Decoding the California recall: Why it's happening — and why it's crucial that Newsom survives

Author Jean Guerrero on the nightmare scenario that could make former Trump adviser Stephen Miller a U.S. senator

Published September 13, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

California Governor Gavin Newsom and Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/David McNew/Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
California Governor Gavin Newsom and Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/David McNew/Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

At its best, the California recall election aimed at unseating Gov. Gavin Newsom may serve as a wakeup call for 2022. An election that shouldn't even be happening — much less be close — has energized Republicans in a most unlikely place, highlighting the high-stakes dangers of Democratic complacency. After polls dangerously tightened in August, they now suggest that Newsom is likely to survive. But turnout remains the crucial question, and no one's taking anything for granted.

Understanding what's driving this recall, and why this is even a race, is vital if Democrats are to beat the odds in the 2022 midterms rather than lose seats, as is the norm. No one has shown a better grasp of what's involved than Los Angeles Times columnist Jean Guerrero, who is also the author of "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda.

Others may have been surprised when right-wing talk-show host Larry Elder quickly emerged as the leading GOP candidate, but Guerrero was perfectly prepared. In fact, Elder had been Stephen Miller's formative mentor, essentially launching his career. Guerrero had interviewed Elder for her book, and had even read his memoir, "Dear Father, Dear Son." She also understood how Elder and Miller's anti-immigrant views fit into the long history of reactionary politics in California, as does the entire recall effort. Salon reached out to Guerrero recently to discuss the recall and its ramifications, using the columns she's written about the race as a jumping-off point. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Back in mid-July, you wrote about Larry Elder's role in contributing to the development of Trumpism, most notably by mentoring Stephen Miller, the subject of your book "Hatemonger." What should people know about Elder, and what does that tell us about the kind of governor he would be?

Larry Elder was a mentor to Stephen Miller back when Miller was a teenager at Santa Monica High School. Stephen Miller called into his show to complain about multiculturalism and racial equity initiatives at the school. Larry Elder told me, when I interviewed him for my book, that he was very impressed by how articulate Stephen Miller was. He decided to have him on as a regular guest, and ultimately he was on 69 times, according to Elder. So he mentored Stephen Miller and remained in touch with him over the years, even through the Trump campaign when he was sending Miller talking points for Trump and ideas for the campaign. 

But it's not just about Larry Elder mentoring Stephen Miller. He mentored a number of other Trump acolytes, like Alex Marlow, now the Breitbart editor-in-chief, who had an internship with Elder. As Larry Elder himself told me, he gave a lot of confidence to young conservatives like Stephen Miller and Alex Marlow to express their viewpoints without fear of being called racists, because he himself is a Black man who holds and promotes these views that were once considered racist — things like, black people are more racist than white people, really incendiary stuff that Larry Elder built his career around.

As far as what kind of governor he would be, Stephen Miller was to the right of Trump on immigration issues. He pushed consistently in a more extreme anti-immigrant direction. Trump was mostly against illegal immigration, but Stephen Miller made his administration really go after legal immigration in the form of gutting the refugee system, gutting the asylum system, things like that. 

So I believe that Larry Elder, who helped shape Stephen Miller's anti-immigrant views, would be the most anti-immigrant governor that California has ever seen, even more so than Pete Wilson. I think he would transform the state from one of the most pro-immigrant-rights states in the country into one that systematically attacks not just immigrant communities but Latino communities and other racially diverse communities where many people have mixed status. He would terrorize these communities by working closely with federal immigration officials to enforce laws that are contrary to the values in California.

One of the things you've mentioned about Elder's influence on the Trump campaign was that he urged Miller to stress that undocumented immigrants were harmful to inner-city Blacks and Latinos, correct? Which is not just anti-immigrant, but setting different races against each other

Exactly. He advanced this false view that divides brown and Black communities against one another and keeps them fighting and distracted from the institutional problems that are making their lives miserable.

