Even before Donald Trump’s now-infamous executive order shutting the nation’s doors to refugees—and the Washington State lawsuit that at least temporarily reopened that door—Washington Governor Jay Inslee had thrown down the gauntlet. “We will continue to accept refugees,” he pledged. “And we are not going to have any religious tests. It’s not acceptable to basic American values. We’re going to maintain our state’s welcome mat that helps immigrants in job training and language training so they can build their new lives here.”
The federal government may have veered sharply right, but California, Oregon, and Washington are experiencing their most progressive political moment in decades. In recent years, all have embraced significant minimum-wage increases, ambitious environmental measures, expanded access to health care, protections for undocumented residents, broad LGBTQ rights, increased spending on mental-health services, and wide-ranging criminal-justice and drug-policy reforms. California now looks dramatically different from the state that passed anti-immigration measures, three-strikes sentencing laws, and the Proposition 13 antitax initiative a generation ago. It looks different even from a decade ago, when it was governed by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and fiscally choked by a bipartisan assumption that any tax increases were a political third rail. Recent gains, which include roughly $20 billion in Affordable Care Act funding that underpins the state’s massive expansion of health-insurance coverage, have turned the Pacific Seaboard into America’s version of a flourishing social democracy. And now it’s under sustained attack from the Trump administration.
Since Inauguration Day, all of the large West Coast cities have been roiled by near-daily demonstrations, occupations of airports in response to Trump’s assault on refugees and Muslim immigrants, vigils on behalf of the undocumented, and environmental protests. By most estimates, well over 1 million Californians—roughly one in 30 residents—took to the streets for the January 21 women’s marches. In Los Angeles County, where groups like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles have been organizing for years, that number was closer to one in 10. The entire region, from San Diego to Seattle, is a tinderbox, much of its population feeling under assault from Washington, and many of its top politicians now viewing the Trump administration as something akin to an occupying force.
It’s in these three states, with nearly a sixth of the US population and a fifth of the US economy, that a successful regional opposition to Trumpism is most likely to take hold over the coming months and years.
Sitting in his plush office in Sacramento’s Capitol, Kevin De León, the State Senate president pro tem, talked in almost military terms about the challenges ahead. “There are a variety of battlefronts that can really impact the quality of life of many Americans,” he said. “We’re in the process of doing a thorough and comprehensive assessment to find the possible remedies to counter any attempt to hit California economically and politically. It’s imperative that we join forces with like-minded states. We’re talking about legislative remedies that would not be subjugated to any executive order.” Regarding the prospect of mass detentions and deportations of immigrants, De León, who represents downtown and East Los Angeles, cut his political teeth in campaigns opposing California’s own punitive anti-immigrant measures in the 1990s, acknowledged that “we don’t have any jurisdictional powers. That being said, we don’t have to use our state and local tax dollars to collaborate. We believe that legally, they don’t have the ability to commandeer local police departments.”
De León’s counterpart in the California Assembly, Speaker Anthony Rendon, is even more outspoken. Rendon is adamant that Trump “has authoritarian tendencies. I can’t call it a fascist presidency, given it’s been around 72 hours,” he said on January 24. “But we have to be very careful. I’m not sure he necessarily believes in democracy.” Ted Wheeler, the newly inaugurated mayor of Portland, Oregon, harbors similar suspicions, reacting with what he called “visceral disgust” at the possibility of a Muslim registry, an idea repeatedly floated by Trump and his surrogates during the election campaign. “There are still people who live in this community who have tattoos on their forearms from the last time a nationalist leader registered people,” Wheeler declared. “This community is up in arms at the prospect of a registry.”
Even so, the states don’t have control over immigration policy and related issues like federal registries. As a result, despite Inslee’s protestations to the contrary, they may have to bow to some of Trump’s vicious edicts. But in the long run, Inslee and his colleagues to the south—Oregon Governor Kate Brown and California Governor Jerry Brown (no relation)—are championing a dramatically different, more inclusive vision than the bigoted one pushed by Trump. And they’re banking on overwhelming public support, as well as backing from state legislatures and city officials, to maintain a bulwark against bigotry. “We’re not going to shut down the American story here, in this state,” Inslee insisted.
For Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, an openly gay politician who has championed progressive causes like the $15-an-hour minimum wage and ambitious programs to make the city more energy-efficient and less dependent on fossil fuels, Trump’s presidency poses an existential threat. “My instincts tell me that we’re dealing with [America’s] first authoritarian government,” Murray said. “This has for the most part been a nation built on the rule of law. Where the rule of law is strong, the economy is strong.” If Trump were to order a deportation force to remove local residents, Murray continued, “at that point we’ve had a coup. I would not allow my police force to cooperate. The question is: What would they do with me and other mayors on the West Coast? That’s a nightmare scenario.”
In Portland, Charlie Hales, who stepped down as mayor in January, said of the burgeoning opposition to Trumpism: “I’d characterize it not as West Coast resistance, but as West Coast persistence.” The great cities of the region, he explained, are multicultural hubs, places “where the world’s beating a path to our door.”
Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to these cities if they persist in declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, and he signed an executive order to that effect five days into his presidency. But Hales is undeterred, explaining that they’ve been largely doing without federal help “for a long time.” While losing federal education grants, transportation dollars, and law-enforcement cash would hurt, the vast majority of funds for schools, transit systems, and the police are raised locally. “The values our citizens have require us to be welcoming places of safety,” Hales said, noting that he and his wife have personally greeted Syrian refugees at his city’s airport. “The people of Portland are proud of that fact. We have a long history here of growing by immigration.”
Ted Wheeler, Hales’s successor, agrees. “This city has a long history of being open and welcoming and inclusive,” he said days after Trump’s executive order was issued. Over the previous week, the mayor had repeatedly denounced the new policies, often at public protests. “The message this week has been a unified message in Oregon that we will remain a safe and sanctuary community. We will defy this administration. They can claim to have ‘alternative facts,’ but we are not just going to fall down. These are very important principles for us.”
In fact, there’s a remarkable unanimity of sentiment coming out of the cities of the Pacific Coast. “You won’t see the police department in Los Angeles breaking a 38-year-old policy, Special Order 40—which came under [then–Police Chief] Daryl Gates, who was certainly not seen as a crusading liberal,” said Rick Jacobs, the erstwhile deputy mayor of Los Angeles, currently on leave to work on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s reelection campaign. That special order prohibited the police from inquiring into people’s immigration status, on the assumption that if the LA region’s large undocumented population—roughly 750,000—fears that any interaction with police could lead to detention and deportation, they will be far less likely to cooperate in reporting crimes and identifying suspects. “The chief of police and the commissioner and the mayor have all said, ‘We’re going to continue with that,’” Jacobs added. “I don’t see that changing at all.”
And if Trump follows through on his threat to defund cities? First off, it’s almost certain the courts would step in to minimize the damage. A slew of rulings in recent years—many resulting from lawsuits filed by conservative states against the Obama administration—have held that Washington can cut funds only to those programs directly related to the issue on which it disagrees with the states. And even if the courts don’t intervene, Jacobs argued, any attempt to starve California of funds would have significant unintended consequences for the rest of the country, not the least of which would be massive delays in the transport of containerized cargo from the huge port facilities of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Since 34 percent of America’s containerized goods enter through those two ports, the rest of the country would likely suffer more than LA if highways and rail systems ceased to function properly due to a federal-funding blockade. That’s why Jacobs believes that Los Angeles should hold firm on its sanctuary status and call Trump’s bluff: When push comes to shove, he won’t go “looking for trouble.”
And even if Trump does, LA’s leaders believe they’ll win. In recent years, the city’s voters have demonstrated a willingness to tax themselves to fund vital public transport, education, affordable housing, health care, and environmental investments. Last November, they passed a $120 billion bond measure to expand the city’s public-transport systems over the coming four decades—one of the largest such measures in the nation’s history. If need be, Jacobs believes, Angelenos will do so again to backstop vital programs held hostage by the feds. Similar sentiments have been expressed by other big-city mayors, in California and beyond.
Trump’s blustering got him into the White House. Now he’s trying to govern the same way, issuing a flood of executive orders backed up by menacing, thuggish language, lashing out at immigrants, Muslims, the media, Mexicans, and others. Maybe Trump and his top adviser, Steve Bannon, believe that this will swiftly bludgeon critics into submission. But it turns out that throughout much of the country, people aren’t cowed. “Bumper stickers are now going to start to collide with reality,” Governor Inslee predicted.
