It’s now just a year since the inauguration. In that year no party, no lobby, no organization has been as formidable an adversary to the Washington of Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell as California has. None has both the will and the heft that California brings to this fight. None has been as determined.
“There should be no doubt that President Trump has officially declared war on California,” State Senate leader Kevin de León told The Guardian on January 4, referring to the Trump administration’s plans to prosecute medical- and recreational-marijuana outlets, to allow oil drilling off the California coast, and to intensify efforts to deport immigrants.
When California fights back, it matters. With over 39 million people, it is the nation’s most populous state and the world’s sixth-largest economy, and it has thrived in large part thanks to the immigration that produced its ethnically diverse population. No other state in the Union comes as close to being a model of an alternative to the fearful future that Washington now offers.
California’s resistance encompasses two interwoven strands. One is the determined fight, wherever possible, against the cruelty and inanity of an administration and a Republican congressional majority hell-bent on rolling back the programs and policies of enlightened self-interest enacted over the better part of a century under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The other is a defense of California’s progressive, if still imperfect, success as an exemplar for the nation and the world. The first would not be possible without the second.
California has always been hospitable to innovation and in-your-face independence. It legalized abortion seven years before Roe v. Wade (with a bill Ronald Reagan signed) and passed the nation’s first medical-marijuana law. California is the cradle of American environmentalism, born in large part from the selfish motive of preserving the health and beauty of the place—nationalism of a very high order—and, for more than a half-century, a major influence in national policy.
The most active public official in California’s opposition to the Trump-Republican agenda has been Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who’s given resistance to Washington a priority as high as normal state business, perhaps higher. Governor Jerry Brown’s selection of Becerra as attorney general (after the previous AG, Kamala Harris, was elected to the US Senate in 2016) is itself an indicator of the state’s intention to resist. The son of working-class Mexican immigrants, Becerra grew up in a one-room house in Sacramento, went on to Stanford University and Stanford Law School, and, most recently, served for 24 years in the US House of Representatives, where he once chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
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In his first nine months as attorney general, Becerra:
§ Stood up for sanctuary cities, filing a suit challenging a new Justice Department requirement that in order to qualify for certain federal crime-prevention funds, cities and counties (including sanctuary cities, of which California has dozens) must give jailhouse access to federal immigration agents and provide 48 hours’ notice before releasing any undocumented immigrants sought by the feds. Those conditions, in the words of the attorney general’s office, represent an “unconstitutional attempt to force California law enforcement officials to engage in federal immigration enforcement.”
§ Warned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that he will “take any and all action necessary to protect” California’s six environmentally important national monuments—of 129 nationwide—whose status was the subject of an unprecedented Trump-ordered “review.” The review sought to determine whether the monuments would be retained, reduced in size, or eliminated from the registry altogether. As Becerra noted, presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama had established the national monuments to prevent the “exploitation of these lands for short-term profit or expediency,” which “would permanently scar these national treasures.” None has ever been eliminated, Becerra reminded Zinke, nor does federal law empower any president to do so. Nearly three months later, Zinke withdrew the California monuments from his hit list. But in December, he chopped huge chunks out of two in Utah.
§ Sued to stop Trump’s attempt to build a wall at the Mexican border, arguing that it violated federal environmental laws and the Constitution’s separation of powers by giving the president authority “to waive state and local laws.”
§ Sued to stop Trump’s rollback of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers cover contraceptives as part of their employees’ health insurance. The rollback, the suit charged, effectively created an unconstitutional discrimination against women.
§ Sued, and got a lower-court order, to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from delaying the implementation of new rules to reduce leaks of methane, a gas that ranks among the most powerful accelerators of climate change, from 100,000-plus oil and gas wells on the nation’s federal lands.
§ Announced that he will resist any attempts by the feds, as US Attorney General Jeff Sessions would dearly like to do, to crack down on California residents using or growing cannabis under the state’s new marijuana-legalization laws.