He also passed on some misogynistic advice targeting Hillary Clinton as well. Could you talk about that?

He encouraged Stephen Miller to read up on the sexual harassment and sexual assault accusers of Bill Clinton and about Hillary Clinton's alleged mistreatment of them, and he told him, you know, you should read up about this. I forget whether he told him specifically to bring it up during the debate, or if he said, "Let's talk about how to use this down the line." Just a few months later, Donald Trump held that press conference with the accusers, to distract attention from the tapes that came out where he's talking about assaulting women.

In mid-August you wrote that Elder "isn't afraid to deny the reality of systemic racism by maligning Black people," even by relying on bogus data from Jared Taylor, a leading white supremacist figure. How has he done this?

He'll go on his talk show, or when he's a guest on other talk shows, and over the course of his career, ever since the '90s, he has repeatedly cited statistics saying that Blacks commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes. Sometimes the data is completely made up, and other times he's using real data and completely leaving out the context in order to put forth the idea that black people are somehow innately more violent than white people — an idea that harks back to the eugenicists, when people believed in race-based pseudoscience that has since been discredited. There aren't any real differences between the races, but he puts forward this data to make it seem like all the problems in the Black community are the result of Black people misbehaving or having something wrong with them.

You recount an anecdote Elder told during an L.A. Times interview in which he explained away his own first-hand experience of systemic racism. What happened to him, and how did he explain it away?

He was telling us that when he was a young man, within the first year after getting his driver's license he was pulled over by police between 75 and 100 times. When we heard that we asked him, "Well, how can you believe that you weren't being racially profiled? That's not the experience of most non-Black people. Most non-Black people are not pulled over between 75 and 100 times in a single year by the police." He said that it was because he looked young, that it had nothing to do with race, and that the idea that he was being racially profiled was absurd. It just goes to show that even when it comes to his own experience he is unable or simply refuses to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism and the way that it operates, and continues to operate, in people's lives.

That struck me as bizarre. He went on to say that as governor he would tell people just to comply with the police and they'll be OK, even though last year hundreds of millions of people repeatedly saw that that's not the case. I'm just wondering if you have further thoughts about what kind of psychology he has, to make those kinds of statements. 

It has to do with a refusal to see context or history, and just a desire to blame any person's problems on their own behavior. What helps me to understand it a little bit better is when I read his memoir about his father. Nearly the entire first half of the book is about how abusive his father was. His father allegedly would whip him and his brother for very minor infractions and emotionally terrorized them when they were growing up. It created a lot of anger in Elder toward his father. 

But then he writes about how he confronted his father, and his father explained, "You just have to have self-reliance in life, and then things will turn out OK." Somehow his father sharing his own story of abuse made Larry Elder no longer angry at his father. Suddenly he felt incredibly aligned with his father and grateful to his father for his presence in his life, almost as if his father's allegedly abusive behavior had made him the person that he is today, and therefore had been a good thing. 

So I think this whole idea of might makes right that is popular among conservatives — that there is no law apart from might makes right, you have to use force to make people behave — that is something that I think is core to the identity of Larry Elder.  And it is clearly tied to his relationship to his father, given that he's often talked about how the main problem in Black communities is fatherlessness, the absence of fathers in the home.

First of all, he's not acknowledging the reason that we have this problem with the absence of fathers in communities of color is because of the institutional racism that results in so many of these men being locked up. He's also almost advocating for these men to remain in the home and to behave in the way that his father behaved. He doesn't say that, but given that he became ideologically and emotionally aligned with its father, it just makes sense that that's what he thinks is appropriate.

Elder also portrays Latinos as being more prone to crime as well. Could you say something about that?

