Column: Devin Nunes’ festival of freedom? It’s more like a carnival of Republican grievances

A sign behind a protective barrier has a large picture of Nunes and his name in capital letters.
Devin Nunes signs were ubiquitous on Highway 99 in Central California in February 2020.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Does anybody hate California quite as much as Trump-supporting Republicans hate California?

On Saturday, Devin Nunes, the Central Valley congressman who has not held an open town hall meeting for constituents in more than a decade, hosted about 1,700 paying supporters at the first of what he hopes will be an annual event, the Devin Nunes Freedom Festival.

The two-hour-plus gathering at Tulare’s International Agri-Center, featuring a glitchy video appearance by Donald Trump Jr., was emblematic of the unserious turn taken by the Republican Party in the wake of President Trump’s stinging defeat in November.

It was less a celebration of freedom than a recitation of now-familiar right-wing political and cultural grievances.


In the current Republican narrative, the country is descending into a hell pit of Venezuela-style socialism, led by Democrats intent on destroying the American way of life and the tech companies that abet them.

Former California Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon, a panelist who interviewed Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, said: “I’m from San Francisco, and I was telling my husband it’s great to be in America for a change.”

Garcia, who replaced Democrat Katie Hill in a special election last year: “I started this journey to run for office so that, frankly, our nation didn’t turn into what California has become.”

Hair salon owner Erica Kious, who has become a celebrity in right-wing circles after releasing a video of a maskless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her San Francisco salon last September: “I was always afraid an earthquake would happen and my salon would tumble down. I never thought that extreme leftist politics would take it down.”

And, of course, Nunes himself: “Here in the valley, I like to say that we are an oasis of practicality and we’re surrounded by socialist absurdity.”

Unmentioned by Nunes: In March, according to the state Employment Development Department, Tulare County’s unemployment rate was 11.6%, compared with the overall statewide rate of 8.3%. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 20% of Tulare County residents live below the poverty line, while less than 10% of San Franciscans are considered impoverished.


Nunes, like many valley farmers, has made a career of nursing outrage over the fact that the state and federal governments have worked to balance the water needs of farmers with the health of our deltas and fisheries and the needs of city dwellers.

Nothing should surprise us in these last few days of the Trump administration.

Jan. 5, 2021

“Here in the valley,” said Nunes, “socialists accuse us of endangering the environment by asking for an adequate water supply. …You never see them giving up their water to save these so-called endangered fish.” (In fact you do, at least indirectly. In our last drought cycle, most cities imposed strict water limits on residential customers, who let their lawns go brown and shortened their showers. In short, most everyone was asked to sacrifice.)

Nunes, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, remains obsessed with debunking special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians during the 2016 presidential election. Though Mueller concluded that Russia’s foreign intelligence service attacked the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign with the goal of getting Trump elected, Nunes insists it was Democrats who colluded with Russia.

You could discount all that as typical political rhetoric, red meat tossed to the true believers still stung by Trump’s outsize loss to Joe Biden and feeling out of step with their deep blue state, where no Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2006.

But as I watched virtually, there was almost no discussion of actual policy, no ideas about how to solve our state’s shameful homelessness problem and the affordable housing crisis, or how to work together to defeat the pandemic or deal with the systemic racism that results in so many tragic collisions between police and people of color.

Instead, Nunes made jokes: “There’s 35% of us in the state who are conservative, only 25% of us are socialists. So that leaves 40%. Now, I know what you are thinking: The 40% are the homeless people walking around, dead men walking, zombies that we see around our streets.” (I’m not sure where he’s getting his figures; according to a February report by the California secretary of state, 46.2% of registered voters are Democrats, 24.1% are Republicans and 23.7% stated no party preference.)

Perhaps the most concerning refrain at the Freedom Festival was the denial around the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, where hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the building as Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“They always accuse us of being violent rioters,” said Nunes, “yet it’s Antifa, BLM and other left-wing shock troops that … assault Republicans, conservatives and just innocent Americans. They attack police officers and they lay siege to federal buildings.”

I swear to God, he said it with a straight face.

A short time later onstage, conservative filmmaker Amanda Milius implied that the events of Jan. 6, so thoroughly documented in photos, videos and criminal indictments, were part of “a nationwide hoax.”

And her co-panelist Kash Patel, a former Trump administration official who called Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff “that dime-store dumbass,” insisted that “out of 400 people arrested” in connection with the Capitol attacks, “only two had loose links to President Trump or affiliated organizations.”

Actually, 458 people have been arrested so far, and all of them had “links” to Trump, given they’d stormed the Capitol out of the false belief that he had won the election.

If trashing the state is popular with California’s far right, so be it. Calling homeless people zombies and joking that San Francisco is not America may get a fleeting laugh or two. But Californians are hungry for solutions, not insults. Republicans interested in reversing the party’s decline in California forget that at their peril.