A little over a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, sat triumphantly onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington and described his vision of the “deconstruction of the administrative state”—a dismantling of the supposedly left-leaning, meddlesome government bureaucracy.
Twenty-six hundred miles away in Upland, California, a smoggy suburb in San Bernardino County about an hour east of Los Angeles, a half-dozen conservative intellectuals cheered Bannon’s words at the clubby, book-lined offices of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank known for its devotion to constitutional conservatism and ancient political thinkers. Despite their distance from the capital, these scholars, a tightly knit group known as the West Coast Straussians, were finally seeing their ideas about rolling back the federal government embraced at the highest levels of American politics.
Much has been made recently of how Trump’s populism and economic nationalism have tapped into this previously obscure strain of intellectual conservatism that arose in California. But a bigger, and perhaps stranger, surprise is how deeply Trump’s view of America as a nation in need of saving is shaped by California itself. Trump’s candidacy is usually seen as a shotgun marriage of East Coast money and heartland rhetoric, a slick Manhattan salesman retailing a muscular vision of “America” to voters in the Midwest and South—about the least Californian form of politics imaginable. And since the election, California, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, has emerged as the diverse, globalist anchor of the “Resistance.”
But under the hood, the state has been the ideological engine of the more heterodox strain of Trumpism now driving much of the president’s policy. Bannon, though raised in Virginia, honed his political identity in Los Angeles, where he spent more than a decade pumping out right-wing documentaries before taking over Breitbart News. White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner who may be the next-most influential thinker in Trumpland, is a product of the decidedly liberal enclave of Santa Monica. Michael Anton, an erudite high-level National Security Council aide, was raised in Northern California, including ultra-liberal Santa Cruz. Julia Hahn, Bannon’s bomb-throwing fellow Breitbart alum who is now an aide in the West Wing, grew up in Los Angeles, where she attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School—also the alma mater of Alex Marlow, the editor of Breitbart, the website that has become the primary media vehicle for Trump’s nationalist agenda.
As the administration settles in, these hard-liners, led by Bannon, have clashed with Trump’s New York advisers—especially the president’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kusher. The internal power struggle that recently cost Bannon his seat on the National Security Council, and may still cost him his job, is not just about personalities. It is a clash between two competing visions for the Trump presidency. And although Trump himself is a New Yorker, ironically, the most ideologically self-confident version of Trumpism is a California phenomenon.
The California exiles in the White House might not think of themselves as a coherent club. “If they are having meetings, they’re doing it without me,” Anton joked in a recent interview. But from their writings, statements and personal stories, it’s clear they share a common worldview born out of opposition to the liberal, Democratic hegemony in their home state and their discomfort with its demographic conversion. For people who think of California as a buffer against “America first-ism” and see Trump’s movement as purely an expression of unreconstructed nativists like Jeff Sessions of Alabama, it might come as a surprise. But to understand Trumpism as a response to what’s happening in America, it helps to understand what’s happened in California—where the conservative reaction to its political and cultural transformation has been honed to a sharp point.
A half-century ago, conservatives in California were not the rare breed they are today. Republicans held steady at about 40 percent of registered voters from World War II until 1990. Richard Nixon was born in Orange County, came of age in California, attending Whittier College in Southern California, and first won election as a congressman in 1946 representing parts of Los Angeles. There was also Ronald Reagan, the second-rate Hollywood actor who served as governor of California from 1967 to 1975.
Both of these future presidents established a political template for California conservatives that lasted until the dawn of the 21st century, built on limited government, low taxes and traditional cultural values. And for decades, conservative politicians in California could win, or at least stay competitive, by espousing those tenets. Between the two of them, Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson held the governor’s office from 1983 to 1999. As late as 1988, Republican presidential candidates carried California, too. “I do think there was a time where a softer version of a Republican could build a coalition in California,” says Marlow, the Breitbart editor.
As California has played host to some of America’s bitterest debates over immigration—from the furor over Chinese railroad workers in the late 1800s to the backlash over the influx of Mexican farm laborers that began in the 1930s—Republicans often gained ground by playing to white voters’ discomfort. Deukmejian spoke of how America had “lost control of our borders.” In 1994, Wilson won reelection on his support of Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education and other services (courts blocked it before it went into effect), as well as his opposition to affirmative action in higher education.
