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How California conservatives became the intellectual engine of Trumpism

The California GOP got wiped out in the midterms. But the heart of California-style conservatism is stronger than ever.

The epicenter of 2018’s version of conservatism, and of American Trumpism, isn’t Washington, DC. It’s California.

Breitbart News was founded in Los Angeles, and its headquarters remains in the city’s Brentwood Heights neighborhood. Its founder, Andrew Breitbart, who died in 2012, met former White House adviser Steve Bannon in LA. Ben Shapiro, whom Breitbart mentored and who worked at his eponymous publication, now runs his own conservative media empire,, out of a nondescript office building in LA.

The Claremont Colleges, located on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, were the birthplace of intellectual Trumpism and the “Flight 93 Election” — an influential essay published in the Claremont Review of Books that stated that electing Trump was the only way to save the country. The author of that missive, Michael Anton, went to the University of California Berkeley and Claremont Graduate University, and then went on to work in the Trump White House, alongside White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a native of Santa Monica, and Trumpist trade adviser Peter Navarro, who taught at the UC Irvine.

In September, I traveled the length of the Golden State, stopping at conservative outpost after conservative outpost, to try to understand how one of the most liberal states in the union had become the intellectual engine of contemporary conservatism.

In these conversations, one common theme emerged: Conservatives living and working in California view themselves as philosophically, culturally, and demographically under siege, and the political movement they are ideating, advocating, and building reflects that fully.

Conservative demonstrators gather at an America First rally on August 20, 2017, in Laguna Beach California.
David McNew/Getty Images

This strain of conservatism takes its spirit from Andrew Breitbart’s saying that “politics is downstream of culture.” Conservative podcast host Michael Knowles — a trained actor and native New Yorker who got his start in politics working on a Republican campaign his sophomore year at Yale, and who wrote a best-selling book called Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide (the pages inside the book are largely blank) — told me that California conservatism was more of an “anti-ideology,” one largely based on kulturkampf, not policy.

Southern California-style conservatism is a conservatism that fights. On its face, it doesn’t care much for the specific nuances of tax policy, but it does like to trigger the libs. As we spoke in a conference room in DailyWire’s office, Knowles was drinking out of a tumbler emblazoned with the words “LEFTIST TEARS” (available for sale on “I think I’m contractually obligated to use this every moment I’m in the office,” he said.

California conservatives also have the mentality, and the unanimity, of a people under threat. In California, and across much of the country, conservatives view themselves — despite a massive and constant media presence and nationwide control over all three branches of the federal government — as isolated, comparatively weak, and always chasing power, never in power. By and large, conservatives behave as if they are always on the cusp of real influence over the direction of American politics. As Ben Domenech wrote in the Federalist:

If the right really did have overwhelming political power, it would be running roughshod. Outside of the realm of taxes and regulation, it’s hard to see that. Obamacare is still mostly the law of the land. Planned Parenthood is still mostly funded. Education policy is still nibbling at the edges of reform. Curbing public sector unions is limited to a few states. Republican success in New England and Maryland and elsewhere has led to the election of quite a few governors, but where’s their big achievements besides managing things a little more cheaply?

In Domenech’s view, conservatives, including the California-style right, aren’t “tired of winning”; they haven’t won anything real yet.

But now the conservatism of California — the conservatism of isolation and powerlessness, the discourse that comes from people who believe their views will never become the view — is one of the most powerful forces in American politics. Now California conservatism is simply conservatism writ large.

More recently, California-style conservatism landed Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court with the mentality of “march or die,” fight to the last and insult your enemies lest kindness be viewed as weakness. (As the right-leaning aggregation site Twitchy put it, “We know this fight for Brett Kavanaugh is about so much more than owning the libs … but we’d have to be heartless not to relish [a left-leaning pundit’s] Kavanaugh-induced breakdown.”)

And most importantly, Donald Trump — a man who talks of the “hellhole” country of which he is president as if he is merely an observer — holds the most powerful office in the world.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

So what happens when a strain of conservatism built around the experience of powerlessness gains real political power?`

“All we do all day is talk about ideas, because we lose”

Getting to Daily Wire’s office, about 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles, requires a 40-minute drive through the hills and, at the time, very hot and sunburnt pavement-encased valleys of Los Angeles County. Inside the office are photographs of Daily Wire’s biggest stars: conservative commentator and novelist Andrew Klavan, Michael Knowles, and, of course, Ben Shapiro, the site’s owner and editor-in-chief and one of the biggest names in the world of conservative media.

Daily Wire, which has grown to have more than 50 full-time staff members, is now one of the most visited conservative websites, with 100 million pageviews per month, according to a representative for the site. And Shapiro, who had his first syndicated column at the age of 17, has established his own media domain, with a daily podcast that gets 20 million downloads per month, a video series, and, as of October, his own midterm election special on Fox News.

