Stockholm Syndrome in California

Residents of the Golden State are trapped in a toxic relationship with the dominant Democratic Party — And we keep rewarding and empowering our abusers

To the surprise of absolutely no one with a functional frontal cortex California Governor Gavin Newsom has survived recall. As recently as mid-August tracking polls suggested he was in trouble, with voters expressing wide discontent on issues ranging from ongoing issues like homelessness and crime to specific ones like his $30 billion (at least) bungling of the state’s unemployment agency during the COVID pandemic. He and the rest of the state’s political class have routinely, brazenly flouted public health diktats they impose on 40 million other people. The infamous incident at the French Laundry will rightly go down in political history as a literal let-them-eat-cake moment, the princling giving the v-sign to the hoi polloi from inside the banquet hall. Nevertheless he won the election handily by an almost 2-to1 margin.

The question is, why? Why were so many Californians so eager to retain Mr. Newsom’s services? Even his own campaign couldn’t come up with reasons voters should keep him, relying instead on vicious, often racist attacks on the leading Republican candidate, Larry Elder. Only in California could a self-made black Ivy League graduate, son of a janitor, and lawyer be considered the racist alternative to the whitest and most privileged governor since Pat Brown. Only in the alternative looking glass world of the Left Coast could liberals get away with calling a black man the “blackface of white supremacy.” Only here could a protestor in a gorilla mask (!!!) assault Mr. Elder without eliciting so much as an indignant tweet from the Democrat political establishment.

The answer is: We have Stockholm Syndrome. The political class rub our faces in it and we say thank you may we have another. California Democrats in the 2020s are like New England Catholics in the 1990s: Deep down they know something is terribly wrong with the institution in which they are so deeply invested, that is so central to their identities. They know that something monstrous, quite possibly evil, has been gestating for a long time. But they’re in too deep, the institution is essential to their very sense of self, their place in this chaotic world. Their neighbors and family members belong. Besides, they tell themselves, their parish – excuse us, congressional district – is the exception. Their local clergy – again, excuse us, elected officials – aren’t commodified cogs in an irredeemably broken system. They are the good guys, fighting the good fight.

Actually, considering the number of pedophiles and other sex predators that seem to populate the upper echelons of the Democrat Party and its fundraising apparatus these days, the analogy is perhaps a little too on the nose – but we digress.

Meanwhile, the less said of the state’s hapless Republicans the better. At least Democrats can tell themselves that their people are in charge of the hostage situation, which perhaps offers a glimmer of hope to the traumatized (the church will change its ways, we just have to stick it out and have faith). The GOP hasn’t mattered in state politics since it alienated the fastest growing voter block with Prop 187 in 1991. The party never recovered from that self-inflicted political gunshot wound. In fact Republicans have spent those decades seemingly trying to lose elections. It’s as if they want the Democrats to retain their statewide supermajorities. Over the last five years they’ve accomplished the impressively unlikely feat of rendering themselves even less attractive to liberal state voters by fully embracing Donald Trump – a man most Californians hate slightly more than Charles Manson. Meanwhile you’ll hear Republicans empathize with Newsom, because “his job is really hard.” Well, sure, hostage situations always are. Again, Stockholm is the only explanation.

Let them eat cake — or drink Savignon blanc, as the case may be

During the eighteen months (and counting) of the COVID crisis the hostage takers consistently reminded people in the starkest terms that there are two Californias. There is the California of the political class where maskless (overwhelmingly white) millionaires and billionaires fete themselves at fundraisers whilst masked (overwhelmingly black and brown) servants tend to their every whim and megrim.

Life is good in this California, in some ways better than ever. Establishment politicians and their fellow travelers in places like Silicon Valley and Hollywood send their own offspring to exclusive academae while consigning millions of (overwhelmingly black and brown) children to remote learning at some of the nation’s worst public schools. A California where Mr. Newsom dines mask-free at a restaurant where meals start at $350 a plate sans wine – with healthcare lobbyists no less – while enforcing diktats that keep 40 million people masked and at home. A California where San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Khuel, and countless others also have brazenly flouted those same orders at exclusive restaurants, spas, and vacation spots. It rankles yet more how many of these neo-Brahmans did not earn their privileged stations but were born into them.

