In Clash Between California and Trump, It’s One America Versus Another

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The clash between California and Mr. Trump and his supporters — between one America and another — began the morning after he won the presidency, when Kevin de León, the State Senate leader, and his counterpart in the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, said they “woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land.”

Since then the fight has metastasized into what could be the greatest contest over values between a White House and a state since the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government moved to end segregation and expand civil rights.

Back then, of course, the ideologies and values at issue were reversed, as conservative Southerners, under the banner of states’ rights, fought violently to uphold white supremacy. In these times it is liberal California making the case for states’ rights, traditionally a Republican position.

“It seems like every day brings a new point of contention between two very different types of leadership,” said Jim Newton, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

And it does not end there: New laws that went into effect on Jan. 1 in California raised the minimum wage, allowed parents to withhold gender on birth certificates and strengthened what were already some of the toughest gun laws in the country by restricting ammunition sales and assault weapons, and barring school officials from carrying concealed weapons at work. Taken together, the measures are the surest signs yet of how California is setting itself apart from Washington — and many parts of America, too.

Mr. de León, along with almost the entire leadership of California, has been a bulwark against the Trump administration. Mr. de León introduced the so-called sanctuary state legislation — the California Values Act — that restricts state authorities from cooperating with federal immigration agents, and places limits on agents entering schools, churches, hospitals or courthouses to detain undocumented immigrants. The law went into effect Jan. 1, provoking a prankster — presumably a Trump supporter — to put up those highway signs, and setting off a war of words between California and the administration.

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A protest in Los Angeles against the election of President Trump in November 2016.

Credit
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The state should “hold on tight,” said Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in an interview on Fox News last week.

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“They are about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers,” he said. “If the politicians in California don’t want to protect their communities, then ICE will.”

Mr. Homan went on to assail politicians who support the sanctuary policy, suggesting they should be arrested.

Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, California’s capital, reacted angrily on Wednesday, saying on Twitter that “they certainly know where to find me.”

Also this week, Mr. de León introduced legislation to limit the impact of the new tax bill on Californians by essentially allowing residents to pay their state taxes in the form of a charitable contribution, which could then be deducted when filing federal income tax.

Mr. de León also said he was working with Eric H. Holder Jr., an attorney general under President Barack Obama, to push back against attempts to enforce federal marijuana law, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he would allow federal prosecutors to do.

“Whether Jeff Sessions likes cannabis is not the question,” Mr. de León said. “The people of California voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana for recreational use.”

For his part, Mr. Trump is the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to not take a trip to California in his first calendar year in office, not even to visit his golf course in Rancho Palos Verdes, south of Los Angeles, or a mansion he owns in Beverly Hills, or to tour the vast damage left in the wake of a series of wildfires. By contrast, he has made multiple trips to other states hit by natural disasters, including Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In California, every state leader is a Democrat, including the governor and the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly. Of the state’s 53 members in Congress, only 14 are Republicans, and analysts believe several of them are in jeopardy of losing their seats to Democrats in next year’s midterm elections because of opposition in California to Mr. Trump.

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Immigration advocates at a Los Angeles City Council meeting in March, held to discuss the Trump administration’s threats to cut funding for the city and other so-called sanctuary jurisdictions for undocumented immigrants.

Credit
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Still, not every Californian is lining up to join the opposition. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority leader, has stood firm with the president, was a strong supporter of the tax bill, and has said he believes there is still an opportunity for Democrats and the administration to come together, particularly on immigration. In an interview with Fox News on Friday, he said, “I think there is a plan for securing the border, for dealing with chain migration.” He added, “I think there is a common ground that both sides can get to.”

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But California’s diversity — 40 percent Latino, and with an estimated 2.3 million undocumented workers, according to a Pew Research Center survey — is regarded by many people here as a powerful counternarrative to the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies and the ugly racial incidents and outbursts of white supremacy that have surfaced during his presidency in places like Charlottesville, Va.

Beyond demographics and politics, charting its own course is part of the identity of California. “We are the frontier,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “Beyond us, there’s nothing but ocean.”

California is not the only liberal state standing up to the Trump administration. But as the most populous state, with close to 40 million people — if it were a country it would be the world’s sixth largest economy, sandwiched between Britain and France — California has been energized in the age of Trump to take the lead in opposing what many here believe is a depressing reversal of American progress.

“California has distinguished itself from the federal government for a long time,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a political consultant who has worked for Gov. Jerry Brown, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Kamala Harris. “Certainly Arnold spent a lot of time talking about California as almost a nation-state. And many Californians feel that way.”

She continued, “For Californians and California there’s always this concept of a Golden State, a model of what a state can be and achieve.” These days, with the country roiled by a resurgence in white supremacy and nasty fights over immigration and diversity, essentially a battle over American identity, she said, “there are sharp distinctions that many Californians are drawing between us and them.”

Those distinctions may become sharper, as a generational shift in California Democratic politics, driven by leaders like Mr. de León, could tilt the state further to the left. Mr. de León, 51, is mounting a primary challenge to Senator Dianne Feinstein, 84, by positioning himself more to the left — and more stridently opposed to the president — than his rival.

Ordinary Californians have found other ways to push back.

One of them is Andrew Sturm, a graduate student in visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Last year, Mr. Sturm was with a friend in Tijuana, Mexico, at a spot near the border where prototypes of Mr. Trump’s planned wall had been positioned.

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“We were thinking, man, these things look like drive-in movie screens,” he said. “We were thinking about how we could do something with them.”

The result was a display of political art, in the form of light. One evening this fall at dusk, Mr. Sturm and other activists, working from the Mexican side of the border, erected theater lights and used stencils to project images onto the prototypes — of a ladder, of the Statue of Liberty.

“I felt kind of sick as a U.S. citizen,” he said, referring to Mr. Trump’s immigration policies. “I didn’t want folks in Mexico to think this is how we all feel.”

Jennifer Medina contributed reporting.

Follow Tim Arango on Twitter: @tarangonyt

A version of this article appears in print on January 7, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: One America Fights Another As Rift Widens.


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