Elections

Donald Trump’s California Stronghold

President Donald Trump gestures during a campaign event in Fayetteville, N.C., September 19, 2020. (File photo: Tom Brenner/Reuters)
In Newport Beach, supporters were out in force for a rare campaign stop in the deep-blue state.

At a Republican campaign rally in Fullerton, Calif., some years ago, President Reagan was stumping for then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush and other Republicans. Addressing the crowd, whom Reagan served as governor for eight years, the 40th president said, “You are living proof of something that I have said over and over again: Orange County is where the good Republicans go before they die.” That fall, Bush won Orange County with 586,230 votes, compared with Democrat Michael Dukakis’s 269,013. Bush would go on to win the state, too, capturing 51 percent of California voters — a feat no other Republican presidential nominee has accomplished since.

Orange County is certainly no longer the stronghold it once was; in fact, it has, for the time being, flipped blue. Clinton won 100,000 more votes than Trump in the 2016 election, and as of 2020, the Democratic Party represents just over 644,000 voters, compared with 601,000 registered Republicans. But there is still a staunchly red pocket within the county — the city of Newport Beach — where the Republicans boast a strong registration advantage of 47-26 percent over Democrats.

This past Sunday, President Trump visited Newport for a GOP fundraiser hosted by Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey. The young tech mogul opened up his Lido Island estate for over 1,300 guests, with tickets starting at $2,400 and going as high as $150,000. Some of Trump’s most loyal supporters were typically boisterous; they lined the streets of Newport, awaiting the president’s motorcade with flags, signs, and bullhorns. Although they likely had neither the money nor the time to see the president inside a mansion, it didn’t stop them from coming out in the thousands. And for Southern California, an area commonly conceived as the bastion of progressivism (second only to San Francisco) it was an impressive showing for a controversial and seemingly unpopular incumbent.

Even earlier in the weekend, Newport felt ready to express its support for Trump. As my girlfriend and I walked around downtown on Friday and Saturday, we noticed several homes abutting the boardwalk — very expensive properties, to be sure — with Trump flags hanging from their balconies. Inside the homes, we glimpsed Trump memorabilia pinned onto the walls (among other displays of patriotism, such as a Bennington ’76 flag). By the Newport pier, there were two tents set up by conservative activists, who were petitioning to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. The activists were particularly frustrated with Newsom’s drastic lockdown measures, which have destroyed many small businesses in the state. Throughout the afternoon, supporters trickled by, gladly signing their names, while several people bought Trump hats for sale. A posse of Newport teens, whose apparent leader wore a “Make America Great Again” hat, roamed the base of the pier, trying to pick a fight with another teenager, who, I suspect, took issue with the MAGA hat.

On more than one occasion, we saw Latino parents in Trump hats and T-shirts, corralling their energetic kids dressed in Trump apparel, too. As nighttime descended, parties began in many beachfront homes. Some party-goers were fans of the president, as they blurted out from their balconies upon seeing some passerby with Trump apparel: “Trump 2020!”

It is not entirely surprising that beachside pockets such as Newport and Huntington Beach continue to stay red even after Orange County shifted blue in the 2018 midterm elections. Newport is one of the wealthiest cities in California, with a median household income of over $100,000. Although there are upper middle-class suburbanites in Newport and elsewhere, who might have been completely turned off by Trump’s behavior and rhetoric over the past four years, there are also plenty of affluent people who unashamedly support the president. Palmer Luckey, for example, is not the only tech mogul proud to have backed Trump in 2016. Billionaires Peter Thiel and Robert Mercer also supported Trump’s first presidential campaign.

Perhaps in Newport Beach — where it is quite difficult to signal affluence, as driving Lamborghinis and hosting happy hours on 60-foot yachts is apparently the norm — status can be acquired by transgressing California’s dogmatic, progressive political arrangement, and courting just the right kind of controversy. As former trader Nassim Taleb once observed, “Ironically the highest status, that of the free-man, is usually indicated by voluntarily adopting the mores of the lowest class.” For rich Californians partying on the beaches of Newport, owning their support for Trump is like an aristocratic middle-finger, aimed at everyone living outside their red fiefdom.

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