Then there is the California in which 40 million actual people live, a state with some of the nation’s worst schools, roads, infrastructure, and social welfare systems. A state in which more than a million people experience homelessness every year (the official count of 161,840 statewide is the sort of too-precise number that government bureaucracies churn out). A state in which more than a quarter of a million children – children – experience homelessness every single year. A state in which hundreds of thousands more children are crippled every year by subpar public shooling.

In this California people often quite literally feel civilization crumbling beneath their feet. The sorts of catastrophes normally associated with third world countries – failing dams, collapsing roadways, unchecked natural disasters, human beings expiring in public places as if on public display – have become depressingly quotidian. In this California thousands of people die every year due to homelessness, poverty, and preventable disease.

These days in much of California it’s rare to make it through a day without seeing something truly horrific in the streets, on sidewalks, in parks.

….and this is the other.

“The plan produced by the Ten-Year Planning Council is both a blueprint and a bold step toward a new and revolutionary way to break the cycle of chronic homelessness….it’s a national disgrace.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, June 30, 2004

“When it comes to homelessness, as governor I actually want to get something done. I don’t want to talk about this for a decade.Governor Gavin Newsom, May 21, 2021

Establishment politicians like Gavin Newsom have been failing for decades. And still we continue voting for the same people. The silver lining in this recall was that voters clearly were voting against Mr. Elder, not for Mr. Newsom. Had the GOP mustered a more viable candidate the outcome may have been different. With every crime, with every atrocity in a homeless camp, with every wildfire, with every confusing, contradictory public health order more and more people perhaps break through their trauma. Whether that will ever be enough to change the state’s downward spiral remains to be seen. The fate of 40 million people in the world’s fifth largest economy depends on the answer.

Gavin Newsom has only himself to blame

A man who has been at the forefront of California politics for a quarter century remains unknown to much of the state — Never mastered retail politics — Establishment figure riddled with self-inflicted errors — Polls show that the more people hear from him, the less they approve of him

If there were a political supermarket, California Governor Gavin Newsom would be in the generics section. He has figured prominently in the state’s political class for a quarter century, since San Francisco mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the city’s Parking and Traffic Commission in 1996 and to a vacant Supervisor position a year later. Yet he remains virtually unknown to the vast majority of people in the state – not his name and face, of course, which are ubiquitous, but his convictions and politics, his vision. No one really knows what he stands for or believes in. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten incompatible answers. He’s a “business-friendly moderate” and a “progressive change maker,” which means he is neither and nothing. He is, literally, just a politician.

Politicians fall into one of two general categories, technocrats and evangelists. The former gain voters’ confidence through their (at least apparent) mastery of legislative and policy minutiae, a zest for rolling up their sleeves and spending long hours in the law library. Think Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Evangelicals lead from the heart with an alloy of personal conviction and near-religious fervor. The Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons of the world.

Again, Newsom is neither. Despite his infamously tedious PowerPoint based speeches he’s no wonk, and he lacks the natural empathy that makes someone like Barack Obama come off as downright magical in certain settings. There’s a reason a San Francisco Chronicle columnist once referred to the former president as a “lightworker.” No one would tag Newsom with that appellation. He’s just there, for no other reason than that he has been for so long. He isn’t a leader, he’s part of the furniture. And in 2021 a lot of Californians want more than a handsome demilune in Sacramento.

Wasted opportunities

It’s incongruous to refer to the rich, dashingly handsome chief executive of the world’s fifth largest economy as a wasted opportunity, but Newsom is just that. It’s hard to conjure a more charmed political career. His father, William A. Newsom III, was a state appellate court judge. More importantly, for three decades he was consigliere to the Getty family, in particular J. Paul Getty himself and later his son Gordon. When J. Paul Getty III was kidnapped in Italy in 1973 Judge Newsom was the bag man with the ransom money (delivered after the notoriously miserly J. Paul spent months negotiating the price down as his grandson was tortured, relenting only after the kidnappers cut off and mailed one of his ears to the tycoon, and even then only agreeing to pay an amount he could claim as a tax deduction – it’s worth keeping in mind that these are the sorts of people who formed Gavin’s worldview – and J. Paul certainly would have recognized and approved of his philandering over the years).