Yet Becerra is hardly alone. Other public officials in the state have launched the following salvos against the Trump-GOP agenda:
§ The passage of SB 54, the California Values Act, which prohibits state and local law-enforcement officers from detaining, arresting, or interrogating undocumented residents for “immigration enforcement purposes.” Because of the compromises that were made to secure passage, it’s more a gesture of good intent than the “sanctuary law” of the newspaper headlines. But in a state that already has scores of sanctuary cities and counties, it reinforces the message. Sessions called the act “unconscionable.” Brown, in reply, called it “a reaction to the kind of xenophobia that we see too much of coming out of Washington.” The bill, Brown said, “strikes a balance that will protect public safety, while bringing a measure of comfort to those families who are now living in fear every day.”
§ The decision last spring by the state Air Resources Board (ARB), long the nation’s leader in curbing greenhouse-gas pollution, to reaffirm its tightening emissions standards for cars and trucks. The decision came even as EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general had long been cozy with the fossil-fuel industry, was attacking California for trying to impose its energy rules on the rest of the country.
§ The passage, not long after Sessions urged federal prosecutors to file the toughest charges possible against crime suspects, of a bill repealing sentence enhancements for prior drug convictions. Those enhancements—three years for each prior conviction—hit low-income defendants, who are the most heavily affected by the War on Drugs, particularly hard.
§ The refusal by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, in concert with many of his peers in other states, to provide voter data to Trump’s election-fraud commission. To comply, Padilla said, “would only serve to legitimize the false and already debunked claims of massive voter fraud made by the President, the Vice President, and Mr. Kobach [Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and the commission’s vice chair], who has a long history of sponsoring discriminatory, anti-immigrant policies including voter suppression and racial profiling laws.” The election-fraud commission has now been disbanded, though the Trump administration apparently plans to continue to pursue its goals through the Department of Homeland Security.
And, as in many other states, California protesters, many with moving stories about chronically ill children or aging parents, jammed the town-hall meetings of Republican members of the House—those with the courage to show up—who had voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and pelted them with questions. In Southern California, liberals organized “town halls” for Representatives Ed Royce, Duncan Hunter, and other Republican House members, who didn’t show up. At one, Democratic members of Congress then filled Royce’s “empty chair” for what became a strategy meeting.
The travesty that is the GOP’s new tax law, which caps deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000, will hit high-tax states like California especially hard, as it was probably intended to do. But unless enough Californians feel the sting soon enough, the single biggest headache for California Republicans—some of whom represent districts with large Latino populations—is likely to be Trump’s pass-the-buck decision to phase out DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as young children to remain in this country, go to school, and get jobs. Many of these so-called “Dreamers” are now at the beginning of promising careers. Trump handed off the job of replacing DACA to Congress, which would have six months—until March 2018—to do it. No buck stops with him.
The reaction to Trump’s DACA decision was swift. Fifteen states sued immediately, citing, among other things, the “bad hombres” attacks Trump launched against Mexican immigrants during his campaign. A few days later, the University of California filed its own suit. Because of Trump’s attack on DACA, the suit says, “the Dreamers face expulsion from the only country that they call home, based on nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.” Moreover, the suit continues, “[t]he University faces the loss of vital members of its community, students and employees. It is hard to imagine a decision less reasoned, more damaging, or undertaken with less care.”
Now add to the list the we-dare-you letter that lawyers for the leaders of the State Legislature—all Democrats—sent last April to Sessions and John Kelly, now White House chief of staff, who at that time was secretary of homeland security. The letter followed one from Sessions and Kelly snidely rejecting California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s demand that federal immigration agents stop “stalking courthouses and arresting undocumented immigrants.” Such measures, she said, “not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice.”
The Sessions and Kelly letter charged that California and “many of its largest counties and cities have enacted statutes and ordinances [to] hinder [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] from enforcing immigration law by prohibiting communication with ICE, and denying requests by ICE officers and agents to enter prisons and jails to make arrests.”
