Heresies tend to thrive on the periphery of a regime rather than in the halls of power. Early Christianity came to center itself around the city of Rome, but major challenges to orthodoxy, like the Gnosticism of Roman Egypt and Nestorianism of Assyria, developed along the Empire’s neglected fringes. Provinces farther away from the imperial capital were more likely to suffer from administrative neglect, and relationships with the Church grew more attenuated over time. In the twilight years of Rome—at the height of its decadence—it was the Arian heresy, with roots in Alexandria, that was championed by the Goths and Vandals as they overran the Western Empire.
Since William F. Buckley’s rise to prominence, the intellectual capital of the American right has lain along the Washington-New York axis, home to a sprawling complex of journals and think tanks that define and develop conservative orthodoxy. This orthodoxy has faced its share of heresies over the past generation, but the heretics usually found support in corners of the East Coast intellectual infrastructure. The 1990s’ paleo-conservatives carved out an outlet in The American Conservative; the post-Iraq War libertarians were welcomed in think tanks like Cato and the broader Koch network; Tea Party-friendly writers and scholars gradually became integrated into mainstream outlets such as National Review.
Unlike these earlier heresies, Trumpism has thoroughly laid waste to the establishment GOP’s defenses, and it has done so overwhelmingly through the force of populist media, like Twitter, Facebook, talk radio, Fox News, and lowbrow blogs. Support for the Republican nominee among the legions of credentialed writers and scholars in the capital of right-wing intelligentsia is sparse (though not nonexistent). And Trumpism certainly has no institutional base in posh Washington think tanks or erudite New York City editorial boards.
Over the course of this tumultuous election year, however, a Trump-friendly intellectual base has come into focus—far from the Atlantic Coast, in a territory so thoroughly in the grips of liberal politics that it might be said to be seceding from the Washington-New York conservative empire altogether: the State of California.
Who are the Golden State thinkers who have helped build a sophisticated case for the proudly unsophisticated presidential candidate? In the northern half of the state, there’s Victor Davis Hanson, the celebrated Hoover Institution classicist who has favorably described Trump as a “D-11 bulldozer blade” against a bankrupt Acela establishment, and Ron Unz, an idiosyncratic Bay Area political activist and entrepreneur who publishes the Unz Review, a Trump-friendly, highbrow online journal with a devoted following.
Curtis Yarvin, the software developer and founding blogger of “neoreactionary” thought—an anti-democratic ideology popular among a slice of Silicon Valley engineers—also lives in the Bay Area. Though Yarvin’s writings are more philosophical than political and he has never explicitly given Trump his stamp of approval, he is widely cited on the pro-Trump alt-right. In particular, he has been associated with Peter Thiel, the billionaire San Francisco author, entrepreneur, and lapsed libertarian granted a prime-time speaking slot at the GOP convention in Cleveland.
Venturing hundreds of miles down the Pacific Coast, past the Monterey Bay and across the San Gabriel Mountains, there’s Steve Sailer, a controversial, widely read right-wing blogger based in Los Angeles known for pioneering the concept of “human biodiversity”—another pillar of the alt-right—and Mickey Kaus, the former New Republic writer and author-turned-anti-immigration wonk who started boosting the eventual nominee on his data-heavy blog early in the primaries.
Finally, the Claremont Institute—a conservative think tank also headquartered in Los Angeles County—brings the most brainpower and organizational heft to the pro-Trump intellectual project. “Publius Decius Mus,” a pseudonymous writer for the Claremont Review of Books, made waves last month with a scorched-earth screed (“The Flight 93 Election”) in defense of the candidate and against the alleged impotence of New York-Washington conservative thought leaders in the face of the country’s relentless leftward march. The California publication followed up on this lengthy treatise with another piece, “After the Republic,” in which international relations scholar Angelo Codevilla pronounces the American democratic experiment dead and identifies the selection of a post-republican emperor as the sole remaining task for principled conservatives in 2016. A recently published list of pro-Trump intellectuals disproportionately consisted of signatories who were either Claremont scholars or alumni of Claremont Graduate University.
We don’t know how Trump would have performed in the Golden State primary; the nomination was his before June. Pre-election polls, however, showed him outperforming Cruz and Kasich there, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Southern California megalopolis (Cruz was leading in the more rural Central Valley). So California may or may not have been unusual electorally, but its over-representation in the pro-Trump intellectual world is unmistakable. What explains the distinctive temptation of highbrow reaction along the deep-blue lower Pacific Coast?
There are a number of partial answers to this question. Park MacDougald has perceptively chronicled the appeal of neoreaction in pockets of the Bay Area tech world, describing it as a “heretical offshoot of Valley nerd culture,” complete with utopian futurism, glorification of the all-powerful “CEO,” and an emphasis on “disruption.” For Thiel in particular, Trump’s appeal seems to derive from his (supposed) potential to jolt a decrepit and bureaucratic managerial system out of its decadent status quo, much as a new start-up might unleash a wave of dynamism in a stagnant commercial market.
