California and the Incoherence of the American Right
The Caitlyn Jenner ad illustrates the tensions at the heart of the political moment.
As California goes, so goes the country. This was a message of hope at one point—these days, not so much. It remains true, however, and so the nation watches the California governor’s race developing with understandable interest. The Golden State is a brazen mirror for America, and we go to gaze in it wondering what kind of face will look back at us. As regular TAC contributor Kurt Hofer argued recently over at the Daily Caller, as the Biden administration seems destined to try policies California has given a test drive, the GOP should become the anti-California party, holding up California as it used to be against California as it is.
Hofer’s not alone in that strategy; it seems to be the angle Caitlyn Jenner’s run for governor is taking, too. The first advertisement from the Caitlyn for California campaign makes all of this a little more obvious than anyone is comfortable with, but we live in abnormal times and marketing has always produced and reflected the American psyche in a special way, so it does us a service. It shows, by some combination of intent and happenstance, the flux of the moment, and the tensions implied in the twin facts that California has been the aspirational national microcosm and is now the dystopian future. A close reading of Jenner’s monologue shows that in the funhouse mirror of the 21st century it’s hard to see the reasons the center couldn’t hold and things fell apart. All is incoherent, no connection seen between transcending limits in ourselves and the unsustainable policy choices that got us here.
Jenner starts by setting a standard for Californian, and by extension American, political life: “California was once the envy of the world. We had what everyone else wanted. The American dream grew up here. Yet career politicians and their policies have destroyed that dream. It’s been locked away, closed, shuttered, left in the dark, burned down.” That’s true, and as MAGA showed, it’s a powerful political motivator, here made doubly so by naming an enemy—the ruin of what people remember as great was done to the state by a political elite who made certain policy choices. But lest we stray too far into right-wing realignment territory, Jenner follows this up with Republican establishment rhetoric shifting blame from particular elites to the government in general, with a little tech-world entrepreneurial “disruptor” flourish and echo of George W. Bush’s safe “compassionate” conservatism. “The government is now involved in every part of our lives. They’ve taken our money, our jobs, and our freedom. California needs a disruptor, a compassionate disruptor.” From a strong start we’re back to consultant politics.
Now Jenner moves from the general logic of the campaign to the question of ethical credibility. Who is Caitlyn Jenner? “I came here with a dream 48 years ago to be the greatest athlete in the world. Now I enter a different kind of race, arguably my most important one yet, to save California.” That California immigrant framing by the 71-year-old is clever, and over shots of running glory, it’s clear, Jenner is some kind of superhero. “I want to carry the torch for the parents who had to balance work and their child’s education, for business owners who were forced to shut down, for pastors who were not able to be with their congregation, for the family who lost their home in a fire, for an entire generation of students who lost a year of education.” This is good retail politics, naming your constituents, assuring them they are indeed the little guy and their needs are heard and understood by you. “This past year has redefined our career politicians as elitists and the people of California as the warriors, the kings, and the angels.” It’s a bit corny, but most political rhetoric is, and Jenner has the strong assured radio voice to sell it. But Jenner goes on, “We never take kindly to glass ceilings here. Instead, we shatter them.”
Here’s the pivot of the advertisement, when viewer and Jenner both have to recognize that we’re entering uncharted territory for Republican politics. Jenner is transgender, and somehow that has to be made to sound relatable. “We’re the trailblazers, the innovators. California’s facing big hurdles. Now, we need leaders who are unafraid to leap to new heights … who are unafraid to challenge and to change the status quo.” Jenner is trying to represent the good old normal—the voice and sports footage helps—and oppose the bad new normal, too. But Jenner is a face of that change. This spin is an attempt to bestride a great gulf like a colossus. “California, it’s time to reopen our schools, reopen our businesses, reopen the Golden Gates. So I don’t care if you’re a Republican, Democrat. I’m running to be governor for all Californians, to reclaim our true identity, to bring back the gold to the Golden State.” Transition to greatness? Return to shattering glass ceilings? Restore a revolution?
In the end, though, Jenner knows to move past the personal quandary and back to the pathos of the ruin of California, which remains a stand in and archetype for America. “Now is the time to achieve that summit, to be the shining city on the hill. Together, we’ll restore and renew the California dream.” The question is whether Jenner’s celebrity can support, rather than distract, from the right message. “It’s about what happens from here. It’s not just about one person. It’s about all of us.” I don’t see how it can, but I’ll be watching, looking into the California mirror along with the rest of the country, more than eagerly.