The California Roots of Trumpism
California Governor Pete Wilson wasn’t backing down. After speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, on November 19, 1994, he was immediately pressed to respond to charges of racism over a ballot initiative the state had passed days earlier to block public services for immigrants without documentation. Those kinds of suggestions, the governor snapped, are “insulting to the people of California who voted for it who are neither racists nor immigrant bashers.” The Republican also used the occasion to double down on his immigration crusade, which had defined his race for re-election earlier that year. “I will do all that I can to advance the cause of ending illegal immigration.”
Twenty-two years later, another Republican is making “illegals” the centerpiece of his campaign, a controversial gambit that Donald Trump hopes will win him the White House. But as Wilson and California’s Republicans discovered, it could lose them not just Latinos but a generation of voters for elections to come.
“Trump’s anti-immigrant tactics are straight out of Pete Wilson’s playbook in 1994,” says Larry Sheingold, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant in California. In both cases, the electorate is awash in economic angst—California faced a paralyzing financial crisis in the early ’90s; now the entire country is struggling to recover from another—and enraged by a seeming lack of response from a government that has been deadlocked for years. Like United States voters today, California’s were older and whiter than the population as a whole and responded to Wilson’s argument that the state’s budget woes required a get-tough approach to immigrants without documentation, whom he blamed for draining state resources. Proposition 187, which local activists successfully placed on the ballot in May 1994, proposed blocking those immigrants from receiving public services like education and health care. It would become the animating force of the election that fall, winning handily in November, and friends and foes alike agree Wilson wouldn’t have won re-election had he not ridden that same political wave. But it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Wilson’s party in California.