The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump has a new go-to political foil: An imaginary version of California

President Trump wants to reduce legal and illegal immigration, but apparently has no qualms about scapegoating every immigrant in the process. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s embrace of campaigning in recent weeks has meant a lot of time spent delivering off-the-cuff comments into microphones, which in turn has meant a lot of assertions that are obviously false or likely made up on the spot.

Among the ways in which Trump deploys his imagination during his rallies is by telling stories about people who, by all appearances, are nonexistent but whom Trump introduces to bolster his policy or political standing. There was, for example, “Jim,” a friend who once told Trump that he would no longer visit Paris, a city he loved, because of the threat of terrorism. There are numerous unnamed business leaders who tell Trump about things they’ve done that bolster the president rhetorically or who praise his decisions. And there are battalions of people who come up to Trump with the same introduction: “Sir,” they’ll say, then set up a straw man for Trump to decapitate.

In recent rallies, a new imaginary figure has entered Trump’s rotation: a version of California that better resembles the fever dream of a Breitbart columnist than the state itself. Trump introduces this California as a foil mostly for his rhetoric about immigration but also, it seems, because his efforts to tie progressive policies to problems in Venezuela (another frequent trope of late) may be more effective when linked to a state already treated with skepticism by his base.

So what are we talking about? Things like this, from his rally in Arizona on Friday.

“That’s why Democrats want to give illegal immigrants the right to vote. How about in California, where illegal immigrants took over the town council, and now the town council is run by illegal immigrants in the town!” he exclaimed. “I mean, is this even believable?”

That’s so California, right, a town where immigrants in the country illegally take over a town council? Except that it isn’t really believable, having apparently happened only in imaginary California. There was a town that in 2015 appointed two undocumented immigrants to city commissions, which is to “taking over the town council” what being named ambassador to Chile is to taking over Congress. If there’s a town in California where immigrants in the country illegally took over a town council — much less on the strength of votes from undocumented immigrants — it’s not clear where that is.

Trump added another factoid about this California: “Democrats believe American taxpayers should provide free welfare to illegals. That’s wonderful. How about California? They owe 2 million, trillion dollars! They owe more money than any place has ever even dreamt of.”

In 2017, a conservative policy organization in the state estimated its total state and local debt at about $1.3 trillion, as of 2015. This year, the state budget is expected to run a surplus, which would eat into the debt slightly — not a sign of a state that, at the moment, is overspending on immigrants. (Nor is spending the only contributor to the state’s long-term economic problems: A 1978 ballot initiative essentially freezing many property taxes has meant limited revenue from that important source ever since.) The state’s budgetary position is still tenuous, but it’s not hemorrhaging money.

And there’s one obvious place that can be dreamed up with much larger debt than California’s: Trump’s United States, in which the debt grew by nearly $780 billion last year alone.

On Saturday, at a rally in Nevada, Trump made another claim about Imaginary California — one in which the people were fighting back.

Jacky Rosen, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Nevada, "voted in favor of deadly sanctuary cities,” Trump said.

“I don’t think we like sanctuary cities up here,” he continued. “By the way, a lot of people in California don’t want them, either. They’re rioting now. They want to get out of their sanctuary cities. You know, there’s a big turn being made, folks. A lot of these sanctuary cities you’ve been hearing about in California and other places, but California, they want to get out, they’re demanding they be released from sanctuary cities.”

They’re . . . rioting? It wasn’t clear whether Trump meant that literally, so a reporter asked him about it Monday.

REPORTER: Hey, Mr. President, you said Californians were rioting over the sanctuary cities. Where?
TRUMP: You shouldn’t have — take a look. They want to get out of sanctuary cities. Many places in California want to get out of sanctuary cities.
REPORTER: But that's not rioting, sir, right?
TRUMP: Yeah, it is rioting in some cases.
REPORTER: Where are the riots, sir?

Trump didn’t respond.

There are places that are pushing back on sanctuary city policies, laws meant to encourage undocumented immigrants to share information with law enforcement knowing that they can’t be arrested for immigration violations. In Simi Valley, the town of Simi voted in April to oppose the state’s sanctuary policy. But there are few things less like a “riot” than a vote by a town council in Simi Valley.

On Monday night, another rally (this time in Texas) and another indictment of a California that doesn’t exist. This one, though, was an old favorite, not a new riff.

“The Democrat plan to destroy American health care includes free health care and education to illegal aliens, paid for by you, thank you very much, the American taxpayer,” Trump said. “And they absolutely demand — and that’s happening — they want to demand to vote. They want to be able to vote. They want to be able to vote! Oh, don’t worry about it, the illegals.”

“Hey, by the way,” he continued, “I hate to tell you, you go to California, you go — they vote anyway. They vote anyway, they’re not supposed to. And every time I say it, the fake news says, ‘Oh, they said —.’ They got so many people voting illegally in this country, it’s a disgrace.”

Before the 2016 election, Trump pointed to Pennsylvania as the epitome of alleged voter fraud. After the election, he pointed to California and New Hampshire, two states he lost. (In Michigan, where his narrow victory was challenged in court, his attorneys even asserted that there was no apparent fraud in the vote.)

Why California in particular? Because, first, it alone voted heavily enough against his candidacy to more than make up his popular vote deficit. And, second, because California is a place where a lot of immigrants live. So we get the argument above: Those immigrants come into California and vote illegally.

Flatly put, it’s not true. There’s no evidence of any significant voter fraud anywhere in the United States, including in California. It frankly defies logic: A group worried about drawing attention from authorities is going to register to cast a ballot to vote in a presidential election where the outcome (at least in California) is predetermined? There’s that old line about immigrants doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do, but there’s no indication that includes voting.

All of these assertions by Trump, though, sound true. There will be numerous people this week defending Trump’s line on voter fraud as if it has merit, even though it doesn’t. A free-spending California that hands over cities to immigrants and spends lavishly on benefits for those here illegally simply comports with what a lot of people think happens in places like California. Trump, we were told during the campaign, was taken seriously, not literally, by his fans. That not-incorrect assessment leads to things like this: an acceptance of a nonexistent California because it feels the way California should feel.

As with Trump’s friend Jim, it exists only in Trump’s speeches.