now significantly outnumber whites (33.8 percent), Asians (14.8) and blacks (6.5), while 3.8 percent identify themselves as being two or more races.
As recently as the 1970s, Republicans held considerable sway as Governor Ronald Reagan honed his message of small government, low taxes, and shrinking the welfare state before moving on to Washington.
But in the 1990s, Hispanics grew from an eighth to a quarter of California’s population as waves of immigrants arrived. The Republican Party, spearheaded by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, reacted by making opposition to immigration and fighting diversity his signature issues.
In office from 1991 to 1999, Wilson embraced Proposition 187, which would have banned undocumented immigrants from using state services had it not been overturned, Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences for disadvantaged minorities, and Proposition 227, which prohibited bilingual education. Despite the election and re-election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2000s, the California Republican Party has been steadily sliding toward irrelevance for nearly 20 years.
Orange County, long one of the most conservative (read Republican) counties in the U.S., hadn’t voted for a Democrat since FDR, but broke for Clinton last November. Obama had lost the county in 2012 by 84,000 votes; Clinton won by 100,000.
Still, there are limits to what California can do in leading the anti-Trump resistance.
Governor Jerry Brown projects a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, which means it will be difficult for California to promote the kind of spending program lawmakers want to make up for cuts in Washington, particularly on health care.
The legal efforts being threatened could delay some actions by the Trump White House, but won’t necessarily block them. The president could move to cut off funds for several programs, but has not yet done so.
“[W]e give tremendous amounts of money to California,” Trump said earlier this year in the context of its status as a sanctuary state. “California in many ways is out of control, as you know. Obviously the voters agree or otherwise they wouldn’t have voted for me.”
This obscures a very big point beyond the fact California voters overwhelmingly rejected Trump and that high tech, its most visible industry, is united in opposing Trump’s draconian immigration policies: California gives the federal government more than it takes, generating more than $405 billion in tax revenue for Washington in 2015, more than $100 billion more than the next closest state, while receiving about $350 billion in federal spending. It is ranked 46th among the 50 states in its dependence on the feds.
“The impact of anything coming out of Washington is going to be so difficult for California that we are almost thrown into survival mode,” says Sheila Kuehl, a member of the Los Angeles County board of supervisors. She has started what she calls Operation Monkey Wrench and is urging Californian officeholders to aggressively try to disrupt and impede any Trump policies that undercut California laws or policies.
“I said ‘If you have to lie, cheat and steal, do it,’ ” Kuehl says. “Take federal money and just tell them you are going to do whatever they want.”
Trump, of course, is in effect repeating Wilson’s playbook on a national stage.
In cementing the Republican Party’s image as being anti-everyone but white people, he further encourages minorities and whites sympathetic to diversity issues to vote Democratic. At least that is how it works in theory, but whether California is a bellwether in looking ahead to elections next year and the big dance in 2020 remains to be seen.