In that same memoir he writes about how when he was growing up by the convention center in downtown Los Angeles his neighborhood became more and more overwhelmingly Hispanic, and as Hispanics moved into his neighborhood his neighborhood became more dangerous and more crime-ridden. He basically conflates the new criminality of his neighborhood with the arrival of Hispanic people, as if there's something innately crime-prone in them. I think that is part of what explains his support for draconian immigration policies, his desire to get rid of sanctuary protections, his desire to get rid of health care and public education for undocumented migrants, his desire even to get rid of birthright citizenship, the constitutional right to become a citizen if you were born in this country. He doesn't believe that should be the case for people who are born to parents whose papers are not in order.

That apparent hostility that he has towards Latinos is something that would guide his governorship in a similar way to his apparent disdain for the Black community, who he regularly maligns and blames for very complicated problems that have to do with institutional forces that he refuses to acknowledge.

You also wrote a column stressing that Gavin Newsom has been one of the most pro-Latino governors California has ever had. Folks may know that he appointed the state's first Latino U.S. senator, Alex Padilla [who replaced Kamala Harris], but that's only one example. What else should I know about this record?

He has been more engaged with Latino civil society than any previous governor, according to civil society leaders I spoke with. He was giving them a seat at the negotiating table from his early days as governor, and listening to them. Among the many actions that he took in response to those conversations was to prioritize high-risk Latino neighborhoods for COVID vaccines. He has made unprecedented monetary investment in public education, some of which well help Latino communities — for example, giving two years of community college to first-time students and measures to drive down the cost of textbooks, which many Latinos cannot otherwise afford, He also extended health care coverage to undocumented seniors and provided housing during the pandemic to essential workers, and to farmworkers who tested positive for COVID, so that they wouldn't infect their family members. He also expanded the Dreamers' access to college loans for grad school. 

So according to civil rights and civil society leaders I spoke with, he has been one of the most, if not the most, pro-Latino governors in California history. He perhaps doesn't come across that way in his demeanor because he's this wealthy white man with slicked-back hair. But his actions have really benefited the Latino communities in California and particularly the most vulnerable, those with mixed-status families and those who are undocumented and the essential workers who had to keep working throughout the pandemic and keep the economy running — agricultural workers and domestic workers and things like that.

You point to the "reasons for the recall" in the official voter information guide, which include the claim that Newsom has endorsed laws that "favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over ... our own citizens." I have two questions about that: First about the factual basis of what he's actually done, which you've just described. And second, how could it be more accurately characterized?

That statement that's in the voter information guide fails to acknowledge that so many citizens in California come from mixed-status families, and when you help undocumented people you are also helping to alleviate poverty and crime in these communities as well. First and foremost, Newsom did help undocumented people in California, but that's not the only contingent of the Latino community who he helped.

That's certainly true, but I was also thinking that he's not really favoring immigrants, undocumented or not, over natural-born citizens. It's more like he's just removing discriminatory barriers to equal treatment.

That's exactly right. He's been taking actions to decrease inequality in these communities, and in so doing has improved the lives of all Californians. We all benefit and have benefited from the economic and public health contributions of our undocumented residents. Like I said, he has also made record monetary investments in public education, which helped all working-class Californians to rise out of poverty.

Conservatives attack sanctuary laws because they say that we're letting criminals out on the streets, and then they go out and commit more crimes. But the whole reason we passed sanctuary protections in the first place is because law enforcement officials found that fear of deportation made people in Latino communities, who so often come from mixed-status families, afraid to call the police and report crimes, because that could lead to their deportation or the deportation of a loved one. So sanctuary laws actually improve public safety, and in addition the economy of California, because they encourage people to come out of the shadows and to interact with the police in situations where they otherwise would not.

But there's more to the recall argument. It goes on to say: "People in this state suffer the highest taxes in the nation, the highest homelessness rates, and the lowest quality of life as a result." Those claims are factually false. We have a high homeless rate, but not the highest, for example. And we only have the highest tax rate for the top 1%, while the bottom 80% are taxed below the national average. So those are false, but so is the alleged causality. That leads directly to something else that you wrote about recently: the role of anti-California propaganda and racism driving the recall. There's three different components I'd like you to discuss. First, California's own racist history of targeting multiple different races.

