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Column: Millions in California voted for Trump. This is deeper than white grievance politics

A Trump supporter holds a cardboard cutout of the president on Tuesday in Beverly Hills.
A Trump supporter holds a cardboard cutout of the president at an election night gathering in Beverly Hills.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Four years ago, the morning after election day, I climbed into an elevator in Sacramento a little hungover from alcohol and from absorbing the news that Donald Trump — as I had suspected — would be our next president.

A woman I had never met dashed in just as the doors were closing and suddenly burst into tears.

“I can’t believe he won!” she wailed, awkwardly reaching out for a hug. “How is this even possible?” All I could do was pat her back and mumble, “It’s OK,” even though I knew that it wouldn’t be.

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A majority of Californians believed then, as they did right up until election day this year, that Americans wouldn’t vote for a man who began his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.

As it turns out, more than 4 million people voted for him in California alone in 2016. And while we don’t yet know who won this presidential election, we do know that millions of Americans — including about 4 million of them in California — again voted for Trump, this time over Joe Biden. I get that California is the most populous state in the union, but still that’s a lot of red for a supposedly solidly blue state.

How is this even possible?

The story we tell ourselves is that it’s all about white grievance politics. And it is. There are a lot of white people who are irrationally angry because they are afraid of losing power when the country, like California, becomes majority minority in a few decades.

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We also tell ourselves that this desperate attempt to hold on to white supremacy won’t work. We point to the sorry state of California’s Republican Party — still smarting from its decision to take a hardline stance on immigration by backing Proposition 187 even as the state’s Latino population surged — as proof.

But I also can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the call of Trumpism.

Early exit polls show that, Trump, in addition to his usual base of white voters, also managed to nab a not insignificant number of Black, Latino, Asian American and even LGBTQ voters. He even made gains, though some of that could change as more votes from cities with large Black populations, such as Detroit and Philadelphia, are counted.

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Meanwhile, Biden, though predictably winning over most Americans of color, generally underperformed Hillary Clinton with those voters, according to some preliminary polling.

Of course, no demographic is a monolith and, for sure, some of these same people voted for Trump in 2016, too. But at least then there was a veneer of plausible deniability. The willfully ignorant could claim they were merely Trump curious.

But now we know for sure what Trump is. In 2020, these voters — in addition to a whole lot of white people — opted to reelect a man who held a news conference in which he called a bunch of tiki-torch-carrying racists “very fine people,” tossed innocent migrant children into cages and, out of spite, rolled back civil rights for transgender Americans.

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And these voters are real people. Real Californians. Real Angelenos. I spoke to several of them on Tuesday evening, while polls were closing on the East Coast, as they gathered for yet another Trump rally in Beverly Hills. The diversity of the crowd was as surprising as it was disturbing.

A man from Puerto Rico summed up his support as realizing he was “mad at the wrong white people.”

Asked about Trump’s blatantly racist statements, a Black woman dismissed it as “identity stuff” and said that people of all races “need to grow up and find productive ways to get past the divides and things have happened in our nation before Trump.”

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She supports him, she told me, because he’s a businessperson and knows how to handle the country more like a corporation than politics. Also, she likes that he’s about “unifying people,” and bringing people together on their strengths, not their weaknesses.
So many others had similar things to say — and their explanations weren’t chocked full of conspiracy theories either. Biden’s involvement in the 1994 crime bill came up a few times, as did the many Black and brown men who ended up in prison during Kamala Harris’ stint as San Francisco’s district attorney and then as California’s attorney general.

It’s easy for me to understand how a white person living in a homogenous rural town could have such praise for Trump. Yet it’s harder to wrap my brain around it coming from a Black person living in Los Angeles.

Indeed, how is this even possible?

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While I don’t know the answer, I do know that, we — both as a state and as a country — need to figure it out. Because if the old adage is true and where California goes, the country goes, I worry about what this allegiance to a strongman that I found in the heart of Beverly Hills means for the future of the country.

Latinos for Trump attend a pre-election rally in Beverly Hills on Oct. 31.
(Armando Garcia)

As Jean Guerrero, author of the biography “Hatemonger” about Trump advisor Stephen Miller, said during a recent panel discussion for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, some of Trump’s more extreme followers will have to be talked off the ledge of radicalization.

“If we’re going to come together as a nation,” she said during the panel discussion, “we have to understand how people fall into these rabbit holes.”

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Just because Trump might be moving out of the Oval Office — peacefully, if we’re lucky — doesn’t mean that his supporters are ready to move on, too. For sure, our political system will continue to become more liberal, as it has in California, because demographics are destiny. But what’s clear is that it’s going to take a while. The millions of Californians who voted for Trump again should serve as a reminder of that.

In the meantime, there must be some sort of reckoning, and it can’t be left to left-leaning Black and brown people to do it, while white liberals move on with their lives thinking we’ve won and all is well if Biden pulls through. Sticking our collective heads in the sand is not the way to heal the many divisions that are threatening to rip this country apart.

Because if we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that Biden was wrong about Trump being an aberration.

“It’s not who we are,” he has said again and again on the campaign trail. “It’s not what America is.”

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This is who we are as Americans, including far too many of us Californians.


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