Californians wake up every day delighted to be in California, and then they remember that they are also in the United States. The bougainvillea catches the rising sun in San Clemente, the sapphire tide heaves into Big Sur — and three time zones to the East, President Trump has been up and tweeting for hours.
“I don’t want to look at my phone in the morning,” said Cynthia Blatt.
She was standing on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood a few weeks ago, a first-time candidate running for city council. The city is “traumatized” by Trump’s newborn administration, said Blatt’s fellow candidate Steve Martin (not that Steve Martin). “Some people are in shock. Some are angry. They don’t know quite what to do.”
Martin and Blatt can’t defend America from Trump anymore, but they can defend West Hollywood from Trump-like developers. The Resistance has taken many forms, and one form is California-shaped. At a nearby Starbucks, wannabe Instagram stars are fretting over martial law. At an A-list rally outside a Beverly Hills talent agency, Jodie Foster proclaims: “This is our time to resist.” Up in Sacramento, the Democrat-controlled state Senate is trying to sandbag the White House’s aggressive immigration policies.
“California, in many ways, is out of control,” Trump declared last month, and Californians fired back with data points. The state is the world’s sixth-largest economy, ahead of France! The state has the most manufacturing jobs in the nation, and the most venture-capital funding per capita! It is a national generator of utopia (Silicon Valley) and nostalgia (Disneyland)! The state produces 99.99 percent of the country’s artichokes!
In 2015, the U.S. gross domestic product grew 2.4 percent. California’s grew 4.1 percent. The state is destiny made manifest, and the rest of the country is always trying to catch up.
“If this is what Donald Trump thinks is ‘out of control,’ ” tweeted state Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, “I’d suggest other states should be more like us.”
It is a Tomorrowland state, and Donald Trump is a Coney Island president. This is the California problem in 2017.
The Golden State has had other problems over the years. Intent on becoming Californians, the pioneers of the Donner party ran into some difficulty in the Sierra Nevada. Sawmill operators found gold on the American River in 1848, and the U.S. government quickly claimed it. Native tribes were extinguished, blacks were nearly banished by the state’s founding constitution, in 1871 there was a mass lynching of Chinese men in Los Angeles, and in 1943 vigilante bands of white sailors attacked young Mexicans, triggering race riots and more soul-searching about whom America belonged to. In 1906, one tectonic plate popped over another, and 3,000 people died in San Francisco. By 1942, more than 100,000 Japanese people were confined to a series of camps, from Santa Anita to Tulelake. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles; Gerald Ford was nearly shot in Sacramento and in San Francisco.
The Zodiac Killer was never caught. O.J. Simpson was. Scientology is still a thing. So is Skid Row. Palm Springs is getting too noisy. There was recently a goof at the Academy Awards, and suddenly one man’s gold became another’s, and there’s nothing more Californian than that, is there?
Erase California, and Donald Trump won the popular vote by 1.4 million.
So said a restaurant owner, standing under a lemon tree in the Hollywood Hills, as a crew removed rocky debris from the front of his property. A few days prior, 1,000 cubic yards of waterlogged cliffside fell onto the street and crushed his white Mercedes-Benz, moments after he finished washing it. The restaurateur didn’t vote in November and wouldn’t give his name because he lives next to a pop star, but he calls himself “the most conservative liberal you’ll ever meet.” He can’t understand why his neighbors are “so hurt in the heart” by the election, like they’re grieving a death.
“It’s like the weather,” he said of politics, of California. “When we had the drought, it’s ‘We’re gonna have to start taking showers with the neighbors.’ And now it’s ‘Oh my God, there’s dams breaking.’ Things cycle.”
California is, in some ways, an ongoing natural disaster. Its epic drought dried up whole stretches of river; fish cannot reach the ocean. Early last summer a pickup truck veered off Highway 39 east of Pasadena, burst into flames and started a blaze that scorched 1,000 acres of forest. After fierce rainstorms in January, the quiverings of the Oroville Dam forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from Yuba and Butte counties, which voted Trump. Gov. Jerry Brown, a liberal foe of the White House, had to ask for disaster-management money from Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal dollars from California’s sanctuary cities.
“When Trump says California is out of control, we certainly hope we’re out of his control,” said Barbara Boxer, the former Democratic U.S. senator, by phone. “We think we’ve got it right. We have a balanced budget. Every branch of government here is run by Democrats.”
And the federal government is run by Republicans. Every state is stuck in a fraught marriage with Washington, and California’s may now be the fraughtest.
California has always been trying to get out, either from the country or from itself. Northern Californians, sick of being ruled by urbanites, tried to form a separate state called Shasta in the 19th century; 160 years later, Shasta County, which includes Redding, went 64 percent for Trump. In the past three years, five northern counties have tried to withdraw from California because they don’t feel represented in the legislature. And now Trump’s election has goosed wholesale secessionists, who favor nationhood for the state.
“California is different from America,” Marcus Ruiz Evans, co-founder of the pro-nationhood group Yes California, told The Washington Post last month. “California is hated. It’s not liked. It’s seen as weird.”
California is not weird, because it is too many things to be just one thing. California has the country’s best cabernet and maybe its worst public schools. It is the America of the near future, which means it has always been a bit dystopian — in a way that taking a luxury Facebook shuttle through the Tenderloin to Palo Alto is a bit dystopian.
The 20th century had the Joads, who saw California as a last resort in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The 21st has the Pfeffermans, who on the TV show “Transparent” inherited California as a trust fund. Now, the only frontier is the next psychosis. A half-century ago Californians clashed with Hell’s Angels at Altamont; now they shout “emoluments!” at congressmen in school gymnasiums.
