Column: In Newport Beach, Trump is passing for Reagan

President Donald Trump arrives in the rain at Los Angeles International Airport on March 13.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Can you guess which Southern California city has a John Wayne Day on the birthday of the late actor and staunch conservative?

Clue: It’s the same city that has a statue of former President Ronald Reagan.

You’re disqualified if you live in Newport Beach, which I visited Tuesday to test the water on how locals feel about President Trump. The president had just arrived at the Mexican border to inspect the prototypes for his big beautiful wall, and he wasn’t on the ground long before he poked a stick in California Gov. Jerry Brown’s eye.

“I think Governor Brown has done a very poor job running California,” said Trump, who made a crack about high taxes and said once again that we are “totally out of control” here.


I can think of a dozen things I’d like to say about Trump judging anyone else’s job performance, but I’m not going to. California literally rained on Trump’s parade Tuesday, relieving me of the need to mark turf.

Instead, I’m going to remind myself that while almost 9 million Californians voted for Hillary Clinton in a blowout, nearly 4.5 million voted for Trump. In Newport Beach, Trump had dissenters. But in most neighborhoods of the affluent community, Trump prevailed by a comfortable margin, even though Clinton won Orange County — which is much bluer than it once was — and became the first Democrat to do so since the Great Depression.

On Balboa Island, under skies as gray as the shrunken California Republican Party, I found a 94-year-old gent strolling near the water. Sy Kimball said he once owned a convalescent home where John Wayne’s mother was a resident.

Reagan was a good man, Kimball said.

I asked what he thought Reagan would make of Trump, and Kimball didn’t have to think for long.

“Trump’s more like Reagan than any president we’ve had,” said Kimball, who told me exactly what he likes about the man who currently calls the White House home.

“If he says he’s going to do it, he’ll do it,” he said.

Well, that’s not true. But Kimball was such a genial guy, I wasn’t going to argue with him.

It’s gotta be tough for older Californians to adapt to the kind of changes that have transformed the state. Between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won all but one presidential election. And we used to have Republican governors and statewide office holders rather than Democratic domination, so on tough issues, there was a healthy back and forth.

We’re too polarized now, with extreme and inflexible views on both sides of the aisle. President Reagan, for instance, signed a bill that made nearly 3 million illegal immigrants eligible for amnesty, and as governor, he signed an abortion rights bill.

Fox News would ridicule and destroy a man like that.

So let me repeat the question, this time for Patti Stern, president of the Newport Harbor Republican Women:

What would Reagan make of Trump?

“I have no idea, and it’s a very different country,” said Stern.

She’s right about that. The country is much more diverse, for one thing, and Trump used that as a wedge from the first day of his campaign.

Immigration is the “primary topic of discussion this month,” said the February newsletter for Stern’s group. Stern, in her message to members, advocated for Trump’s wall and his immigration policies.

“If we elect Republican officials who refuse to acquiesce to the Democrats’ kowtowing to their base, many of whom are here illegally and are breaking our laws, it will slow down illegal crossings,” Stern wrote.

That same newsletter carried a warning about a report that “millennials are increasingly turning away from capitalism and toward socialism — and even communism as a viable alternative.”

Hey, it’s Trump who seems to be in love with Vladimir Putin. Why no mention of that?

On March 22, the Republican Women will host a visit from Juanita Broaddrick, who has alleged that President Bill Clinton raped her in 1977, when he was Arkansas attorney general.

If it’s true, there’s no defending Clinton.

But what does Stern have to say about allegations against Trump, who was heard on tape talking about how he grabs women, and who has given rise to the career of stripper Stormy Daniels, who says they had an affair?

“I’m not going to be discussing that,” said Stern.

Getting back to immigration for a moment, I spotted three landscapers working in a Balboa Island yard and asked the crew chief what he thought about Trump’s visit.

“It’s not good,” he said, telling me that he and the other two are all undocumented, and the idea of Trump being in the state was a little unsettling.

He didn’t want to get in trouble with his boss, but he said he and his buddies get $11 an hour, or $16 if they drive the company truck. Legal residents make a few dollars an hour more, but complaining means losing your job.

California has exploited immigrant labor throughout its history, which is why immigration policy operates on a wink and a nod. Too many people benefit from it, including agri-business, the hospitality industry and homeowners who like cheap goods and low wages, otherwise we would have stopped sending mixed messages long ago.

A couple of miles away, I stopped at a house with an American flag and a sign that said “Buy American.” I called to see if anyone was home, but there was no answer. A woman named Nancy came by, walking her dog, and when I told her about the landscapers I’d spoken to, she agreed that immigration can be complicated.

That’s one reason she and her husband are big supporters. It’s an issue crying out for someone to take charge.

Yes, she said, she thinks Trump had an affair with Stormy Daniels and is trying to cover it up, and yes he says stupid things, and yes he has “issues of moral character.”

But she still likes what she sees.

“As taxpayers, we feel like our economy is going down,” she said, which is a curious argument from a physical therapist married to a physician and living near the beach in one of the most expensive ZIP Codes in California.

“So many people are here that aren’t part of the system. They get free schooling, they get free food.… Somebody has to stand up to them….

“That’s basically why we’re Trump supporters. We feel like everybody should have to pay their taxes and abide by the law, and it’s not fair that our kids, when they apply to schools … a white male has no prayer of getting into any California school because it’s all illegals who get first dibs, and then it’s out-of-state students.”

Some readers, I’m sure, will cheer those sentiments.

For those who were depressed by them, I met a woman in her 20s two blocks away. She said she and the young people she knows, for the most part, don’t hold those views.

The past can’t hold.

The future is theirs.