Last week in Japan, President Trump threw California under the bus. He said that what liberals are doing in Los Angeles and San Francisco is “so sad.” A few days later, in an interview on Fox, the president said, “take a look at what’s going on with San Francisco, it’s terrible.” He blamed the “very liberal people” who run California.
It’s not true, of course, that San Francisco and Los Angeles are sad and terrible. These are vibrant and booming places. The worst places in California are in the Central Valley. Last year, USA Today ranked Bakersfield as the poorest city in the U.S. Fresno was No. 2. But I’d still rather live here than in middle America. Despite our challenges, even the beleaguered Central Valley has an energy that inspires.
The complaint about California is symbolic. San Francisco and Los Angeles are icons of we might call “cultural liberalism,” which aims to liberate people from the tired norms of traditional culture.
Not everyone likes this. The president’s son complained last year, “Liberalism is a disease. There is literally nothing leftists won’t try to ruin.” The idea that liberalism ruins everything is similar to what Vladimir Putin suggested when he said last week that “the liberal idea has become obsolete.” It was Putin’s remark that prompted the president to turn against California. Trump and Putin are traditionalists who tap into people’s nostalgia for a lost culture.
Trump’s traditionalism often lacks subtlety. But scholars have dug deeper. A recent book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” by Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deenan, provides further insight. Deenan describes contemporary liberalism as “anti-culture.” He says that liberalism has focused on the liberation of human beings from “established authority” and “emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition.” Deenan thinks this is a mistake. So he talks about liberalism in terms of displacement, dislocation, degradation, disfigurement, and disconnection.
This sense of displacement explains the desire to return to traditional values. Putin made this clear in his recent interview. He said that defenders of “traditional family values” are fed up with multiculturalism, immigration, and LGBT issues. He defended the Russian Orthodox church, while suggesting that liberals are destroying Roman Catholicism.
Trump shares Putin’s nostalgia for traditional values. Just last week, he bragged again about winning the war on Christmas. The President’s Fourth of July celebration was about the military’s past victories. Tradition and history are important, but the American story as told in Washington has very little to do with California.
Our history is different. California begins with the Spanish dream of finding the lost utopia of Queen Calafia. This is where the Gold Rush inspired speculators and blue jeans were born. This is where the Sierra Club was founded. This is the land of surfing and low-riders, skateboarders and punks, beatniks and hippies.
California is home to the Black Panthers and campus free speech movement. It is where gay and lesbian people found a home. It is a land of yoga and zen and experimental religion. California is also home to the pornography industry and cannabis culture. This is where disruptive technologies are developed. It is where Hollywood fantasies come to life.
California’s counter-culture calls into question the normal and the possible. This sense of freedom, imagination, and opportunity is what draws people to California. Critics complain that California lacks authenticity and seriousness. But what makes California great is the vibrant diversity, experimental attitude, and entrepreneurial spirit of the California dream.
That’s why people keep coming here. And all of these newcomers make California different from middle America. In Fresno County, only 30% of us are white. Twenty percent of us were born outside of the United States. A traditionalist America would not look anything like Fresno.
And while those in the middle of the country are fearful of what we might call the Californication of America, the truth is that none of us are interested in moving back east. We like it here. They can join us if they want. But mostly we wish they would leave us alone to explore and experiment.
We have work to do, especially in the Central Valley. But we are busy thinking about tomorrow, while the traditionalists are dwelling on yesterday.