In red California, Trump’s lies about a rigged election echo among recall supporters
Looking to oust the governor? Ed Brown has just the right merch for you.
Camouflage Recall Newsom hats and Recall Newsom masks. He’s got Recall Newsom yard signs. A stack of Recall Newsom pamphlets.
But just days before California voters decide whether to push Democrat Gavin Newsom from office, the trailer off Golden Chain Highway was mostly a shrine to former President Trump.
“As far as I’m concerned, Trump is the president,” said Brown, 67.
And as for the recall election?
“They’ll probably do something to cheat,” he said of Newsom’s supporters, adding that he will vote for Larry Elder because “he’s more like Trump; he’s for the people.”
The Republican-backed recall election could not be more consequential for California. Set amid a deadly wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with record-breaking wildfires and a relentless drought drying fields and faucets, it gives the GOP its best shot in over a decade at governing the nation’s most populous state.
And if there’s a symbolic heart of recall mania, it may be here in Amador County in the Sierra foothills, where about 1 in 5 registered voters signed petitions to give Newsom the boot. That’s the highest concentration in California.
The most fervent support for the recall has come from Northern California, where rural conservatives say that their voices are drowned out in Sacramento by urban Democrats and that they would be better off seceding to form their own state called Jefferson.
And yet, in many ways, this election is still about a man named Donald J. Trump.
Conservatives talk about the recall effort through the lens of Trump’s lies that he won the 2020 election. By and large, they refuse to cast their ballots by mail, believing his false claims that mail-in voting leads to rampant voter fraud. If Newsom prevails, many won’t trust the results — just as they didn’t after Trump lost.
In Newsom, they have found an avatar for the Democratic Party and everything they hate about it — a political entity in opposition to many of the things they hold dear, including (and sometimes especially) Trump.
“In many ways, the recall was never really about Gavin Newsom in particular,” said Kim Nalder, a political science professor at Cal State Sacramento.
Rather, she said, recall supporters are fueled by a “laundry list of complaints that Republicans had about liberals.”
“If you’re a Republican, especially a Trump-supporting Republican, in California, it’s a rough time in state politics,” Nalder said. “You feel really disenfranchised, and [if] you combine that with the high anxiety we all have about the fires and the pandemic and homelessness, you get a high level of motivation to do something about it.”
The effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom resonates in conservative Northern California, which has long been skeptical of leadership in Sacramento.
Despite the angry fervor of recall supporters — which has led Newsom’s allies to openly worry that an enthusiasm gap would spell his political demise — the effort’s chances don’t look as good as they once did. Recent polling shows that 58% of likely voters oppose the recall, compared with 39% who support it.
Vince Destigter, chairman of the Amador County Republican Party, said the recall has channeled rural voters’ deep-seated anger at the state’s liberal politicians and at institutions such as public schools and the news media, which they claim give them the short shrift.
“We have to be real sure that you understand: We don’t like your newspaper,” Destigter told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a diner in Jackson last week. He said he screams at the news: “Come on, you guys have no concept of what we do up here!”
Destigter, 79, of Pioneer said people here are an independent lot who “don’t like the government running our lives.”
That became especially clear during the pandemic. Newsom, he said, abused his power in shutting down schools and businesses and mandating facial coverings.
In public, masks are a rare sight in Amador County, which had more patients hospitalized with COVID-19 last month than at any other point in the pandemic.
Destigter said he is vaccinated, but like most conservatives here, he believes people have a right to decline the shot. A friend, he added, plans to quit his job as a delivery driver because he refuses to get inoculated and will not be allowed in a nursing home to deliver oxygen.
As Destigter spoke, TVs in the diner showed long lines of evacuees fleeing nearby South Lake Tahoe as the Caldor fire burned. The crowded room got quiet.
Recall supporters, Destigter said, blame Democrats for forest management policies that they believe have made wildfires more destructive.
