What Republicans mean when they say “California”

November 3, 2018 9:50 am

Heller 2018 campaign video screenshot

“I just don’t know what that means,” Gov. Brian Sandoval told the Review-Journal several weeks ago when asked about warnings from Dean Heller and Adam Laxalt that Nevada is at risk of becoming too much like California.

Sandoval should read the Review-Journal’s opinion page. Its most high-profile columnist knows exactly what Republicans think is disgusting and deplorable about California: “It’s filled with immigrants,” spouts Wayne Allyn Root.

It must be said that despite Root’s frequent appearances as a warm-up act at Southern Nevada Trump rallies – a somewhat curious activity for a paid newspaper columnist — and despite the fact that he’s a columnist for a paper owned by the solar system’s largest Republican campaign donor, Wayne Allyn Root is, was, and always will be first and foremost a spokesman for Wayne Allyn Root and whatever Wayne Allyn Root happens to be selling at any given time. It used to be betting tips; he was a tout. Now it mostly seems to be ads on his radio show (which is chock full of Wayne Allyn Root ads about the immense value of buying an ad on Wayne Allyn Root’s radio show). The point is this: Root is not an “official” Republican spokesman for the Nevada Republican Party or any of its candidates.

But there is a reason Root gets invited to speak at multiple Trump rallies. He knows what the Trump base wants to hear. And if they want to hear about the evils of California, Root’s their man.

“Illegal immigrants have turned California into the American Nightmare,” reads the headline over one Root column, in which any trouble — real or imagined — that might be found in California is all “Thanks to illegal immigration … thanks to the joys of diversity.” Root’s evidence is decidedly Rootian: California has problems. California has immigrants. Ipso facto, California’s problem is immigrants. As association fallacies go, it’s as sweeping as it is detestable.

It is also pitch-perfect for the toxic, racist political environment of the Trump era. And it is of a piece with what Nevada Republican candidates are saying.

After the 2012 election, national Republicans wrote an “autopsy” explaining that the party had “drawn itself into an ideological cul-de-sac” and could no longer afford to rely on old white male voters, but had to reach out and broaden the Republican electorate. The next year, Heller was joining a comfortable majority of senators voting for a bipartisan immigration bill.

After 2016, all that was thrown into the garbage fire. Trump won white voters, both men and women, in every income and age group. White identity politics worked – even in a presidential year. Salivating Republicans immediately began looking forward to practicing the powerful politics of white grievance in a midterm, when Democratic voters are notorious for not showing up.

Little wonder that Heller, Laxalt, and Laxalt’s hapless sidekick, Michael Roberson, came out of the gate in the 2018 cycle crusading against an issue with a miniscule-at-best impact on the lives of the vast majority of voters: “sanctuary cities.” “Californication” was not far behind.

And not unrelated.

After all, that’s where the sanctuary cities are.

Like Root, Laxalt is a frequent warm-up act at Trump performances of late. When he followed Root on the stage at a rally in Las Vegas in September, it was probably the largest crowd the Nevada newcomer had ever addressed in person. He used his moment in the sun almost exclusively to condemn California.

Laxalt’s warnings are slightly more nuanced than Root’s, but he hits many of the same notes – the now-familiar and deliberately twisted “feces on California streets” narrative is a huge favorite among Republicans everywhere this year. And rest assured, Root, Laxalt, and the crowd lapping it up at a Trump rally all assume that white people are not the ones creating the existential threat posed by California sidewalk poop.

In his brief remarks at that Trump rally, and in legal filings, Laxalt has also sounded alarm bells about out-of-control crime in California. Crime — law and order, as a Nixon-echoing Trump likes to say — is a time-honored dog-whistle blown by politicians who want to assure whites that they’re on their side and not, well, the other.

And it is true that California had more than 400 violent crime incidents per 100,000 people in 2016.

It is also true that Nevada, where Laxalt is attorney general and thus the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, reported nearly 700 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2016.

California also ranks more favorably than Nevada in a host of other categories, including but not limited to health care, education, and mental health services. But those issues are not what this campaign is about – at least not for Republicans.

For Republicans, this campaign is about deploying the most powerful military the world has ever known to fend off the mortal threat posed by … men, women and children seeking asylum from gang death threats. For Republicans, this campaign is about a vile anti-immigrant campaign video that makes the Willie Horton ad look quaint, a promise to unconstitutionally eliminate birthright citizenship, and all the rest of Trump’s rabid white identity rants — including the lie Trump told to a crowd in Elko last month that “they’re rioting now” over sanctuary cities in California.

Like Nevada, California has problems. All states do.

But California is a state. Trump is an omnishambles.

If the projections are accurate, Democrats will win the U.S. House, probably with the help of two Democratic victories in contested seats here in Nevada. Laxalt’s race against Steve Sisolak could be very close, and Heller’s race against Jacky Rosen closer still. But whatever voters decide Tuesday, Trump will continue to be a horrible human being dead-set on dividing the nation because he’s convinced that’s what works for him, personally.

And whatever voters decide Tuesday, Heller and Laxalt have not only failed to stand up to Trump, they have deliberately piggy-backed on his racist, white nationalist brand. They’re going to own that for the rest of their political careers, however long — and in whatever state — that may be.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.