But as the state’s demographics shifted, this appeal to white identity politics lost its hold on the electorate. According to Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, many blue-collar defense industry factory workers lost their jobs after the Cold War and decamped for Las Vegas or Phoenix—to be replaced, increasingly, by Latino and Asian-American immigrants. In 1990, California had 17 million non-Latino whites and 7.7 million Latinos; in 2014, the number of Latinos surpassed the number of whites. Politically, the state shifted decisively to the left as Wilson’s terms in office drew to a close. In 1990, 40 percent of registered voters in the state were Republicans; in 2017, only 26 percent were. While half of California’s House delegation was Republican in 1994, just over a quarter is today. The state has not had a Republican U.S. senator for a quarter-century.
Those changes left California’s conservatives increasingly isolated. Today, Republicans tend to cluster geographically in the Southland—in communities across Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties—as well as the farm-heavy Central Valley. Republicans in California are also more homogeneous than Democrats. Seven in 10 likely Republican voters in California described themselves as conservative in 2016, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, while only 57 percent of likely Democratic voters described themselves as liberal. Seventy-seven percent of likely Republican voters were white; 50 percent of likely Democratic voters were. (The state is 43 percent white as a whole.)
Since the 1990s, when California Republicans’ numbers really began to dwindle, many of them have come to see the official embrace of a multicultural, multilingual California with porous borders and generous social services for immigrants, legal or not, as a mistake. And they have fought against it with ballot measures like Proposition 187 in 1994, which denied public services to illegal immigrants; Proposition 209 in 1996, which ended affirmative action in higher education; and Proposition 227 in 1998, which halted bilingual education in public schools. Each of them passed.
If those sound something like Trumpian policies, the echoes get even more specific: You could also say the Wall was born in California. Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of San Diego, who served in the House from 1981 to 2009, was one of the first members of Congress to push for the construction of a border wall along the state’s southwest corner, before proposing in 2005 that a wall be built all the way across the border between the United States and Mexico. That ultimately led to the passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, authored by Rep. Peter King of New York, and the patchwork construction of a fence starting in San Diego. Construction of a prototype of the wall that Trump has called for could soon begin in Otay Mesa, a San Diego neighborhood near Sea World.
With little room for them in California politics—even the most successful recent Republican candidates, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been more moderate, Kousser points out—conservatives in the state began to take their ideas to the national level.
It was in this context—with California’s out-of-power Republicans digging in against a demographic change that felt unstoppable—that several of Donald Trump’s political staffers and allies hardened their own political views. For a kind of iconoclastic personality like Alex Marlow or Stephen Miller, who both grew up just a few miles from communities where ordinary life was conducted entirely in Spanish, Southern California’s uneasy racial configuration raised deep questions; to them, the adverse effects of migration on lower-income workers and the broader culture of California were all too easily swallowed.
As a high school student in Santa Monica, Stephen Miller, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, made a reputation for himself by bucking the racial pieties of his liberal campus. He argued against school announcements being made in Spanish, saying they held back Latino students in the name of political correctness. When President George W. Bush drew widespread criticism on campus for the Iraq War, Miller vowed to fight what he called the “anti-Americanism” he saw at his school, writing and speaking out on the conservative radio host Larry Elder’s show.
“Stephen really did grow up in an environment where he could feel what it was like for white males to feel like the minority,” Kesha Ram, a fellow student who often butted heads with Miller, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “I think he was one of the first examples we all had of someone who really felt threatened and left out by our celebration of multiculturalism and diversity.”
Breitbart’s Marlow grew up in Brentwood, an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles, in the 1990s and attended the University of California, Berkeley. His political consciousness was shaped by living in a multicultural area where he thinks liberals were too accepting of the changing demographics. “In a middle-class neighborhood, you would be trick-or-treating with families who did not speak English coming in vans,” he told me, adding, “I’m not saying this as judgment.”
At Berkeley, Marlow clashed with California liberals during a series of events he helped organize called Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. At Berkeley, Marlow clashed with California liberals during a series of events he helped organize called Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. (That was part of a national effort put on by Los Angeles writer-activist David Horowitz, who received his master’s degree at Berkeley and made a career on the left before switching sides in the 1980s.) As Marlow read quotes from Islamic terrorists at a microphone set up on Sproul Plaza, a group of counter-protesters, organized out of the nearby communist bookstore, surrounded him, shouting him down with cries of racism. (Marlow and I knew each other in college, though not well.) “This was a significant moment in learning the tactics of the left,” Marlow told me last fall. “Branding me a racist was much easier than saying why I was wrong.”
