Can we blame California for Trump?
President Trump's stunning ascent over the last two years is partly thanks to the idiosyncrasies — or pathologies — of California Republicans. And to this day, his administration continues to be shaped by right-wingers on the left coast.
So from now on, let's not take advice on conservatism from Californians, okay?
The Golden State's role in the making of a gold-topped president has not received nearly as much attention as it should. Perhaps it's because by the time California weighed in on the 2016 presidential primary last June, Trump was already the presumptive Republican nominee and the only candidate who had yet to suspend his campaign. The fact that he swept up California's delegates, with 75 percent of the vote, was accordingly unremarkable. It was equally unremarkable when Hillary Clinton trounced Trump there in November.
But California conservatives have actually played an outsized role in Trump's rise.
Many of Trump's most ardent supporters in both politics and the media are or were based in California. Breitbart is headquartered in Los Angeles; Mike Cernovich and Chuck Johnson, social media personalities associated with the alt-right, live in the area too. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from Bakersfield, is one of Trump's closest allies in Congress. Stephen Miller, Trump's domestic policy adviser, is from Santa Monica; Michael Anton, who works for the National Security Council, is from Santa Cruz.
This may seem like nothing more than a coincidence. California is the most populous state in the country; it's a blue state, of course, but it's nonetheless the case that millions of Republicans live there, just as millions of Democrats live in Texas. But it's more than a coincidence. Let's look at three reasons why California Republicans fueled Trumpism.
1. California Republicans aren't used to winning.
"It's literally difficult for Republicans to conceive of it, even in a theoretical way," one told me recently. As recently as 2011, the state had a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger — but he was, of course, a political outsider, elected under irregular circumstances in 2003, when the state held a special election to replace the recalled Democrat Gray Davis. The governator's victory did nothing to mitigate the lopsided balance of power in California.
In addition to being outnumbered, many California Republicans believe themselves to be embattled. In September, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote a blog post endorsing Trump for president. He had earlier endorsed Hillary Clinton, he explained, because he had to: "I live in California. It isn't safe to be a Trump supporter where I live." This struck me as ridiculous, and — well, it still does. But apparently Adams is not alone. More than 60 percent of Californians voted for Clinton. In Los Angeles and its environs, the margin was even higher. On Los Angeles' west side, Trump won exactly one precinct. The Los Angeles Times dispatched a reporter to Bel Air to investigate. Two Trump voters were located. One, Marvin Gross, said his vote was more against Clinton than for Trump, really. "I love him. I like him," said the other, who insisted on anonymity. "I believe that he is going to be like Nixon."
California Republicans feel like outsiders and losers forced into hiding in their very own state. This surely helps explain why a Republican leader like McCarthy would be more receptive to Trump than a colleague like Paul Ryan. The latter is from Wisconsin, where conservatives have been known to win on the merits, as Scott Walker did in the 2012 recall election. Republicans have not had such success in Sacramento. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Progressive California Democrats may have been ready for Hillary, but beleaguered California Republicans were more than ready for Donald Trump and his promises of winning and greatness.
2. California Republicans aren't used to governing.
Because California is a blue state, Republicans who hold office there have had little chance to practice policymaking — and because California conservatives perceive themselves as an embattled minority fighting a desperate rearguard action against an aggressive, emboldened, and hegemonic left, they apparently don't allocate much time to thinking about what they might do with power, should they somehow achieve it. Is it any wonder that someone like Stephen Miller, raised in Santa Monica, would have underdeveloped policy chops? It's not, really, and that's a bit awkward, because Miller is now in the White House as Trump's senior adviser for policy.
3. California Republicans are Californians, too.
They're susceptible to the same problems of perception that afflict their counterparts on the left. Californians are prone to believing in strange things. What makes matters worse is that they're prone to extrapolating those beliefs, in their capacity as the self-appointed stewards of the American imagination. This is particularly true in southern California. Los Angeles is a blue city in a blue state, but it's not just a political bubble; it's a city defined by the industry that manufactures the global narrative about the United States.
This leads to an important difference between West Coast elites and their counterparts on the Acela corridor. New Yorkers, for example, are aware of the fact that they don't live in "real America"; they err on the side of being overly neurotic about it. Californians, though? Give them a chance and they'll write a presidential inaugural address about the forgotten man, who they conceptualize, romantically, as a coal miner.
The California presence in Trump's administration is good news, then, for the roughly 77,000 coal miners in America, as well as our nation's chimney sweeps and bindle-toting hobos. For the rest of us, though, it should be a reminder of a few enduring truths: Context matters. Different states are different. And California Republicans should probably stick to writing screenplays. Like all Californians, they live in the movies. The rest of us live in these trumpled United States.