San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is a pro-business, pro-immigrant, common-sense leader of a border city with deep business, social and cultural ties to Mexico. He's also a Republican, which means he belongs to the political party responsible for a steady stream of hysteria, lies and rage about the Mexicans who are his neighbors and trading partners and the immigrants whom Faulconer has warmly welcomed to town.
There seems to be some tension there.
According to President Donald Trump, the border is a crime scene so chaotic that he must usurp emergency powers from Congress to contain it. According to Faulconer, San Diego, just north of the busiest (and still rapidly growing) border crossing in the nation, is not adjacent to a mega-crisis. It's the U.S. half of what he calls the San Diego-Tijuana megaregion.
"We talk about it in terms of one region," Faulconer told me in a telephone interview. "When we work together we accomplish so much more for our businesses and our residents." In an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the mayor wrote that his city's economy, which annually exports almost $6 billion in goods to Mexico, "depends on federal policies that encourage the cross-border exchange of goods and ideas."
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That is, Faulconer's city, the eighth largest in the U.S., depends on the kinds of policies that Trump has staked his presidency on destroying.
A recent press release from the mayor's office states that "San Diego's economy, workforce and future growth are connected to our ability to welcome new Americans into our community." The mayor's budget just added $70,000 to fund an immigration affairs manager for the city. The job is essentially to help immigrants better integrate into local life.
I asked Faulconer whether Trump's border hysteria and anti-immigrant rhetoric make his job harder or if it's just a distant noise, too feeble to defy the logic of cross-border integration. Faulconer, resorting to talking-point mode, never came close to answering the question, though I posed it in various forms. "We're going to continue to work with voices in the administration and Congress," he said.
Malin Burnham, a San Diego philanthropist and civic leader who describes himself as a "contributor and longtime supporter of Mayor Faulconer," says Trump's attacks on the lifeblood of cities like San Diego are not devastating. But they're also not nothing.
Like most people who know something about the border, Burnham thinks a border wall is spectacularly stupid. "Most of us don't pay any attention to Mr. Trump's rhetoric about the wall," he said. But he noted that "it does affect the relationships we have with community and business leaders in the Tijuana area."
Burnham says, for example, that he has noticed fewer Mexicans attending cross-border meetings in the past couple years. "Is it because of this rhetoric?" he asks. "I think it could tie into that."
Faulconer recently delivered a speech on the future of the GOP in California, emphasizing the obvious: It's hard to attract black, Hispanic and Asian votes to a party that's more closely identified with white nationalism than multiculturalism. He mentioned Trump only once, by way of chastising Democrats for their "toxic" relationship with the president.
While Faulconer appears eager to avoid provoking the president, Trump's racial politics make the already difficult life of California Republicans more precarious. California is now a graveyard for Republican politics and politicians. The state's GOP congressional delegation was halved in 2018, leaving Republicans with 7 of 53 seats. Every statewide elected official is a Democrat.
Yet like a vine strangling its host, Trumpism thrives even as the GOP struggles. Trump received more than four million votes in California in 2016, almost 400,000 of them in San Diego County. While the GOP approaches cult status in the state, Trumpism defines the cult.
The incongruity of the mayor's job and his party's politics is conspicuous. "I'm proud of our relationship with our neighbors right next door in Mexico," Faulconer told CNN. "I don't talk about building walls, I talk about building bridges and increasing that communication, increasing that flow, and that's really what defines our border region in San Diego."
With the right pass, you can speed across the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Some supply chains cross the border multiple times to produce a finished, binational product. For pragmatic Republicans like Faulconer, crossing between that reality on one side, and the fantasy land of Trump on the other, may simply be a bridge too far.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.