Jeet Heer has similarly tried to address the Claremont Institute’s affinity for Trump by unpacking its intellectual lineage. Like many conservative thinkers found at the American Enterprise Institute or Harvard University’s Department of Government, Claremont scholars are disciples of the German-American philosopher Leo Strauss. But the “West Coast Straussians” at Claremont have introduced esoteric variations on the philosophy of “East Coast Straussians,” including a particular antipathy toward Woodrow Wilson’s managerial progressivism and an affinity for revolutionary political change forged in periods of conflict and clash. Heer sees in the West Coast Straussian tradition an affinity for outright regime change that has attached itself to Donald Trump’s radicalism.
Such abstract analyses make more sense when overlain with concrete historical details—beginning with the fact that authoritarian-style right-wing politics are not new to the Golden State, despite its reputation as an incubator for left-wing ideas. Before Senator Joe McCarthy got his start in Washington, the California State Senate in 1949 held hearings on “Un-American Activities in California.” Later on, the John Birch Society was active in California, especially the defense industry-dominated southern half. Los Angeles Congressman John H. Rousselot was one of the group’s most high-profile advocates.
Although Bircherism was confined to the fringes, California was nonetheless a reliable Republican stronghold for most of the second half of the 20th century, handing its copious electoral bounty to every GOP nominee from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush with the exception of Barry Goldwater. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the state bestrode national Republican politics for several decades, elevating to the national stage first Richard Nixon and then the Gipper himself.
The era of Republican dominance in California was finally broken in the 1990s and has since disappeared into the background at a breathtaking pace. Democrats, who now command a supermajority in both of the state’s legislative houses, along with the governor’s mansion, have been forging ahead with an assertively progressive agenda on all fronts, from the environment to taxes to the culture wars.
The single most visible cause of this shift was mass immigration—or, alternatively, the failure of California Republicans to adapt to immigration—which produced a demographic transformation of the Golden State without parallel in the rest of the country. The California that elected Reagan its Governor was about 80 percent white and 12 percent Hispanic; today, those figures are 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively. In other words, California squeezed into forty years a transformation that is expected to take at least a century for America as a whole (if it takes place at all, given rates of assimilation and ethnic attrition) and which many Trump supporters clearly resent and fear. The only state with a comparable post-1970 experience is New York, which is historically more accustomed than the Golden State to absorbing large immigrant populations.
California turned bluer in the 1990s as immigration flows soared, but the explosion of ethnic diversity helped fuel spasms of populist reaction with a distinctively Trumpian hue. In 1992, in response to a perceived outbreak of political correctness on college campuses, the California State Legislature made national news by outlawing private colleges from banning constitutionally protected speech critical of minorities. In 1994, voters passed Proposition 187 by popular referendum, cutting access to welfare benefits and public schooling for unauthorized immigrants, and Proposition 184, imposing a draconian “three-strikes” criminal justice system. In 1996, in response to the perception that minorities were getting an unfair admissions advantage in the UC system, voters passed Proposition 209, banning affirmative action in public institutions. And in 1998, they passed Proposition 228, prohibiting Spanish-language instruction for immigrants at the state’s public schools. For America and much of the Western world, the 1990s were a period of end-of-history serenity. But if you focus on the Golden State, the decade offered a taste of the vituperative identity politics and nationalist resurgence now plainly visible across the West.
It’s impossible to understand the intellectualized Trumpism of modern California sophisticates without reference to this tumultuous period. Today, most of the Jacksonian measures of the 1990s have lost their force: Campus political correctness is back; courts struck down Proposition 187; voters have softened the criminal justice system; affirmative action, in another twist of demographic fate, is now the bête noire of Asians rather than whites; and a repeal of the 1998 bilingual education ban is on the ballot next month. And the California GOP is all-but-extinct; a state once at the center of Republican politics is now finds itself on the fringes. The ideas developed by the official right’s Washington-New York brain trust seem to have little practical application.
For the remaining pockets of reactionary true-believers with historical memories of the Golden State of Nixon and Reagan, one can start to see how Trumpism—a take-no-prisoners, rearguard attack on America’s democratic institutions in lieu of actual proposals for governing—might seem like the only way to restore the politically hospitable California of yore, or, if that’s not possible, prevent America at large from undergoing the same progressive evolution. Indeed, this is very close to the argument Decius makes. (It seems far more likely, for the record, that the reverse is true—that a President Trump would condemn the American right as we know it to long-term irrelevance with his racial antagonism and sheer incompetence).
How California’s diminished Republican Party and the conservative establishment at large should respond to these developments is a topic for another day. What is clear is that, like the bishops of the early Church of Rome, East Coast leaders of conservative thought are watching as heresies ferment and proliferate on the margins of their domain. In early Christendom, these challenges lasted centuries, and some heresies were never fully extinguished, but Roman Christians ultimately repositioned their church as the primary steward and author of the faith in Europe. Whether the embattled intellectuals in conservatism’s Northeastern capital can marginalize their own apostates and enjoy a similar period of renewal remains to be seen. As of 2016, the hinterland heretics are still very much on the march.