Starting when Gavin was a child the judge leveraged his position with the Gettys to craft his son’s business and political fortunes. Starting in middle school Newsom fils accompanied various Getty family members on traditional aristocratic grand tours of Europe, introducing him the cultural and political centers with which a future Establishment leader is expected to be at least conversant. A 2003 story from SF Weekly called “Bringing Up Baby Gavin” is well worth reading, if only for the portrait it paints of the world in which the embattled governor was raised:

Savvy Irish-American operator that he is, the judge continues to answer a reporter’s questions suavely and smoothly over lunch. His back goes up only when he discusses the San Francisco Chronicle‘s recent story detailing Getty loans to his 35-year-old son and Getty investments in Gavin’s “PlumpJack” businesses, including five restaurants, a Napa winery, a Squaw Valley hotel, and two retail clothing stores. The newspaper concluded that of the self-described entrepreneur’s 11 enterprises, Gordon Getty was the lead investor in 10. The article helped reinforce the view of some that the younger Newsom is a silver spooner who has grown wealthy not as a result of his own business moxie, but because of his connection to the ultrarich Gettys.

Suffice it to say, not many 35-year-olds have their own wineries, ski resorts, four star restaurants, and high end clothing boutiques. Judge Newsom’s financial and political savvy paid other dividends, and he wasn’t particularly discreet about the centrality of nepotism-by-proxy in his son’s nascent political and business careers. He boasted that Mayor Brown – one of California’s most legendary political operators in his own right – appointed Gavin to his first two political jobs based on their friendship. “Besides,” he told the Weekly, “they needed a straight white male on the board.”

Indeed, it is difficult to conjure a politician in modern times who ambled such a gilded path to power (soon to be former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo comes to mind, not the most flattering comparison). Along with the Gettys he enjoys the patronage of San Francisco establishment families like the Pritzkers, Fishers, and Trainas. The state and national Democratic parties have spent lavishly to secure his positions. In his first run for mayor of San Francisco the party spent more than $2 million and dispatched everyone from Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton to Bruce Springsteen to campaign on his behalf against a third tier Green Party candidate who at one point employed a “minister of propaganda” called h. brown.

Of course, politicians with abbreviated CVs and extensive financial statements have become commonplace not just in this country but around the world. Figures like Canada’s Justin Trudeau come to mind. However, in Newsom’s case that gilded but sparse resume may be coming back to haunt him.

A career marked by inevitability, invisibility, and unforced errors

Perhaps the fact that he entered politics was via nepotism and not by winning actual elections left an impression on Newsom that he was different, special. Despite his razor thin margin in his first real race against a political nobody, despite the fact that it took the biggest lights in his party and millions in outside spending to carry him across the finish line against that nobody, perhaps in the back of his mind he decided he didn’t really need the pesky voters in the first place. He certainly behaved accordingly.

Newsom quickly ensnared himself in multiple scandals and unforced errors, including an affair with his best friend’s and campaign manager’s wife, another affair with 19-year-old cocktail waitress to whom he was photographed handing a glass of wine at a taxpayer funded event (the girl’s name – you can’t make this stuff up – was Brittanie Mountz), a well-publicized and abbreviated stint in rehab he later claimed he “didn’t need,” and a near complete collapse of his relationship with city workers, especially the police and cable car operators. Local news was filled with stories about San Francisco’s crisis of confidence and downward spiral, with the Chronicle wondering “Where is Mayor McDreamy?” His first term was bereft of substance to the point that the paper observed “Searching ‘Gavin and Newsom and hair’ on Google reveals 86,900 articles. ‘Gavin and Newsom and Muni’ yields just 81,700” (then again that probably says as much about the media as the governor, but still).

As George W. Bush might have said, it was a heck of a first term. Meanwhile the city’s increasingly dystopian poverty, homelessness, addiction, and crime crises spiraled out of control throughout his mayorship even as the tech industry pushed living expenses to mind-numbing levels, presaging the statewide crises that metastasized on his watch as lieutenant governor and governor.

As Lieutenant Governor he was nearly invisible, a fact that has as much to do with the thankless nature of the job as with Newsom himself. Still, for eight years he seemed content to collect his taxpayer paychecks and spend his time building the necessary war chest and machinery to run for governor and, presumably, President. He didn’t make a name for himself, championed no causes, took no risks. It’s a safe bet that no one in California, including Newsom himself, can name a single accomplishment in those years, an unforced error of its own. Everyone knew he was going to run for governor, mostly just because he was there, and he was content to bide his time in the wings.

