Is California to blame for Donald Trump?
That may seem a preposterous question to ask of a state that voted so decisively against the American president that it cost him the popular vote.
Yet the president’s opponents and allies have pointed to California as the place that produced Trumpism.
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The case starts with geography. Twitter, which the president uses relentlessly, is a California creation. Reality television, which turned the New York real estate developer into an entertainer, is a Hollywood gimcrack. Breitbart – the media entity that modeled the mix of xenophobia, authoritarianism and conspiracy-mongering that is Trumpism – is based in L.A.
Also, many leading figures in Trump’s world have California ties. Among these are top White House strategist Steve Bannon, who lived in L.A. while working in TV; Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, from Santa Monica; and UC Irvine economist-turned-Trump trade official Peter Navarro. And, as Jason Willick and James Hitchcock showed in The American Interest, California thinkers – including billionaire Peter Thiel, Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, Bay Area entrepreneur Ron Unz and journalist Mickey Kaus – built a case for Trump’s disruptive, anti-immigrant nationalism.
The leap from this roster to the idea of Trumpism as a California product involves many competing narratives, most of which divide into two camps.
Anti-Trumpers point out that Trumpism draws from various historical strains of prejudice that California incubated, from the Japanese internment during World War II to anti-immigrant politics in the second half of the 20th century. Even today, our most high-profile industries – Hollywood and Silicon Valley – practice exclusionary policies, visible in the paucity of minority leads in films, and the sexism at Uber.
Trump sympathizers argue the converse proposition – that California has been embracing immigrants and demographic change at too rapid a pace. The American Interest identified Trumpism as a backlash against “mass immigration … which produced a demographic transformation of the Golden State without parallel in the rest of the country.”
The Trumpians themselves have gone further, justifying their own white nationalism as a rebellion against California’s tyrannical liberalism and political correctness. Miller railed publicly against diversity programs at his own Santa Monica High; Bannon called the presence of Asian American CEOs in Silicon Valley a sign of a breakdown in American civil society.
It’s tempting to dismiss such flawed logic out of hand. Most children know that it’s wrong to blame one’s own poor conduct on the conduct of others. And California has always been a big, rich target for any narrative of blame. “Success makes so many people hate you,” Marilyn Monroe, child of L.A., once said.
But the “Trump as California product” argument, while bogus, touches on enough truth to merit an impassioned response.
That response starts with acknowledging California’s problematic history and present. The liberals in charge here really do have feet of clay, prejudice remains too present, and the state faces big challenges in infrastructure, housing and schooling.
But we also should assert our hard-earned success: In the last generation, California became a much more inclusive place. It was not easy – we had to survive the L.A. riots and divisive 1990s ballot fights over immigration and affirmative action. But we are far better off. As California became more diverse, our inner cities became safer, our valleys less polluted, our people better educated.
California is thus the most effective rebuttal of Trump’s false claims that American inner cities are full of violence, that immigrants bring danger and voting fraud, and that foreigners are taking American jobs. Which is why the Trumpians are so fixated on discrediting California.
It’s tempting to call such people traitors to California, but that would just feed their overdeveloped sense of victimhood. They’re really opportunists, irresponsibly scapegoating a state for its bigotry when their own bigoted appeals elevated them to power.
California has its problems. But that’s no excuse for Trumpians to put their crap on our home state.