COMMENTARY

Does the California recall prove that Trumpism is on the run? Not so fast

Beating Trumpism in California was simple: Getting out the facts — and the voters. That can work elsewhere too

By David Cay Johnston

Published September 23, 2021 5:40AM (EDT)

Gavin Newsom and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Gavin Newsom and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Read more articles from the DCReport here.

The overwhelming failure in the recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom should send a powerful message to those Republicans who think their future lies with Donald Trump and Trumpism. It doesn't.

By any measure, the vote to retain Newsom was a landslide. Almost 64% of voters cast ballots against recalling Newsom.

That's better than the record margin by which Newsom won in 2018. He won that race with just under 62% of the vote. It also equals the share of California votes for Joe Biden against Trump in 2020.

The recall vote is a clear repudiation of the Trumpian tactic of trying to disrupt and delegitimize government when anyone but a Trumper wins the popular vote. Havoc will continue, but it can be defeated — always  if enough sensible Americans cast ballots.

Trumpism isn't dead, not yet. But it's not attracting new adherents, either. That's because all it offers is anger, the lethal rejection of medical science and cultish devotion to a deeply disturbed con artist who just makes stuff up, like his very recent delusional claim of being rescued on 9/11 by two firefighters.

Trumpism is not an ideology, just political masturbation.

And no one in America is more captured by self-love than Donald Trump.

General elections, especially when the presidency is on the ballot, draw far more voters than special elections. That's why the Republican Party has long relied on the latter to put its people in office. The GOP simply does better at turning out the vote than the Democrats, or at least it did until 2020.

In spring, it looked as if Newsom could become the third governor in American history to be recalled because rank-and-file Democrats weren't paying attention. Neither were independents, whose numbers equal those of Republicans in California.

Newsom had loaded himself up with political baggage in the way he handled the worst of the COVID pandemic. His public health emergency order last fall imposed mask and indoor activities limits that infuriated not just the freedumb crowd but some struggling small business owners.

In an act of maddening arrogance and political stupidity, the governor enjoyed dinner in a Napa Valley French restaurant without a mask. He violated other COVID protocols as well. And he got photographed.

"Do as I say and not as I do" has ended the careers of more than a few politicians, yet Newsom is coming out of the recall much stronger than ever.

Newsom got lucky, but that stroke of political luck contains a valuable lesson for defeating Trumpism.

The leading candidate to succeed Newsom if the recall worked was Larry Elder, a deranged Trumper radio talk show host. Elder made clear that the recall was a referendum on Trumpism, a novice political move that professional Democrats exploited fully.

Under California's century-old populist recall rules, a small minority can force an election. Then, if 50% plus one voter favor recall, the new governor is whomever gets the most votes the same day. That could, literally, be someone who earns less than 10% of the vote. Elder polled at about 18%, but won 45% of the vote in a field of almost 50 gubernatorial wannabes. Still, he secured far fewer votes than the number of votes favoring recall.

Let us hope the populist California recall, initiative and referendum rules will get modernized to make putting items on the ballot harder.

There is a lesson in what happened between June and Sept. 14.

Elder is a longtime fixture in the Los Angeles radio market, a robust marketplace of music, news, ideas and nonsense.

A true-red Trumper, Elder spouts crazy, illogical, half-baked, fact-free, absurd and downright offensive ideas, sometimes contradicting himself just like his hero does.

After Elder complained that the Los Angeles Times never reviewed his books, the paper obliged. The devastating result was an object lesson in being careful what you wish for because it may come true. Wrote reviewer David L. Ulin after reading four of Elder's seven books:

Elder is not a writer but a brand. As such, he is always on brand, regardless of the issue: the economy, the unhoused, law enforcement, immigration rights. His columns represent not so much a voice in conversation as a series of diatribes. When it comes to public policy, Elder offers neither subtlety nor nuance, not least because that isn't what his audience wants.

Facts are to Elder just as they are to Trump: They don't matter. Like Trump, Elder creates his own reality.

That goes over well among the American Taliban and their uncouth cousins, the American Yahoos. California is not poor Alabama or Mississippi or home to COVID-iocy leaders as in Texas and Florida.

California, where I grew up and lived for 36 years, is rich. It would boast Earth's fifth-biggest economy if it were a nation because of education and science.

Be it growing strawberries year-round, making movies or splicing genes, California's economy is science-driven. Trumpism rejects science as it preys on the minds of people who didn't pay attention in high school and couldn't explain the function of RNA if their lives depended on it. Among Trumpers, it's OK, indeed more than OK, to be ignorant.

Elder promotes some wildly crazy ideas. He proposed reparations for slave owners because their "property" was taken away by Abraham Lincoln. He also said he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

By the way, Elder is Black.

On the day before the recall vote ended, Elder posted on his website assertions that the recall vote results were fraudulent and statistical analysis proved that.

That's a remarkable claim to make before any vote results are known and before the election ends. But it's consistent with the Trumpist practice of just making stuff up. The week before the election, Trump said the election was rigged for Newsom. He reiterated that on Election Day.

Elder's campaign also made clear that he intended to govern California in pure Trumpian style, by tweet rather than substance. That also alarmed voters in a state whose economy is heavily based on science.

Most Californians had never heard of Elder before the recall. When Democratic strategists started to get out the word about what a crazy loon Elder is, Democrats, independents and those Republicans not infected with Trumpism began mailing in their ballots in large numbers.

The lesson: Who votes is all that matters in elections.

Trumpers are a slowly dwindling minority. As a class, they don't understand how the world works, don't embrace logic, think they are smarter than the scientists they denounce, embrace stupidity and incompetence (see Dunning-Krueger Effect) and are easily taken in by slogans rather than substance. Many are as close-minded as the Taliban.

Those people love Trump because he freed the inner racism of the Republican Party, which has always been there. Witness its opposition to civil rights and voting rights. Trump told his followers that it was OK to use racial slurs and that violently attacking those you disagree with meant you were "fine people."

The insurmountable problem for Republicans — unless they steal elections is that white supremacy continues to slowly fade despite its vicious public displays during the brief Trump era. That's because humans evolved toward cooperation, not Trump's Hobbesian notions of brutal power abused to make life nasty, brutish and short for the many.

The lesson about building a better America is that to defeat Trumpism its opponents must make sure they get out the story of who Trumper candidates are and what they believe. Letting them hide behind slogans is a terrible strategy.

But most of all, people must vote. All that matters is turning out the vote. Period. Elections are won by those who cast ballots.

That's the whole point of the GOP proposing and in many states enacting laws to suppress the votes of people not in line with either what's left of traditional Republicanism or politically flaccid Trumpism.

America is home to far more good, decent and caring people than losers drawn to Trump.

Vote. Be an owner of our government, not a renter or, worst of all, a squatter.


David Cay Johnston

MORE FROM David Cay Johnston


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California Recall Commentary Dcreport Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Larry Elder Trumpism