As Governor, well, choose a scandal de jure: His $30 billion EDD fiasco, his billion dollar deal for Chinese-manufactured coronavirus masks with a company that had been in existence for less than two weeks, his lies about increasing the state’s woeful wildfire prevention and fighting budget as conflagrations engulf the northern part of the state, allegations of another affair with a staffer, his Getty-supported winery receiving nearly a million dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, and of course the infamous French Laundry incident.

The inevitable consequence of a consequence-free life.

Just this week, with millions of Californians still staring down the barrels of unemployment or reduced hours, decreased government assistance, and fast expiring eviction moratoriums, comes news that Newsom and his wife (beg pardon, “First Partner”) quietly sold their Marin County compound last month in an off-market transaction for a cool $6 million, a $4.5 million profit over barely two years. No word yet on the couple’s charitable donations over that period. At a certain point he’s just rubbing people’s faces in it. The truly sad part is, he doesn’t seem to realize it.

Lashing out at the wrong people

As the race tightens Newsom’s camp has run increasingly aggressive attack ads against the recall itself, and anyone who might even be possibly thinking about voting “YES.” It’s become all but impossible to avoid TV, radio, and online ads decrying “Trump Republicans” and the “Republican recall.” Last week a radio ad compared supporters of the recall to “January 6 insurrectionists.” This week the ads reached a hysterical pitch, calling the recall a “matter of life and death.”

It is a desperate politician who literally warns his constituents that they could perish if they commit the mortal sin of voting against him.

It’s also a curious tack when you consider that recall organizers working on a shoestring secured more than 2.1 million signatures in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 and a substantial proportion of independents swing liberal. It’s theoretically possible that only Republicans signed the petition (which would require a good proportion of the entire GOP population in the state) but it’s highly unlikely. Moreover, given that even a strong majority of Republicans swiftly condemned the riots in the capitol, it’s a safe bet that “January 6 insurrectionists” aren’t exactly a big cohort driving a recall in California. On the other hand, the ad risks alienating people still on the fence, the way Joe Biden’s “you ain’t Black” remark alienated moderate Black voters.

The administration’s closing strategy is also a perfect emblem of Gavin Newsom’s political career: As Establishment as they come, deaf and dumb to what actual human beings think and feel. That most voters, particularly in California, have moved on from Donald Trump is lost on his camp. The Donald was political gold for Democrats for more than four years, none less than Gavin Newsom. That’s a tough habit to break, and he doesn’t seem any more inclined to go to political rehab than he was to kick the sauce 15 years ago. He and his team seem oblivious to the fact that outside the Sacramento-Bay Area bubble people are far more concerned about wildfires, COVID-19, homelessness, crime, drought, and the state’s overall economic health after 18 months of economic upheaval. All of which are huge problems for Newsom: With the exception of the surprisingly – shockingly, when you think about it – robust economy, which has little to do with him, he earns low marks on the key issues. His margin of error is gone: One more major wildfire, one more hideous crime, one more well-intended but poorly executed COVID-19 mandate, one more let-them-eat-cake moment could well be the tipping point.

All of which helps explain why those increasingly strident attacks are decreasingly effective. Despite outspending recall proponents by a nearly 10-to-1 margin he has slipped in the polls, by a lot. According to the moving average of polls from fivethirtyeight.com, in just the last five weeks the recall swung from an 11% advantage for Newsom to a statistical dead heat. That is not the trend line anyone wants to ride into an election.

The above chart ought to cause cold sweats and fitful nights for his staff. It seems that the more Californians hear from and learn about Gavin Newsom, the less they like him. Many are listening to him for the very first time, and many don’t seem to like what they hear.

At the end of the day, of course, this is California. Democrats have indicated they’re willing to spend half a billion dollars to keep Newsom in the governor’s mansion for another 18 months (fun with math: That works out to almost exactly $1 million per day for the rest of his term, just to keep a warm Democrat in the capitol. Imagine what could be done with that kind of money for, say, the homeless crisis). If for no other reason than cold, hard cash it remains more likely than not that he will survive the September 14 recall election and remain governor of the world’s fifth largest economy.

Yet after 25 years of entitlement and privilege, after the French Laundry “let them eat cake” moment, after innumerable personal and political scandals compared to even a few months ago his position is far less secure. If he does ultimately lose, he will have plenty of time to reflect on what happened.

It will be one tough look in the mirror for the erstwhile Mayor McDreamy, who will have only himself to blame.

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