I’m on a number of right-wing mailing lists, and I try to at least skim what they’re going on about in any given week; this often gives me advance warning about the next wave of manufactured outrage. Lately I’ve been seeing dire warnings that if Democrats win next year they’ll try to turn America into (cue scary background music) California, which the writers portray as a socialist hellhole.
Sure enough, this week Donald Trump effectively declared war on California on two fronts. He’s trying to take away the Golden State’s ability to regulate pollution generated by its 15 million cars, and, more bizarrely, he’s seeking to have the Environmental Protection Agency declare that California’s homeless population constitutes an environmental threat.
More about these policy moves in a moment. First, let’s talk about two Californias: the real state on America’s left coast, and the fantasy state of the right’s imagination.
The real California certainly has some big problems. In particular, it has sky-high housing costs, which in turn are probably the main reason it has a large population of homeless residents.
But in many other dimensions California does very well. It has a booming economy, which has been creating jobs at a much faster pace than the nation as a whole.
It has the nation’s second-highest life expectancy, comparable to that in European nations with much higher life expectancy than America as a whole. This is, by the way, a relatively new development: Back in 1990, life expectancy in California was only average.
At the same time, California, having enthusiastically implemented Obamacare and tried to make it work, has seen a sharp drop in the number of residents without health insurance. And crime, although it has ticked up slightly in the past few years, remains near a historic low.
That is, as I said, California’s reality. But it’s a reality the right refuses to accept, because it wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
You see, modern California — once a hotbed of conservatism — has become a very liberal, very Democratic state, in part thanks to rapidly rising Hispanic and Asian populations. And since the early years of this decade, when Democrats won first the governorship, then a supermajority in the state Legislature, liberals have been in a position to pursue their agenda, raising taxes on high incomes and increasing social spending.
Conservatives confidently predicted disaster, declaring that the state was committing “economic suicide.” You might think that the failure of that disaster to materialize, especially combined with the way California has outperformed states like Kansas and North Carolina that turned hard right while it was turning left, might induce them to reconsider their worldview. That is, you might think that if you haven’t been paying any attention to the right-wing mindset.
What is happening instead, of course, is that the usual suspects are trying to portray California as a terrible place — beset by violent crime and rampant disease — in sheer denial of reality. And they have seized on the issue of homelessness, which is, to be fair, a genuine problem. Furthermore, it’s a problem brought on by bad policy — not high taxes or excessively generous social programs, but the runaway NIMBYism that has prevented California from building remotely enough new housing to accommodate its rising population.
The striking thing about the right’s new focus on homelessness, however, is that it’s hard to detect any concern about the plight of the homeless themselves. Instead, it’s all about the discomfort and alleged threat the homeless create for the affluent.
Which brings me to Trump’s war on California.
The attempt to kill the state’s emissions rules makes a kind of twisted sense given Trump’s policy priorities. His administration is clearly dedicated to the cause of making America polluted again, and in particular to ensuring that the planet cooks as quickly as possible. California is such a big player that it can effectively block part of that agenda, as shown by the willingness of automakers to abide by its emissions rules. Hence the attempt to strip away that power, never mind past rhetoric about states’ rights.
Declaring the homeless an environmental threat, however, aside from being almost surreal coming from an administration that in general loves pollution, is pure nonsense. It can be understood only as an attempt both to punish an anti-Trump state and to blacken its reputation.
What should you take away from Trump’s war on California?
First, it’s yet another illustration of the intellectual imperviousness of the modern right, which never, ever lets awkward facts disturb its preconceptions.
More ominously, the apparent weaponization of the Environmental Protection Agency is more evidence that Trump — whose party fundamentally doesn’t believe in democracy — is following the modern authoritarian playbook, in which every institution is corrupted, every function of government is perverted into a tool for rewarding friends and punishing enemies.
It’s an ugly story, and it’s scary, too.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.