In response, the legislators asked, through their lawyers, what specific laws Sessions and Kelly were referring to. “The Administration,” they wrote, quoting a 1991 Supreme Court opinion, “appears to forget that our system is one of ‘dual sovereignty between the States and the Federal Government.’ ”
The unpopularity of Trump—both the man and his policies—coupled with the increasing number of Latino voters, has dimmed the reelection prospects of a number of California Republicans. Just after New Year’s, two announced that they won’t run again in November. One is Darrell Issa, whose top priority during the Obama years was accusing the president of nefarious wrongdoing without much evidence, and who won reelection in 2016 by less than 1 percent (in a district that Hillary Clinton carried); the other is Ed Royce. Democrats are also targeting five other California Republicans who have been made vulnerable by their support for Trump policies: Jeff Denham, David Valadao, Steve Knight, Dana Rohrabacher, and Mimi Walters. Together, those seven Republicans represent nearly a third of the 24 seats the Democrats need to regain control of the House in the upcoming midterm elections.
Although there have been lunges toward what one campaign called “Calexit,” California would never secede from the United States, nor could it. And no state measure can stop the wave of ICE arrests and deportations that are generating fear among the undocumented and hundreds of thousands of their children and other family members, many of them citizens or legal residents. The state can’t stop the administration’s rollbacks of regulations on everything from consumer protection and management of banks to the ban on the sale of plastic water bottles in national parks. It can’t prevent Pruitt’s nonenforcement of those environmental laws that he can’t legally change, or veto tax bills that punish blue states and reward red ones. It can’t stop Trump’s nuclear saber rattling or the decimation of the State Department and his arrogant contempt for diplomacy.
And yet no place is a more hopeful model for the future than California. Despite recent tax increases and tough environmental laws, its economy has been outperforming the rest of the nation. Between 2012 and 2016, California accounted for over 17 percent of US job growth. In 2016 California’s GDP grew at nearly twice the rate of the national economy. California is the nation’s leader, and often the world’s, in progressive energy policy and in reducing the per capita consumption of water, fossil fuels, and other natural resources; in creating the technologies of the future; and in celebrating the rich cultural mix that ethnic diversity produces.
That’s part of California’s story. The other part is its own recent history. In 1994, voters passed Proposition 187, an initiative that would have denied undocumented immigrants all public services, including schooling. Just as Trump does today, California back then sought to drive out immigrants, but later came to understand there was no future in that. After all, immigrants provided much of the labor force for the state’s agriculture and service sectors. Now California protects immigrants, and its majority-minority population—white, black, Latino, Asian, and so forth—looks very much like America’s will in another 25 years.
“There’s more confidence here; there’s less fear,” Brown told a CBS interviewer in December. “People are looking to the future. They’re not scared, they’re not going inward, they’re not scapegoating, they’re not blaming Mexican immigrants. They’re not blaming the stranger…. It’s dynamic. It’s a culture on the move—not pulling up the drawbridge out of fear and economic insecurity.”
The lessons from California—and the political risks to Trump and the Republicans who have enabled him—are especially applicable in states like North Carolina, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016. With the fastest-growing Latino population in the country in the 20 years after the 1990 census (rising from just under 77,000 in 1990 to 890,000 in 2010), North Carolina is becoming a near replica of the California of a generation ago, both in its high-tech base and in its demographics and politics. There was an anti-immigrant backlash, in North Carolina and nationwide, in 2016, as there had been in California in 1994. But many of those young immigrants will become voters in the years ahead.
These demographic trends bode ill nationwide for a Republican Party that Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric—and GOP leaders’ acquiescence to them—have marked as blatantly racist. As the number of Latinos and Asians reaching voting age has risen, Republicans’ vote margins have been shrinking, even in red states such as Texas and Arizona. With a Trump-like candidate like Roy Moore on the ballot, even Alabama, among the reddest of the red states, can flip. Looking ahead to the 2020 presidential election, a nonpartisan team of demographers has projected a Democratic victory under four of six political scenarios—and under all six scenarios in 2032.
The American future, it’s been said, arrives first in California. The state’s resistance to Trump and the GOP, and the demographic, political, and economic realities that give California’s example such force, offer hope to the resistance across the nation. California may be a blue state, but its values and achievements are more in line with those of most Americans than Donald Trump’s are, as illustrated by the fact that Jerry Brown’s approval numbers dwarf Trump’s 55 to 38 percent. Democrats elsewhere should take note.