After Trump announced that he would massively increase the deportation resources of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and devote billions to building his great wall, dozens of big-city mayors around the country spoke out in disgust and opposition. California’s political leadership promised to slow down the wall by requiring lengthy environmental reviews, and they put forward legislation mandating a state referendum before any construction project gets under way. But the resistance goes far beyond Trump’s immigration policies. On a host of issues in the West Coast states, Trump is now running into a solid wall of opposition that links cities, counties, states, and local law enforcement in the big cities with activist groups, students, and faith communities, all united in their refusal to collaborate.
Day by day, that resistance is growing. What was unthinkable months ago is now becoming part of the coastal discourse: One-third of Californians polled by Reuters in the days after Trump’s inauguration favored secession, and lawmakers are starting to seriously discuss ways to withhold their federal tax contributions. Former Assembly speaker Willie Brown recently suggested that California could become an “organized nonpayer” of federal income taxes to gain leverage against an administration intent on fiscally punishing regional opponents.
In early January, the California Legislature hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to represent the state in what it believes will be a rolling series of lawsuits against the federal government. Later in the month, Representative Xavier Becerra, long a social-justice champion in the US House, was confirmed as the new state attorney general. During one of his confirmation hearings, Becerra fielded a barrage of questions from Democratic senators like De León about how he’d protect Californians’ rights in the face of a federal onslaught. “We do live in very unsettled and unpredictable times, where the greatest threat to our state is the incoming head of state,” De León declared. “To paraphrase Churchill, there’s a gathering storm, and there are very dark clouds on the horizon for the state of California.” How, the State Senate leader wanted to know, would Becerra “take on an administration that doesn’t know about the rule of law or care for it?”
Becerra responded in kind. “We’re going to do what we need to do to protect the people of California,” he said. “If it means going it alone, we will. But in many cases, we’ll find willing partners in other states.” Asked about his views on the impending clampdown on undocumented residents, Becerra said: “I don’t care how we classify them or not, they’re human beings.” Himself the son of working-class immigrants, his voice rising in anger as he spoke of the 25 percent of California’s vast immigrant population who are undocumented, he added: “I’m not going to let any local law enforcement violate their rights.”
These are extraordinary comments from elected politicians, and they reflect the unprecedented stress that Trump’s persona and actions—some apparently impulsive, others almost certainly part of a white-nationalist agenda crafted by Steve Bannon, the Rasputin-like figure at the center of the White House team—have placed on the country’s democratic fabric.
On the day of Trump’s inauguration, a rainy, cold, gray day in Northern California, the US flag at the elegant, domed Capitol in Sacramento began flying at half-mast. It stayed there for the next several days—throughout the Saturday women’s march, which saw well over a million Californians take to the streets, along with huge protests in Oregon and Washington, and into the first full week of Trump’s reign. And then, the day that Governor Jerry Brown delivered a fiery State of the State address promising to fight Trump’s discriminatory, extremist agenda every step of the way, the flag was hoisted to full mast once more.
I’ve lived in California for 13 years, and this, to my mind, was its finest hour. The nation’s most dynamic, creative, and multicultural state was rising up in outrage, its leaders and the overwhelming majority of its citizens declaring, “Not in our name.”
“What we’re saying is ‘Hell, no! We’re the majority. Hold on to your hats. We’re going to change things, and it’s going to be systemic change,’” vowed Lydia Avila, a senior organizer with the Los Angeles–based alliance of activist groups known as California Calls.
Brown, after months of caution in response to Trump’s candidacy and eventual election, didn’t leave anything on the table in his Sacramento speech. With his hands stabbing the air for emphasis, the 78-year-old governor, now deep into what is almost certainly his last term in office, laid into the new president on environmental policy, on his treatment of immigrants, and on his willingness to dismantle health-care systems. Brown championed the Paris Agreement on climate change, which Trump has already promised to shred, and reminded Californians that their state had independently brought together 165 signatories, representing a billion people, to tackle the crisis. “We can do much on our own,” Brown promised, “and we can join with others—other states and provinces and even countries—to stop the dangerous rise in climate pollution. And we will.”
