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A Gut Check for Californian Conservatism

Inside a bear of a recall race. 

It was straight out of Hollywood. 

Countless comparisons were made in the Donald Trump era between the 45th president and Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum. With the showman standard-bearer summarily ejected from the center ring, John Cox, perennial candidate and current aspirant governor, sought to fill the void. Literally. 

He brought in the bear.

Overshadowed by his rivals’ looks—pretty boy Governor Gavin Newsom on the left, androgynous Caitlyn Jenner on the right—as well as by lack of platform, the routed 2018 Republican nominee for governor took his opportunity to stand out at a rally in San Diego. Standing next to a Kodiak bear in the city known for its zoo, the Middle West transplant gave every impression that American politics had become just that.  

News of the spectacle made it as far as India, a country not known for its staid political arena. The Economic Times noted the bear’s weight (1,100 pounds) and its name (Tag), affirmatively quoting the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which said it was “shameful that Tag the Kodiak bear has been exploited in this way.” 

The partisan in Cox—he once hosted a “Friends of Saddam” segment on his radio show in Chicago—must have been glad of drawing the opprobrium of PETA. As if to make his point about a paradise made litigious and regulated, the authorities said they were investigating the man for a misdemeanor over the stunt. If American politics had become bloodsport, nowhere more so than in Sacramento except perhaps Washington, then the gadfly would-be governor had gone a step further and brought back bear-baiting, said his enemies. 

The point of all this, according to Cox, was that beleaguered incumbent Gavin Newsom was an exemplar of Californian superficial “beauty” and that he, Cox, sought to return some of the “beast” that once powered America’s greatest state.

You can hardly blame him.

Although John Cox is not going to be governor, it’s hard not to conclude that something has gone desperately awry in “the western edge of America,” as Hunter S. Thompson called the state. The late journalist’s room in San Francisco on Point Lobos Avenue at the Seal Rock Inn was shuttered like so much during the emergence and then panic over COVID-19 in the past year, but now partially reopened. Like many restaurants, the famed diner underneath didn’t make it. 

Represented in Congress by Nancy Pelosi and said to be home to the latte-sipping liberal of notoriety, “S.F.” was the boogeyman jurisdiction of George W. Bush’s Republican Party. It’s a classification that in retrospect looks ridiculous. It may have made for an entertaining South Park episode, with visitors choked not by West Coast smog but by overwhelming “smug,” but the city of the 2000s was in many ways an exemplar of a certain kind of right-wing ideal.

The Bay Area was dominant in technology, optimistic about the future, wealthy beyond imagination, and with its temperate climate, seemingly astride nature, the home to real life John Galts like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and on down. But sometimes nightmares come true. As Thompson iconically wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” 

That place is San Francisco. 

What was in the Noughties the hellscape of conservative fan fiction has become, increasingly, the reality of left-wing dogma gone bad. It must have been humorous for Bay Area residents to hear of their evils when Steve Jobs was unveiling species-changing technology from his platform in Palo Alto. 

It’s less of a laughing matter now, when the metropolis is a national symbol of the violation of the values modern liberals hold dear: obscene inequality (despite absurd taxation), macabre homelessness (despite a commitment to housing for all), gnarly drug fatality numbers (certainly a downer for those who would down all prohibition), blue skies turned truly orange last early autumn (despite peerless environmentalism). 

With the exodus of its most famous, if controversial, residents (Musk, Thiel), the land of the Golden Gate has lunged disturbingly toward a new status. Squint and one sees São Paolo on the Pacific: beautiful yet miserable; a land for the rich; defined outside of its walls by tent cities that rival favelas; monopolistic, oligarchic, in decline; obsessed with race; fun and rotten. If America’s anxiety is fear of further Californication, California’s anxiety might be fear of further San Franciscation. 

In this milieu, the city’s former mayor is in the political crosshairs. Governor Newsom will face a recall election this year, likely in November, plausibly as soon as late summer. He was a city supervisor the last time a recall went down, when Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated the Gray Davis administration. Back then, Newsom was married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, the daughter of a legendary S.F. Democratic fixer, currently the girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr. The governor’s relationship with Vice President Kamala Harris is uneasy. Had the Biden-Harris ticket gone down in defeat in 2020, it was not strictly the scribblings of humorists to speculate that in the next presidential election Guilfoyle would have been once married to both the Republican and Democratic nominees. 

A lot has changed in 20 years. 

Newsom’s public pronouncements are a mixture of Bourbon-style pique that anyone could question his government’s pandemic lockdown policy—the restaurant that landed him here was jump-shark-titled the French Laundry—with the institutional knowledge that when the Republicans came for the king two decades ago, they didn’t miss. In addition to Cox and former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, former interim director of national intelligence and all-around Republican knife-fighter Richard Grenell is mulling a bid.     

But in the land of show business, one name has stolen the show: Jenner. 

It remains an enigmatic campaign. On the one hand, the former Olympian has the name recognition, celebrity, and financing to make such a bid a major deal. Jenner has exhibited a Trumpian panache, citing the disappointment of fellow private jet tarmac dwellers to Sean Hannity as an example of California’s demise, and asserting a position on “sanctuary cities” that amounts to wishing the state would be a sanctuary for business. That Jenner is the most famous transgender American—and a genre-defying Republican one at that—at a time when the phenomenon is reaching a boiling point in the nation’s political debate, goes without saying.  

On the other hand, the Jenner campaign has become a refuge of uneven players such as Brad Parscale, the former Trump campaign manager whose reputation for financial propriety and political skill has fallen into disrepute in the last year. Also, that Jenner hasn’t leveraged celebrity for further buzz is decidedly not Trumpian and calls into question the seriousness of Jenner’s crusade.

So Newsom, despite the Californian malaise, is slated to claim lame victory this fall. He’d have to run once again next year, should he dare a reelection effort. With Harris in the saddle in Washington, and with his struggles westside, Newsom’s political life has become a true slog, with nowhere to go but down, a far cry from a few years back when Angeleno Bill Maher feted the handsome white guy as the ideal Democratic presidential candidate to ward off the Trumpian terror. These days, the Real Time host lambasts Newsom for his hypocrisy, saying his summer sojourn to the Laundry last year was akin to getting loaded with the Mothers Against Drunk Driving. 

It is a strange dominance for the Democratic Party out in the crown province of the Left Coast. Donald Trump may be persona non grata, but more Californians voted for him than ever voted for native son Richard Nixon, or even adoptive son Ronald Reagan. The story of Latinos tacking right was true in the nation’s largest state, a particular anxiety for the Democrats in a place where the Hispanic establishment has long felt locked out of power. Not coincidentally, Newsom recently tapped his friend Alex Padilla to the Senate in a hasty salve. 

In 2020, hard-left ballot initiatives went down like cicadas in autumn: on affirmative action, on ride sharing, on a bond initiative for public schools. The state didn’t just lose U.S. House seats to depopulation, they lost some to Republicans. Southern Californian, Asian-American, and female freshman representatives like Young Kim, a mother of four, are surely unwelcome developments for the state’s Democratic old guard.

But, all told, the Republicans’ brand in the historic home of skateparks and silicon is about as strong these days as New Coke. As is the case nationally, registered independents rival registered Republicans, perhaps rightfully. But in a land of two GOP presidents, it’s been a real fall from grace. In a sign of the times, even the Hollywood support group “Friends of Abe” disbanded in 2016. Still, to monitor the flailing of a figure like Newsom, who once authored a book called “Citizenville,” is to stumble upon a town square ripe for rebellion.