People think of California as a very blue, very liberal state, and in many ways it is. But it still has traces — we have more hate groups in any other state and we still have a fringe, a very powerful white supremacist element in our state, along with our white supremacist history. As recently as the 1990s, California passed a number of measures targeting Latino and Black communities. 

We had the racist three-strikes law which disproportionately led to Black men being incarcerated in mass numbers. We had Prop. 187, which targeted social services for undocumented migrants, including public school for their children, which was later deemed unconstitutional. We had attacks on bilingual education. We had attacks on affirmative action. There was just a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria in the 1990s in California because of demographic change, as California went from a white-majority state to one where non-Hispanic whites became a minority by 1999 or early 2000, and basically underwent the extreme demographic shift that the United States as a whole is now undergoing as we head into the 2040s, when non-Hispanic whites will become the minority nationally.

In response to that demographic change, there was a lot of fear-mongering by conservative politicians, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who blamed all of the state's fiscal problems on what he called an invasion at the border, and even sued the federal government for the alleged cost of having to deal with that. He was putting out advertisements on television that showed immigrants crossing the border with, like, this ominous narrative saying, "They keep coming." There was just a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria whipped up by Pete Wilson and other conservatives in California, including Rush Limbaugh, who had previously been broadcasting out of Sacramento. It just took over the state. 

There was also a huge white separatist movement in Southern California led by Tom Metzger, who even won a Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress. There was a lot of white supremacist activity in California in the 1990s, which was soon relegated to the fringes. But now it appears to be resurgent nationally, in a much stronger and even more dangerous way.

Another factor you say was pushing it was anti-California propaganda. California, Massachusetts and New York have been the three states conservatives have consistently attacked over the years, but California has been especially targeted. How has that played out in recent years?

In recent years conservatives have loved to bash California and portray it as a failing state, and their portrayals always have racial undertones. A good example is what happened when in 2019 when there were are all these failed early efforts to recall Gavin Newsom. Right-wing media launched an anti-California campaign, casting California as a "third-world state" that came as a results of policies of racial diversity. A lot of that was showing images of homeless people, who were disproportionately African-American, Native American and Latino. For example, Tucker Carlson recently called California "the Zimbabwe of the Pacific."

There's always talk about how the state's leaders are "kinder to illegal immigrants than to citizens," as we saw in the voter information guide. A lot of it is just tied to the fact that we saw demographic change in the 1990s that conservatives nationally are terrified of the United States experiencing. They try to portray California as a place that has failed and that is deteriorating and decaying and being destroyed as a result of leaders who have embraced that diversity and sought to empower everyone in an equal way. They want to portray that as an apocalyptic approach that's going to result in the end of civilization.

That leads right into my third question, about your discussion of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, which I also wrote about recently. How does that tie things together? 

This recall election is fundamentally about discrediting multiracial democracy and the idea that it could possibly function, that it does function. In order to discredit multiracial democracy they're using a narrative straight from the book, "The Camp of the Saints," which Stephen Miller promoted in 2016 and Steve Bannon did as well, in the lead-up to the Trump administration. It's a book that is popular among white supremacists, which portrays the destruction of the white world by a horde of brown refugees who are described in really degrading language, words like "monsters" and "beasts," and also that maligns anti-racist politicians and activists who embrace the brown refugees, and blames them for the "destruction of the white world" as well. 

That entire book is about creating hatred for not only people of color, but also anyone who helps them or embraces them or sees them as equals. That narrative, which is incredibly apocalyptic, relies on tropes about "white genocide" — this whole "great replacement" theory of white supremacists, that brown and Black people are systematically replacing white people, and are being helped in that process by liberal elites, often Jewish in some tellings of the white supremacist tale. It's a tale that has become mainstream on Fox News and on other right-wing media — this idea that Democrats are embracing immigrants with open arms because they want to replace "legitimate citizens" and white people with people from the "third world." 