“There are many — I’m sorry, but they’re liberals — they don’t believe in cutting trees,” he said.
Destigter voted for Elder and dropped his ballot off at a drop box instead of mailing it.
“We’re very fussy about that,” he said. “We believe that there were a lot of shenanigans done with the voting” in the presidential election.
The researchers want California officials to commit to a sweeping post-election review of the recall results, an examination that would involve checking the marks made on millions of ballots.
In El Dorado County — a majority-Republican county that also had one of the highest concentrations of people signing recall petitions — election officials have been scrambling to reach Caldor fire evacuees.
Bill O’Neill, the county’s registrar of voters, said ballots were mailed out the day the first evacuations were ordered.
“Quite honestly, we looked at each other and went: ‘Well, the ballots mailed out today. The last thing on anybody’s mind is going to be voting,’” he said. “But our phones have been ringing off the hook. People want to know how to vote even though they’re displaced. ... They are super committed to it.”
The county election staff borrowed a cargo van and created a “self-contained mobile voting center” complete with mobile ballot printing devices and secured communication systems to ensure, in real time, that voters were registered and that they had not already turned in a ballot.
They drove around to places where evacuees were camping, including the sheriff’s personal ranch, a church, an RV resort and the Walmart parking lot in Placerville.
“They’re dealing with enough,” O’Neill said. “Voting should not be an additional pressure for them.”
Last week, two men, both self-described conservative Republicans, walked past a ballot drop box and carried their votes into the registrar’s office in Placerville. The men, who declined to give their names, wanted to hand-deliver the ballots because they did not trust mail-in voting.
“I think our elections are rigged,” said one, a 69-year-old man in a Tractor Supply hat.
In the Walmart parking lot, Caldor fire evacuee Randall Skipper, like several others, had a sign affixed to his RV that read: RECALL NEWSOM / SAVE CALIFORNIA.
He said he wished he could put his finger on why he disliked Newsom so much. He thinks the governor is pompous and hypocritical — a feeling perfectly encapsulated by the governor’s infamous maskless outing at the upscale French Laundry restaurant during the winter coronavirus surge.
“After the recall, maybe he can get a job as a dishwasher at the French Laundry. If he’s qualified,” joked Skipper, 58, of Camino.
His wife, Robin, said she thinks Newsom has mishandled water policy, especially amid the drought, and she was angry that his administration released thousands of inmates, including some serving time for violent offenses, during the pandemic.
“I just think he’s a snake-oil salesman,” she said. “And he’s a Democrat.”
Back at the Trump trailer in Sutter Creek, Ed Brown said customers worry that the state will shut down again because of the coronavirus’ Delta variant, that in-person voting will not be allowed and that people will be forced to vote by mail.
Among Larry Elder’s fans are longtime listeners of his radio show — they call themselves Elderados — and people who hope he can change something they say is in desperate need of saving: The state of California.
The trailer sells Trump 2020 T-shirts that were sent back to the printer after the election to add the word “FRAUD.” It also sells Confederate flags, signs that say “libtard-free zone” and $5 laminated cards that read: “White Privilege Card. Member Since BIRTH / Good Thru DEATH.”
As Brown spoke, a woman came in, asking if he sold signs she could use at an anti-vaccine protest.
“I don’t have any signs like that,” he said.
(As a matter of fact, he carries his laminated COVID-19 vaccine card in his wallet.)
“Maybe some that say just ‘Freedom'?” the woman asked.
“The only signs that I have now are Recall Newsom,” he replied.
Brown, who wore a T-shirt depicting an assault rifle, said people come into the trailer these days just mad. At rising crime and illegal immigration. At gas prices and Black Lives Matter and the pandemic.
He figures the recall has become a catchall for that fury.
“I think because of everything going on, not only with this state but with the country, people are getting fed up with the whole Democratic Party,” he said. “Newsom is taking California down.”
Or as one of the shirts he sells, with the year 2020 crossed out, declares: “Trump 2024.”
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