Anton, Trump’s national security aide, had attended Berkeley more than a decade earlier, where he cultivated a more intellectual conservatism. In college in the late ’80s, Anton discovered Leo Strauss, a conservative German-American political theorist, through his student Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, a broadside against the campus culture wars. As a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, Anton grew disgusted with his fellow students’ culture of liberal protest over issues like South African apartheid, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuclear power. “I mean, you’ve got to understand, Berkeley is insane,” he recently told the Atlantic. “There was a window-smashing riot right down Telegraph Avenue the first month I was there. Still don’t know what the cause of it was. Nobody knows. It just happened. People treated it like a tornado.”
As it turns out, it was Peter Thiel—the PayPal-founding Silicon Valley libertarian who has also advised Trump—who helped Anton to develop his ideas. Thiel, who was attending Stanford at the time, was the “guru” of a group of conservative students at the university, as Anton puts it. He befriended Anton, pushing him to see the liberal protests at Berkeley as symptomatic of a much broader cultural and political decline in California that demanded correction, Anton says.
After attending graduate school at Claremont and serving as a speechwriter for Governor Wilson and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Anton published an irregular series of essays in the Claremont Review of Books, the Institute’s print quarterly and website, that covered a range of topics so wide it seems almost random: novelist Tom Wolfe, nuclear terrorism, construction in Napa Valley, the Beach Boys’ uncompleted album Smile. But indeed, running through them is a single thread—liberal California as a fallen civilization.
“It used to be the paradise for the common man,” Anton explained to me. “It was cheap, safe, clean. It had space. It couldn’t last the way it was.”
Anton has several theories about what he describes as not just a cultural but an economic backsliding: the closure of many of the state’s military bases, which stopped drawing conservatives to settle in California; overregulation that pushed out small-business owners to states like Texas; the demographic consequences of large-scale Latino immigration; the “de-diversification” of the state’s economy toward the tech sector; and what he calls the rule of a “Borg Collective” of bureaucrats and politicians trained at the state’s leading—and liberal—schools. In Anton’s mind, the result is a California in which “if you’re poor enough, we’ll help you; if you’re rich enough we’ll worship you”—but in which the middle class has evaporated. (There’s some truth to that: In 1980, 60 percent of California families were in the middle class. In 2010, just less than half were, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.)
It was Anton, arguably, who articulated one of the clearest visions of the Trumpist worldview during the 2016 campaign. In September, he pseudonymously wrote a widely read Claremont Review of Books essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” making the case that Trump’s candidacy represented a last, best chance to save a hard-line conservative vision for America against not just liberal opponents but also moderate Republicans. The powers that be, he argued, had left the country in a horrible state: “Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything.” The republic had become corrupt, and “only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise”—and set America on the right path again.
The essay didn’t mention California by name, but to talk to Anton or Marlow is to realize that the “The Flight 93 Election” critique had been sharpened by years of thinking about one unique place—their home state of California. “New Yorkers, Londoners, and so many others live by San Francisco Values,” Anton had written in 2015, one year before the presidential election. “The rest of the world may lag a little at the margins but will catch up in short order.”
Now, you could add Washington, D.C., to that list. Just as liberals had taken over California, they were finalizing their hold on the national government—unless Trump could stop them.
The ideas developed by Anton and the members of the Claremont Institute might have remained in the ivory tower were it not for an unlikely ideological merger with Breitbart News—a Southern California upstart in its own right that amplified those ideas for a national audience.
The site was founded in Los Angeles in 2007 by the late Andrew Breitbart, who was in some ways an archetypal Angeleno. The son-in-law of the actor Orson Bean, Breitbart grew up in Brentwood, disconnected from politics. After attending college in New Orleans, he moved back to Los Angeles and caught the political bug listening to talk radio while driving around town delivering scripts for an early job. He talked his way into a job for Matt Drudge at the Drudge Report, which was originally based in Hollywood, and then helped his fellow Californian Arianna Huffington, a former conservative, to found the Huffington Post before quickly bailing on the liberal site and striking out on his own.
The week before the Breitbart website launched, Andrew Breitbart attended a weeklong fellowship run by the Claremont Institute. Ensconced at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, he studied the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and the political history of the 20th century with a group of midcareer conservatives from journalism, law, finance and other fields. It was “a fantasy baseball camp for constitutional junkies,” Breitbart wrote in his 2011 memoir Righteous Indignation.
Breitbart styled himself as more of a provocateur than an intellectual—and his site, even after his death from heart failure in 2012, was in the same mold. Breitbart—who once videotaped donors at a Santa Monica fundraiser for Governor Jerry Brown while gliding around on roller skates—built the site on the thesis that culture drives politics, not the other way around. “Andrew understood that showmanship was essential,” Marlow says, noting that the site’s first vertical was “Big Hollywood.”