Up and down the West Coast, mayors have made climate change a priority. Along with others from around the country, they attended a global conference of mayors, the C40, held in Mexico City shortly after the presidential election to talk about energy-related changes in their jurisdictions that could move the United States toward large-scale carbon-dioxide reductions, even without federal engagement on the issue. “If 90 C40 cities do what Portland is doing,” ex-mayor Hales argued, “it would account for 40 percent of what needs to be done in CO2 reduction to keep climate change within two degrees. We’re bending the curve on our own—with transportation systems, building requirements, using solar.”
In his Sacramento speech, Brown vowed to provide substantive backing for the C40 plan, to thunderous applause from the chamber. With much of the world expressing horror at Trump’s extremism, Brown was essentially asserting not only California’s right but its duty to step into the breach—to justify the state’s reputation as what he called “the great exception” (the subtitle of former Nation editor Carey McWilliams’s classic book on the state more than half a century ago) in the American experiment. “This is a time which calls out for courage and for perseverance. I promise you both.”
It was a eureka moment. Finally, here was a politician with clout, a heavy hitter from America’s most populous state, standing up for rationality and decency. As the feds turn away from engagement with climate policy, said South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, an oceanographer who served in the Obama White House, “California will pick it up,” generating data and producing geophysical models that scientists here and overseas can use to study climate change and help protect endangered regions from its impact.
We are witnessing the birth of what could become the largest coordinated regional resistance movement to federal policy since the Civil War. Cities and states have had plenty of time to plan their resistance. After all, Trump began promising early in the campaign that he would defund sanctuary cities. For at least six months, West Coast politicians have been studying how to protect their states’ interests and limit their vulnerabilities. There are discussions about how to tap liberal philanthropists to backstop possible cuts to state universities’ science research. Some have even begun exploring ways to create a regional compact that would provide universal health care across the tristate region; it would, researchers have concluded, cost California—which, because of its size, would have to be at the center of such a plan—roughly $15 to $17 billion annually to implement. That’s a large sum, but probably manageable for a state with a $2.5 trillion economy. “We’d have to get creative here at the local level,” said Mayor Wheeler, who argued that West Coast electorates will not tolerate a reversion to the pre-ACA days, when so many people lacked health insurance. “I’m energized by the responses of my colleagues around the West Coast. It’s getting the creative juices flowing.”
To fund these plans, lawmakers are discussing raising state corporate-tax rates to tap some of the money that corporations stand to gain from the large federal tax cuts promised by Trump and congressional Republicans. “Insofar as they do a tax cut for the rich, it puts us in a position to respond most directly,” asserted Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Association. Goldberg believes that commercial property taxes could also be increased, and that the state might be able to pass tax surcharges to help fund vital health-care and education programs.
The day after the election, Governor Brown reportedly convened an emergency meeting of top officials to examine the risks posed by expected federal actions and work out ways to mitigate them. Since then, those conversations have intensified.
California’s political leaders are consulting with leading constitutional-law scholars, like UC Irvine’s Erwin Chemerinsky, on how to leverage existing Supreme Court rulings to fight any attempts to defund city schools, health-care programs, universities, and transit systems. Chemerinsky believes that most of the defunding strategies will be ruled unconstitutional if challenged. For example, Trump couldn’t block California’s Medicaid dollars in response to state actions protecting undocumented immigrants. “The federal government can’t coerce state and local governments,” explains the legal scholar. “It can’t commandeer them.”
“California is in a unique position to show the nation our worldview,” said Jennie Pasquarella of the ACLU’s Southern California chapter. While Section 287G of the US immigration code allows the feds to deputize local sheriffs and police, California would likely preempt this by instructing local law enforcement not to investigate civil immigration offenses. In early December, De León introduced a bill, SB 54, creating blanket prohibitions against cooperation with ICE by local law enforcement, schools, courthouses, and hospitals. Other measures would prohibit state cooperation in establishing religious registries. Cities across the state are creating legal-defense funds for immigrants, and it’s likely the State Legislature will pass a bill to fund such a program. On the Monday after Trump’s executive order to end refugee admissions and suspend the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, California’s Legislature voted overwhelmingly to condemn his actions.
“We stand firm,” De León averred, “because these are the values of the people of California. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can create a progressive bloc of like-minded states and people. States like Washington and California, we’re states of creativity and innovation…. We’re in the process of evaluating every possible means to protect the values and people of the great state of California.”