In Trump’s America, “every day brings a new horror,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D) last month at a rambunctious public forum at Glendale Community College. “It’s the first time we’ve had a real sense of how fragile democracy is.”
Schiff, who has positioned himself as chief interrogator of Trump’s Russia connections, was greeted in Glendale as both savior and rock star. The 1,200 constituents who showed up for his forum — residents of Hollywood, Burbank, Silver Lake — are terrified of what’s been wrought by the faraway shires of Oshkosh, Grand Rapids, Erie and Dayton.
Perhaps “men do not trust themselves any more,” Steinbeck wrote in “East of Eden,” “and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.”
California was actually Trump’s biggest state, in raw numbers. He got 4 million more votes here, where he lost to Clinton by 30 percentage points, than he got in West Virginia, which he won by 42 percentage points.
Trump Country is the Far North and the agricultural inland, regions that provide food and water for the rest of the state. Northern California is a microcosm of the country, said Dennis Revell, a Trump elector and vice chair of the northern region of the California Republican Party. The people are hoarse from trying to be heard, he said, and Trump and Bernie Sanders cured their laryngitis.
“You can’t sit back and try to blame everybody else for why you have an Oroville Dam situation when you’re focusing on such absurd political and legislative priorities,” Revell said, like “trying to be the political fencing partner for the president rather than tending to the needs of the people.”
Meanwhile, in the Central Valley and elsewhere, undocumented workers harvest the majority of America’s fruits and nuts, and farmers wonder if their labor force is about to be rounded up by immigration agents.
The wall is already partially built on California’s southern border, near Tijuana and Jacumba, thanks to Bill Clinton. The two counties adjacent to Mexico gave his wife double-digit victories. The three counties bordering Oregon gave the same to Trump. Maybe the wall should begin up among the redwoods, run down the South Fork Trinity River to Bell Springs, jog east into the central wilderness, hug Sacramento, run parallel to Route 99 down past Fresno to Bakersfield, and then break hard toward the tailbone of Nevada. Then Clinton’s Coastal California will be separated from Trump’s Cowboy California. People might be happier, until one side goes bankrupt and the other dies of dehydration.
South of Los Angeles, there’s another wall, an invisible one, and it appears to be coming down. Orange County, which hadn’t voted for a Democrat for president since FDR, broke for Clinton in November. Obama lost the county in 2012 by 84,000 votes; she won by 100,000, buoyed by stand-up paddleboardists in Laguna Beach, by Disneyland’s indentured princesses, by retired hedge-fund managers who’d found their conscience somewhere near that shanked drive on the ninth hole.
The O.C. is populated by people whose lives are going just fine. A tax cut wasn’t worth voting for an earthquake.
“We feel safer here,” said Susan Wong, 64, a nurse, standing outside the office building of Rep. Mimi Walters (R) in Irvine. Like scores of Americans before them, her family moved to California from the East Coast for deliberate, if cosmic, reasons. They saw opportunity. She wanted her mixed-race children to grow up in a pluralistic Eden.
Trump is a snake in the O.C.’s garden, and he propelled a few hundred citizens to Walters’s doorstep to chant “Do your job!” Ten protesters at a time were escorted to Walters’s office door, where they taped notes asking her to hold a town hall and listen to their frightened rancor about Russia, about health care, about the treachery they see in Congress.
“In some ways, being in California we feel isolated and lucky,” said Janine Nicoll, 48, an Irvine therapist who has taken to calling Walters’s office daily. “I can’t imagine what it must be like living in Michigan. Or Arizona.”
“Oh, God,” said executive assistant Debi Lopez, picturing the horror next door.
“I’m heartened to see people coming out because we have to stand up for everyone,” Nicoll said.
“And we’re not coastal elites. We work,” said Lopez, 62, who built cars for General Motors in South Gate until the plants closed in 1981, after which the state provided retraining grants to get the jobless back into the workforce. “Glad I was born in a forward-thinking state,” she added.
There was only one visible counterprotester at Walters’s office, a libertarian salesman from the hills of Silverado. Mark Balce, whose signage included a Gadsden flag inked with “MAGA,” voted for Gary Johnson and says both California and sharia law are coming for his guns, his freedoms, his very frontier.
“People describe America as a pendulum,” Balce said, as he was heckled, “and it’s swung very far left for the past 12 years . . .”
In 1941, the Hollywood Bowl hosted an “America First” rally for 30,000 people, and within a year the United States was sending its men to far-off shores to defeat fascism.
“From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” Trump said at his inauguration, and the next day armies of women took to the streets of California, to “defeat fascism.”
California’s 34th Congressional District, in Los Angeles, is 64 percent Hispanic or Latino and 20 percent Asian. Seventeen candidates were initially running to fill its vacant seat. On a Saturday last month, they introduced themselves to a crowd of voters at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, in the Westlake neighborhood. To be a Californian in 2017, they implied, is to be caught in an abusive relationship on the cusp of a nasty divorce.
“We are under attack,” said a former teacher named Sara Hernandez.
“Our values, our communities are under attack,” said L.A. planning commissioner Robert Lee Ahn, the son of South Korean immigrants.
“We need to combat Trump’s agenda to make sure he can’t divide our families,” said Jimmy Gomez, a state assemblyman.
The coalition’s voter-turnout rate in November was 83 percent, eight percentage points above California’s. By midcentury, the United States will be majority minority.
California, of course, is way ahead. As of 2014, Latinos began to outnumber whites in the state. The walls may come, but the pioneers have already arrived.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a West Hollywood city council election as having been postponed. It was not. This version has been updated.