While a significant amount of Shapiro’s writing and daily podcasts covers the political events of the day, much of his work is focused on culture: on marriage, for example, and “political correctness” (he is virulently opposed to the concept), and the mainstream media, especially how the mainstream media covers culture and politics.

Shapiro told me there’s a reason for that. “All we do all day is talk about ideas because we lose,” he said. “We’re living in an area where no policy prescription that you have will ever be implemented in this state.”

A little under 90 minutes east of Los Angeles sits the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank established in 1979. There, Charles Kesler, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, edits the Claremont Review of Books, which published Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” in 2016.

The essay posited that like Flight 93, where passengers and crew forced a plane hijacked on 9/11 to crash in a field rather than into the US Capitol, the 2016 presidential election was a life-or-death scenario requiring Americans to elect Trump, “crashing the plane” rather than allowing Hillary Clinton to win the White House, because “A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments.”

To understand this apocalyptic approach to politics, you need to understand the recent history of California conservatives. As Kesler told me, “The experience of seeing California go from a solidly Republican, Reaganite state to a very solidly Democratic state — so solid that the Republicans are virtually an endangered species in statewide offices — that experience has been very sobering for a whole generation of California conservatives, and that has helped, I think, to create a separate consciousness.”

Supporters of Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher watch the primary election results at his campaign headquarters in Costa Mesa, California, on June 5, 2018.
David McNew/Getty Images

Again and again in my conversations with California-based conservatives, the sense of “apartness” from the world of politics, both nationally and statewide, was palpable. And in Kesler’s view, that sensibility has helped create not just the belief system of California-style conservatism but its intense focus on its own opposition — “the Left,” which includes not only leftists but also Hollywood and the overarching media establishment.

“Losing badly, as Republicans have done in California for so long, is a very educational experience, or ought to be a very educational experience,” Kesler says.

Behind those losses lies the changing composition of the California electorate — and the construction of a conservatism anxiously attuned to the changing composition of the country as a whole.

“The role of demographic change in turning California from a safe Republican into a safe Democratic state ... has made immigration a very sensitive issue for California Republicans, more so than conservatives in other states, who really didn’t see any substantial negative effects of immigration, politically, for a very long time,” says Kesler.

Kesler, and many people I spoke to in California, view themselves as the canaries in the coal mine for what they worry is the future of not just the state of California, but America — an America that will grow increasingly browner over coming decades, and perhaps, to the angst of many on the right, increasingly further left.

“They keep coming”

The story of conservative fears over demographic change in California began long before Trump.

Take Proposition 187, a ballot initiative passed by voters in November 1994 that would have cut off undocumented Californians from public education and health care services and require teachers and health care providers to turn over the names of undocumented people to authorities (it was known as the “Save Our State” initiative), and to efforts to end bilingual education and establish “three strikes” laws. (A court ultimately found the initiative un-Constitutional.)

Professor Ian Haney López of UC Berkeley directed me to this 1994 campaign ad from then Governor Pete Wilson:

Proposition 187, which was fomented by concerns over perceived white conservative isolation, would ultimately go a long way in turning the California Republican Party into an increasingly irrelevant power in the state, as Latino Californians enraged by the initiative and its backers became increasingly politically active.

“In the 20 years since Pete Wilson’s successful anti-Latino dog whistling,” Haney López told me, “California has turned out state-level office Republicans all across the state. There is no Republican who holds a state-level office in California anymore. The Republicans in California are in areas of the state in which their jurisdiction is overwhelmingly white, [and] even they are increasingly endangered.”

Since 1984, when former California Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan won Los Angeles County on his way to a landslide victory over Walter Mondale, no Republican presidential candidate has won the county, or even cracked 47 percent of the total vote. Even when George H.W. Bush won the state of California in 1988 (the last Republican to do so), he still lost Los Angeles County.

While the number of registered Democratic voters in California hasn’t changed much in recent years, the number of registered Republicans has dropped by 10 percent, and might be surpassed by the number of registered independents by the November midterms. Currently, Democrats hold a 19 percent advantage over Republicans in California.

In 2018, in Orange County, a conservative epicenter and birthplace of the anti-tax movement, a Democrat defeated 15-term incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who had won all but one of his elections by double digits dating back to 1988. Democrats now control the governor’s mansion and have the numbers to override vetos in the state legislature without a single Republican vote.

Democratic Candidate Harley Rouda speaks to his supporters at his midterm election night party after unseating GOP incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher for California’s 48th District on November 6, 2018.
Barbara Davidson/Getty Images

This, to conservatives — and particularly to California conservatives — is the nightmare scenario: an America in which they are powerless, demographically swamped, where the particular virtues and ideas that made America great for so long are uprooted by a surging left. Trump speaks for, and to, this conservative movement, the one that sees demographic changes as a “national emergency.” As Fox News host Laura Ingraham put it in August:

“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically in some ways the country has changed. Now, much of this is related to both illegal and in some cases, legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.”