In 2012, when Steve Bannon became Breitbart’s executive chair, he steered the site in a more nationalistic and more political direction, merging his predecessor’s sense of entertainment with a populist worldview and an implicit fear that the West would decline just like California.
The signal California moment for the marriage of Claremont constitutionalism and Breitbart spectacle came in July 2015, not long after Trump had launched his presidential campaign. On that day, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had been deported five times, allegedly fired three shots from a handgun while walking along the waterfront in San Francisco. One of those bullets ricocheted off the pavement and struck a 32-year-old passerby named Kathryn Steinle in the back. She died two hours later in a nearby hospital.
Breitbart feasted on the story, which it depicted as the ultimate proof of California’s decline and, more broadly, the grievous consequences of unconstitutional immigration run amok. San Francisco’s city leaders were criticized for prioritizing sanctuary city policies in a play for Latino votes, rather than carrying out their basic public safety functions. Mass immigration, the erosion of constitutional norms and weak-spined liberal politicians all played a role in Steinle’s death, Breitbart argued. From “Unchecked Immigration: A Greater Threat to The USA Than ISIS” and “SF Supervisors Refuse to Answer Questions About Steinle’s Death,” the site published more than 100 news and opinion articles about Steinle’s death.
On the campaign trail, Trump quickly held up the incident as the epitome of a broken immigration system. “My heartfelt condolences to the family of Kathryn Steinle. Very, very sad!” the candidate tweeted days after the killing, adding “We need a wall!” Less than a week later, Breitbart News reported that Trump had surged in a poll of its readers, climbing to second place in the GOP primary field, behind Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “Trump’s message about illegal immigration may resonate even more” after the shooting, the site reported, presciently.
It was a California story, adopted by the future president and blared out to a national audience—many of whom, like California’s hard-line Republicans, saw a country that was losing its core identity and leaving plenty of Americans behind. The marriage of California’s reactionary Republicanism and what we now call Trumpism was consummated after Bannon officially joined the campaign and then took a job in the White House, along with Breitbart writer Julia Hahn, a hard-line voice on immigration. And when Trump, for instance, issued his executive order banning travel from some Muslim-majority countries (conceived largely by Miller) or pledged to publish a list of immigrant crimes (reminiscent of the Steinle slaying), it was hard not to think of California.
“It’s like that moment in the grunge movement when everybody was from Seattle,” Breitbart’s California editor, Joel Pollak, says of the unexpected prominence of Californians in the era of Trump.
It remains to be seen how much Trump—with help from Bannon, Miller, Anton, Hahn and Marlow—will truly be able to dismantle the administrative state or restrict immigration. The marriage so far has been rocky. Trump’s personal views seem to be guided less by the deep-set ideology that the Californians share, and more by a series of improvisations. Recent signs suggest that a more liberal faction of White House advisers could eclipse the influence of the Southern California ideologues. It’s ironic, but the last hurdle standing between them and far-reaching change might be other Republicans—like the Freedom Caucus and Chamber of Commerce types in Congress who really control the legislative agenda.
California itself, meanwhile, is drifting ever further away from the version of America that Trump promises to restore. Among the Hollywood set, Bannon has been called a “wannabe who went rogue by way of toxic narcissistic iconoclasm” by Sean Penn and “a failed film writer and director” by George Clooney. More to the point, California will remain a one-party state for the foreseeable future. The upcoming governor’s race will be a contest between Democrats from the Bay Area and those from Los Angeles—just like the Senate race in the fall featured two Dems; Republicans need not apply. In March, Los Angeles’ Democratic mayor, Eric Garcetti, won 81 percent of the vote in his reelection bid.
Now, America’s future—whether it’s inclusive or nationalistic, big government or small—could amount to a battle between the right-wing Californians in exile and the Democrats who govern the state they left. If California’s role in building up Trump has been mostly unseen, its role in the resistance to him is overt. Governor Jerry Brown, along with the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, is looking for ways to counteract policies Trump may try to put in place on immigration, energy and more. The California State Senate recently declared the whole state a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. UC Berkeley was the site of a riot that shut down a speech by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in the days before he tumbled from his perch as an editor at Breitbart. And former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been hired by the state to lead its legal resistance.
But at least while they can, the Antons and Millers of the Trump administration are expected to keep fighting against their home state and the unrelenting liberalism they believe it represents.
“For the nation as a whole is, California is a vanguard, in this as so many other things,” says the Claremont Institute’s Charles Kesler. “A lot of us don’t want America to become California writ large.”