Will Trump Call California’s Bluff?
Steven Greenhut
by

Sacramento

Believe it or not, but the incoming Trump administration is a godsend for California’s increasingly left-wing political leadership. Note how Democratic elected officials are tripping all over themselves, competing to make the most outrageous attention-grabbing boasts about their plans to fight against the new GOP presidency.

Suddenly, these legislators face the prospect of relevancy, real or rhetorical. Until Trump’s ascension, California’s pols could hardly get much attention — except as weird left-coast folks determined to send their tax base to Texas. Even President Obama sometimes treated California the way one would treat a precocious child. But now things could become contentious as the nation’s most populous and liberal state becomes the test case for the fundamentally conservative idea that states are free to stand up to the federal behemoth.

“Donald Trump’s election was a shocking mistake of historical proportions. His dangerous ideas and policies threaten the freedom, the safety and the prosperity of every American,” said Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic donor and possible gubernatorial hopeful at a California Democratic Party confab earlier in the month. “This is our moment. We will rise to the occasion because there is no one else.”

Not to be outdone, Gov. Jerry Brown told the New York Times: “I wouldn’t underestimate California’s resolve if everything moves in this extreme climate denial direction. Yes, we will take action.” Brown said our state will launch its “own damn satellites” if necessary. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight,” he told the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, has vowed to fight Trump on stepped-up efforts to deport illegal immigrants. And local politicians have been rushing to pass “sanctuary city” resolutions that would limit the ability of police agencies to cooperate with the federal authorities. Some cities already do this, but others are joining the fray.

One of the driving forces of the state’s progressive politics is the idea that California is a special place where high-minded experts can implement policies that would be verboten in the rest of America’s rube-infested backwaters. I’ve listened to countless Assembly and Senate floor speeches, where legislators invoke California’s role as a world leader.

Indeed, its first-in-the-nation cap-and-trade system wasn’t designed to improve the Earth’s climate, but to prod other states and nations into embracing similar policies. This attitude isn’t new, but it works best when there’s some outside enemy. Gov. Hiram Johnson, elected in 1906, instituted our far-reaching brand of direct democracy to take on the railroads and robber barons, and his progressive vision has been a backdrop to our politics ever since.

In fact, the more we go our own way the happier our politicians seem to be. Officials in many other states are eager to build new highways and infrastructure to meet a growing population. Years ago, I recall Gov. Gray Davis boasting that the era of freeway building is over. As our traditional infrastructure becomes overburdened and downright dangerous, the state’s leaders are focused on spending more than $68 billion on a High Speed Rail boondoggle even though we already have a quick, inexpensive, and simple way to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco and other cities (Southwest Airlines).

So we get to watch the Brown administration push forward a “bullet train” that won’t be particularly fast (it is now planned to share rail lines with commuter trains in the L.A. basin and the Bay Area) and doesn’t live up to most of the promises made to voters, who approved initial bond funding for the project in a 2008 initiative. But no matter. That’s the progressive way — the wise leaders know what’s best. If the citizenry complains about broken promises, then there’s always a way to overrule them through the bureaucracy or court system.

Obviously, California isn’t the only place where elected officials — Democrat and Republican — run roughshod over the lowly taxpayers, but we have elevated it to an art form here. The state is so large (nearly 800 miles from Baja California to Oregon), populous (38.5 million people and growing), and economically powerful (sixth in global ranking) that its leaders often act as if they are leaders of a country rather than a mere state. Now they relish their chance to stand up to a hostile administration in Washington, D.C.

National publications have made sport of the Cal-Exit plan, but that’s just silliness. A group of progressives has been pushing a secession movement — an effort to actually break away from the United States and form a new country. That began before Trump, but the election has given it new impetus and attention. But there’s no way this is going to happen. Their proposed 2018 initiative wouldn’t be binding. Congress isn’t going to allow an exit from the United States under any scenario.

Plans to break California into two or more states aren’t so crazy, from a policy standpoint. There’s nothing sacrosanct about our current arbitrarily created borders, and there have been myriad such proposals since California became a state in 1850. But such ideas are not politically feasible. I doubt Congress would approve several new senators from the states formerly known as California, to mention just one major obstacle.

Following the inauguration, California will continue to go its own way legislatively. A list of new laws for the new year include many of the various progressive fixations — more gun control, more aggressive climate-change targets, higher minimum wages and more employer mandates, new rules regarding bathrooms for transgendered people, higher smoking ages, etc. Expect more of the same, except that Democrats will have an easier time of things now that they control supermajorities in both houses.

None of that is anything new, but we could see some serious showdowns between the Trump administration and the newly energized California Democratic leadership over immigration policies and climate-change rules. The question is whether the new president will call California’s bluff. If he does, the face-offs could become entertaining. Will Brown and company stand firm if there’s a price to pay? Will the state’s leaders be willing to lose federal immigration or transportation funding if they choose to thumb their nose at the feds? Will federal immigration enforcement insist on having access to, say, gang databases and other records? If so, might we see county sheriffs — or even Gov. Brown — standing on courthouse or jailhouse steps refusing access to federal agents? The possibilities are endless. I wouldn’t bet on any profiles in courage here in Sacramento, but our state might find itself in the center of the national political conversation for the first time in years.

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
Follow Their Stories:
View More
Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
Sign Up to receive Our Latest Updates! Register