California Forum

San Diego: Ground Zero in the California-Trump war

Sightseers take in the border structure separating San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico.
Sightseers take in the border structure separating San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico. AP

Want to visit the frontlines of the conflict between Trump and California? Head for San Diego.

Yes, it’s true that challenging The Donald’s legitimacy is not just a local pastime but an all-consuming statewide prizefight. But as a matter of geography, culture and economy, the California-Trump War feels more intimate and potentially destabilizing in greater San Diego.

What makes Trump’s wild swings land as punches in San Diego? Because the city is more deeply tied to the United States than California’s other big regions.

Los Angeles and the Bay Area, global mega-regions, define themselves in opposition to national norms. But San Diego is unapologetically American – “America’s Finest City” being its most durable slogan.

What makes Trump’s wild swings land as punches in San Diego? Because the city is more deeply tied to the United States than California’s other big regions.

And since San Diego is the nation’s biggest border city and home to one of the world’s heaviest concentrations of military power, many San Diegans represent America not just as civic commitment but as professional duty.

But San Diego practices an outward-facing brand of American-ness that doesn’t mesh with Trumpian isolationism. The population of active military and veterans leavens its patriotism with hard-won wisdom about the world.

And San Diego has built ever-closer ties to Mexico, encouraging cross-border commuting and exchange, contemplating a cross-border Olympic bid and constructing an airport terminal that spans the border with Tijuana’s airport.

So Trump’s obsession with border security threatens San Diego’s daily life and commerce. Further inflaming tensions, the Trump administration has made San Diego the host of the contest to design the president’s promised border wall. Trump’s bigoted smear of refugees as security threats is unsettling for San Diego County, long California’s most welcoming place for refugees. San Diego has accepted roughly half of the Syrian refugees who have settled in California.

Trump’s anti-trade policies challenge the border region’s exporters and importers, and his attempts to restrict travel could weaken the massive tourism industry. His campaign against environmental regulation and proposed cuts to health and science funding threaten San Diego’s many top research institutes (studying everything from climate change to Alzheimer’s) and its health care and life sciences companies.

And the litigious Trump should avoid San Diego courts. He made few friends in the region’s legal community last year with his racist attacks on a Federal District Court Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, a San Diegan who is a highly-respected member of the legal community there, for decisions in litigation against Trump University.

For all Trump’s provocations, opposing a president doesn’t come all that naturally to San Diego, a military town accustomed to saluting the flag and their superior officers. Trump also has nodded in San Diego’s direction by proposing big increases in defense spending that could be a boon to the military and defense-related businesses.

And San Diego’s middle-of-the-road politics – the county’s voters are closely split between Democrats and Republicans – makes dealing with Trump trickier than it is in California’s other, monolithically Democratic coastal cities.

Trump poses a particular quandary for San Diego’s popular Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer, considered a possible gubernatorial contender. Faulconer is not a Trump supporter, in word or deed – he backs immigration reform, speaks Spanish, promotes cross-border trade, and touts his city’s Climate Action Plan.

But his ambitions will require him to win the support of the small but powerful Republican base of voters who still mostly support Trump. Faulconer and other local Republicans, especially U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, must walk a fine line between respecting a president of their party while distancing themselves from Trump’s many affronts to San Diego interests.

The California-Trump war is still young. It’s possible that the president’s self-destructive tendencies will make it easier for San Diego to unite and oppose him with full force.

But if the president gains traction on his border, health, and trade policies, while delivering more money to the region’s defense industry, then steel yourself, San Diego, for very bitter fights in your very beautiful city.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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