It's an incredibly dangerous idea, because if you believe there is a conspiracy to replace white people with people of color, then violent action is the logical reaction to that, as "The Camp of the Saints" captures. The book's characters repeatedly call for genocide and massacres and violence against the brown refugees to "save the white people." That is what is being dog-whistled every time Tucker Carlson talks about voters in the United States being "replaced," which by the way relies on a definition of replacement that is completely false. When you have immigration you're growing the population, you're not replacing the population. But it connotes violence and it connotes catastrophic destruction, and therefore logically incites violence against people of color.

In contrast to that, you note that there's a powerful counter-narrative about California "as the place that took chances and succeeded," as you put it, drawing on Manuel Pastor's book "State of Resistance." The negative narratives have been repeated ad nauseam. What does that positive counter-narrative sound like?

The positive counter-narrative is that California is the most welcoming place for people of color to live, because of the immense progress that the state has made on immigrant rights, on racial justice, on criminal justice reform. It is on its way to being one of the safest and most prosperous states, it's already the fifth largest economy in the world, it attracts half the nation's venture capital, it has among the best public health outcomes in the nation. And the problems that do exist here — which are exploited by conservatives, such as our problem with homelessness, due to high housing costs — have nothing to do with progressive policies, as conservatives would like us to believe. They have to do with the fact that there is still a very powerful constituency of conservatives and moderates, and even faux-progressives, who are opposed to the construction of affordable housing anywhere near their neighborhoods. That is what has stalled progress in terms of economic equality in this state. 

But if we were to continue on the path that we have been on in recent years, and which Newsom has been a part of, then I think we as a state would conclusively show how successful a multiracial democracy can be. That is the idea that is under attack in this recall election. They want to prove that that multiracial democracy and progressive policies do not work. But they do work. We've seen that they've been working, and we have a long way to go, but the actions that have been taken to address inequality have been incredibly successful. They've been slowed down by the minority conservatives and white supremacists who live in this state, but they've shown that they can work to improve the lives of Californians everywhere, and to lift up the entire country, honestly, because of our economic success.

One thing you've written about that could take up a whole interview is the importance of Latino turnout, and your concerns about it. What's most significant at this point?

Latinos are arguably the community in California that has the most to lose in this election, but there are concerns that they will not turn out in sufficient numbers because of the fact that, first of all, they're being targeted with disinformation on social media, with anti-Newsom propaganda. Secondly, despite all the actions Newsom has taken to make our lives better, Latinos have still borne the brunt of the pandemic, because of the jobs that they have, and have borne the brunt of death tolls and economic tolls. 

So we are traumatized, not just from the pandemic but also from four years of anti-Latino rhetoric from the Trump administration. I think a lot of Latinos, especially young Latinos, are just so overwhelmed with everything that we've experienced over the past few years, that after Biden won we wanted a period of letting out a sigh of relief, and just not thinking about politics for a little while. But I think that as the Newsom campaign and civil rights groups have been going out and disseminating information about all that is at stake, that is changing. The polls now reflect that, and I think the election will reflect that as well.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

Someone asked me recently in an interview, "Is it possible that Larry Elder would appoint Stephen Miller to replace Dianne Feinstein if something were to happen to her?" That thought had never occurred to me, honestly. It seems so outlandish and far-fetched. But Larry Elder did tell Stephen Miller that he hopes to see live to see the day that Stephen Miller becomes president. I think we need to acknowledge that.

Some of us try to downplay how much a Republican governor could actually do, if they were to come into power with only a very short period until the next election [in 2022], and with a legislature that has a Democratic supermajority. But the governor does have powers to appoint significant positions. It's possible that if something were to happen to Dianne Feinstein that we would see someone like Stephen Miller be selected as one of the senators for California. That would be clearly catastrophic for the Biden agenda, and for any progress our nation was looking to make on addressing issues of inequality.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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