This is a conservatism divorced from policy disagreements about taxes but embracing of Flight 93 apocalypticism — why not charge the cockpit, seize the controls, elect Donald Trump? For many on the right who believe they are faced with demographic “annihilation” that would push them to the edge of a political cliff, Trumpism was their last stand.

This is not National Review conservatism; it is far more potent and powerful, because it’s not a conservatism for something, but against something else. It’s a conservatism for anyone who didn’t like where America was going under Obama and the Democrats, and it marks its wins in their defeats, rather than in the more divisive space of policymaking.

Trump’s role as an outsider to mainstream conservatism was made explicit when National Review dedicated an entire issue to opposing his run for office. The editors wrote that though Trump had taken on more traditionally conservative viewpoints during his presidential run, he was a liberal at heart:

Trump’s political opinions have wobbled all over the lot. The real-estate mogul and reality-TV star has supported abortion, gun control, single-payer health care à la Canada, and punitive taxes on the wealthy. (He and Bernie Sanders have shared more than funky outer-borough accents.)

As the conservative intellectual Yuval Levin wrote in Politico in the fall of 2016, “En route to the nomination, [Trump] paid nearly no heed to the usual litmus tests [for conservatives]; he seemed to have no idea they existed.”

The conventional wisdom, up until then, was that for a candidate attempting to run as a Republican, rejecting the conservatism of William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan would have marked the death knell of their political campaign. Who can forget Mitt Romney, the moderate former governor of Massachusetts, standing before CPAC and proclaiming himself “severely conservative”?

But Trump alone seemed to recognize that for his base, his voters — isolated and holding on for dear life against an endless attack from a culture and a demography — the old litmus tests didn’t apply. Trump was going to build a wall, end political correctness, and win so much that his base was going to tire of winning; who cared whether he had a policy paper on Medicare?

Donald Trump speaks at the California Republican Party Convention during his presidential campaign on April 29, 2016, in Burlingame, California.
Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

In this approach, Trump took a page from the ideological openness of California-style conservatism, where the focus on common enemies and cultural preferences widens the potential for coalition. It’s that tendency that has led to the alliance of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a loosely constructed group of thinkers that ranges from Shapiro, a traditional conservative and orthodox Jew, to Eric Weinstein and his brother, Brett, both vocal supporters of Bernie Sanders. Here, many possible views are acceptable on health care so long as everyone is united against social justice warriors.

Conservatism has often seen itself as standing athwart history and yelling, “Stop!” But where National Review conservatism saw the growth of the government as the key threat, California conservatism sees America’s demographic changes, and the cultural and political powerlessness that can come with them, as the real danger.

What the future holds

The California conservatives are enjoying themselves. When we spoke, Knowles told me, “for the first time in my lifetime, these days, conservatives are the ones who are having fun. Conservatives kind of seem like the cool guys, and the left kind of seems like the scolds.”

His viewpoint matches much of what I heard and saw from conservatives in California — because no state-level votes or congressional seats depend on them, they can say whatever they want with aplomb. There’s no nostalgia for the past; the good times are now.

But what the future holds for a movement that appears largely united by its opposition is anyone’s guess. The California-style politics — in short, a laser focus on culture, immigration, and race — that helped Trump win the White House have not healed the schisms within the Republican Party, nor have they defanged their liberal opponents.

Perhaps that’s the real strength of California-style conservatives: By feeling like a besieged minority lacking in real power, they can enjoy the best of both worlds, shirking the responsibilities of governance while still wielding real power.

Because conservatives do, in fact, hold considerable political sway. Republicans currently hold the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, and with voter ID laws in dozens of states aiming to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” Republicans remain in a strong position to keep control of local and state elections for years to come. California-style conservatism hasn’t just seized power; it’s taken over the entire country, including areas that aren’t going to see the same rapid demographic changes of California or Texas.

And California-style conservatism has now seemingly supplanted conservative ideology itself, leaving people who think of themselves as conservatives wondering what to do next. “This is one of the hazards of a coalition built on being anti-left,” Shapiro told me in a phone call a few weeks after I flew home to Washington. “As opposed to agreeing on central principles, there is still massive disagreement on what you actually do with the car once you [catch it].”

“The kind of typical Republican solidarity” we’re seeing now, he added, is based on “a continuing ire against the left, which people on the right, I think correctly, feel has become even more radicalized in the age of Trump. As far as sort of a deep and abiding conservative program, those divisions are exposed every time you win, and they are obscured every time you lose.”

Those divisions will come into focus more and more, particularly — and ironically — as California-style conservatism continues to gain sway within the conservative movement and the GOP. The siege mentality merely requires a common foe, a force to be besieged by, and during a siege, the questions of governing — the ticky-tack arguments over tax rates and Medicare that make up a significant amount of what real politics is — can be left for another day.

Trump supporters protest outside the CNN offices in Hollywood, California, on October 22, 2016.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Correction 11/19: A previous version of this piece misstated the type of legislation for Proposition 187.

Clarification 11/20: Michael Anton attended Claremont Graduate University, a member of the Claremont Colleges.

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