In the United States, the clash between President Donald Trump and the state of California underscores fundamental policy differences between Democrats and Republicans at play in the 2020 presidential race, and the choice voters face between conservative and progressive visions for the country.
Trump has no chance of winning California in the 2020 election, and Democrats control all the levers of power there. But to fire up his base, the president rails against the state as shorthand for all that is wrong with Democrats and progressives in the US.
California Democrats, for their part, have not been bashful about pushing back. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hails from San Francisco, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been at the forefront of challenging the Trump administration in court, filing more than 60 lawsuits.
A major source of the conflict between the president and California is immigration policy and demographic change in the US. The state is home to about 11 million immigrants – 25 percent of all foreign-born people in the US. About a quarter of the country’s undocumented population also reside there, 66 percent of them for 10 years or more.
Trump’s anti-immigrant nativism was critical to his success in the 2016 presidential election, and attacks on California for its relatively tolerant policies towards undocumented immigrants are mainstays of his rallies.
“What we learned in California was that this kind of scapegoating and racial division is not what you need to do to bring a society together and to be able to address your economic issues moving forward to create opportunity for everyone,” says Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California.
What we learned in California was that ... scapegoating and racial division is not what you need to do to bring a society together and to be able to address your economic issues moving forward.
In his recent book, State of Resistance, Pastor argues that California is “America fast forward”.
“This is the state that in the early 1990s passed one of the most draconian anti-immigrant pieces of legislation possible when we went from being about 69 percent non-Hispanic white to being majority people of colour. That’s exactly the demographic change that the United States is going through between 2000 and 2050,” Pastor says.
California also experienced another cause of anti-immigrant sentiment present in the US today, Pastor says. The state “went through one of the most significant deindustrialisations here when defence spending got cut back in the early 1990s which disappeared middle-class jobs”.
In fact, the notion of the American Dream is an outgrowth of the so-called California Dream that originated with the California Gold Rush. It began in 1848 when gold was discovered in the water channel of a sawmill, setting off one of the largest mass migrations in history.
About 180,000 people flocked into California over the next two years, setting the stage for California statehood, and for policies that welcome people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds to this day. “Every continent other than Antarctica had representatives here during the gold rush,” Allen says.
“People came here from all over the place and they all had the exact same idea. I’m going to get rich and I’m going to go home. But when they got here and realised all these resources that were here, they stayed.”
Pastor views the California Dream as it evolved over time as “the American Dream kind of on steroids”.
But right now we have a very different kind of economy. And I think we’re actually seeing a different kind of dream emerge that’s more focused on ‘How do we build community and create an economy that actually functions for everyone?'”
This country's given my parents a lot and that's why they always gave back. And that's what most immigrants do.
California Calls, an alliance of 31 community-based organisations across the state, is at the forefront of the effort to renew the California Dream. Black, Latino and Asian members of the alliance have played a major role in swinging power from Republicans to Democrats in the state. Today, California Calls is capable of turning out close to a million voters for elections.
Demographic change in California was a critical factor in transforming politics in the state, according to California Calls’ field director Karla Zombro. “What we’re saying is we need to make the electorate actually reflect who the people are. And we’ve been at it for a while. Our wake-up call was the 90s, we got a hell of a lot smarter and more sophisticated.”
In 1992, the use of excessive force by police unleashed a powerful reaction in Los Angeles, similar to what happened in Minneapolis in May after George Floyd was killed by a police officer there. In 1992, protests and riots broke out when white police officers were found not guilty for the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
“Within a year our organisation was first formed to start working with people in the neighbourhoods to identify what really are the root causes that led to this explosion of anger,” Zombro says.
Then in 1994, Republican Governor Pete Wilson inflamed the state’s Latino population while running for re-election by championing Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that allowed Californians to vote on whether to deny social services to undocumented immigrants and their children.
According to Pastor, the Prop 187 fight brought new Latino voters and leaders into the electoral process, also helping to set the stage for Democratic Party dominance in California politics.
The Republican party really alienated themselves from the growing Latino vote. So that's probably scary to Republicans because that demographic change is going to occur in other states as well.
Charles Kesler, the editor of the conservative Claremont Review of Books, takes issue with the idea that Prop 187 was the cause of the California Republican party’s demise. He also argues that Trump’s hardline stance on immigration is not necessarily bad for the Republican party nationally.
After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, the advice to the Republican party was that it “needed to be more accommodating to the changing demographics and soften its stand on immigration,” Kesler says. “And Donald Trump won four years later by basically ignoring every piece of advice in that post-mortem. Now, in the long term, that may have been a mistake but it doesn’t look like it at this point.”
Conservative intellectuals and media operations in California play an important role in providing ideological underpinnings for Trumpist Republicanism. Some of Trump’s closest aides, like anti-immigrant hawk Stephen Miller, are also from the state.
California Republicans are sensitive to the impact of immigration on political power, Kesler says. “People who were in a way scarred by their experience of the changes in California were not only open to Trump in a way that other conservatives were not, they had an agenda for Trump in a way that other conservatives did not.”
The cornerstone of President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda is the wall he wants to build along the entire US-Mexico border. At a cost of $20m per mile so far, Trump’s wall is the most expensive border barrier of its kind anywhere in the world. To pay for it, he bypassed Congress and diverted billions of dollars in military funds through an emergency declaration that is being challenged as unconstitutional in court.
In Calexico, a California border town next to the Mexican city of Mexicali, people view the wall as a waste of money and an affront to their values. Victor Carrillo, who served as mayor of Calexico, feels that Trump supporters who ardently support the wall “don’t have a true understanding of the relationship or the diversity of the people that we have living here already. We speak over 200 languages here in the state of California. And so, we embrace and welcome that diversity because it makes us stronger culturally.”
Diversity also makes the state stronger economically. California’s agricultural sector which ranks number one in the US, for example, is heavily dependent on workers from Mexico and Central America.
The idea that diversity and immigration provide cultural and economic benefits to the country is an important part of the Democratic Party’s platform, as well as presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign messaging.
California Attorney General Becerra, whose parents were born in Mexico, argues that Americans have little to fear from a tolerant approach to immigrants. “This country’s given my parents a lot and that’s why they always gave back. And that’s what most immigrants do,” he says.
This past June, the US Supreme Court sided with Becerra in his efforts to prevent the Trump administration from terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children to live and work in the country. The Trump administration has also targeted a California law that bars state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement in deporting undocumented immigrants. So far, Becerra has successfully defended the law in court.
The attorney general pleads ignorance as to why Republicans and conservatives dislike California so much. But in a discussion with five businessmen who used to live in California and now reside in Nevada, demographic change and the state’s policies towards immigrants came up as reasons for why people move out of the state.
Jimmy Ingram, a marketing director, says demographic change in California and its impact on politics there, is “one of the main reasons” he left. “I’d been there my whole life and didn’t want to deal with it.”
None of the group was convinced by the argument that California might be leading the way in building an inclusive society, renewing the idea of America as a melting pot.
“I think this whole thing of diversity is our strength, that is crap,” says Kirk Hankla, the owner of a mortgage bank. “Pursuit of excellence of individuals regardless of where they come from on this planet has been our strength.” Like others in the group, Hankla says he will be voting for Trump in the upcoming election.
To attempt to stop President Trump from winning a second term, California Calls is helping organise a national effort in 15 states called the State Power Caucus. It aims to turn out millions of new and occasional voters.
“If the people who are eligible can just vote, can actually believe in their power,” Zombro says, “we win.”