California Prepares to Resist the President in Uncertain Times

Like many of the other nearly 9 million people in California who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, artist Eric Rewitzer reacted to Donald Trump’s victory as if a tornado had swept his house away. “I just didn’t believe he was serious,” says the longtime San Francisco resident. “And I didn’t see it coming.” As disbelief gave way to sadness and then anger, the bespectacled printmaker found himself sitting at the table in the middle of his studio just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. He and his wife are known for their prints of a sweet “California bear,” a version of the grizzly on the state’s flag that likes to give hugs and sells very well at airport souvenir shops. But after he spent 40 hours carving and pressing a giant sheet of linoleum, a vastly changed animal appeared—roaring, teeth glaring, claws out. “You’ve stirred a beast,” says the usually sweet and soft-spoken Rewitzer. “Watch out.”

In a landslide year that saw Republicans win almost everywhere, America’s most populous state turned even bluer. Home to about 1 in 8 Americans, California is now one of only five states to have a Democratic governor and both chambers of the legislature controlled by Democrats. (The next biggest is Oregon.) With Republicans reigning in Washington, D.C., the Golden State has become “the largest and most influential Democratic outpost in the country,” says University of Southern California lecturer Dan Schnur. And it’s not just printmakers who are mobilizing. From the streets of L.A. to the halls of the capitol in Sacramento, Californians seem uncommonly united in their opposition to all things Trump. “We must prepare for very uncertain times and reaffirm the basic principles that have made California the great exception that it is,” Governor Jerry Brown said in his State of the State speech on Jan. 24. Declaring that California would not compromise its crusade to fight climate change or stop welcoming immigrants with protective arms, he drew a line: “California is not turning back, not now, not ever.”

Silicon Valley tech CEOs are sending company-wide emails to calm employees rattled by Trump’s Executive Orders limiting immigration and suspending the admission of refugees, vowing to use the President’s invitations to meetings as chances to change his thinking. The legislature hired former Attorney General Eric Holder’s law firm to advise the state on ways to push back while respecting Washington’s authority. And California’s delegation to D.C. is joining the chorus. “The nation is looking at us for leadership,” Senator Kamala Harris tweeted on Jan. 28. “It’s time to buckle up and fight.”

Since the discovery of gold fast-tracked the state’s admittance to the U.S. in 1850, Californians have believed that this place is exceptional. And so it is today: from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, many see California leaning not to the left but forging ahead in a way that can “set an example for the rest of the country,” as Brown said in his speech. In the era of Trump, that means continuing to advance a progressive public agenda on everything from renewable energy to gun laws to health care. There is no question that the state, with the sixth largest economy in the world, has the numbers, dollars and clout to at the very least serve as the center of the Trump opposition in America.


It wasn’t that long ago that California was a reliably red state for presidential candidates. Republican Ronald Reagan arrived at the White House in 1981 by way of the California governor’s mansion and a landslide victory, which he repeated in 1984. Even George H.W. Bush won the state by a small margin before it went blue for Bill Clinton, who cared about California so much that he had a staffer whose job involved waking up every morning and thinking about what the Administration could do for the place. Republicans spent millions to run ads for George W. Bush here in the weeks before the 2000 election, hoping it might be winnable again. But it was not. And by the time Barack Obama ran for office, says USC’s Schnur, “He didn’t have to do anything to be popular in California except to not be a Republican.” Even conservative Orange County went blue in 2016, for the first time since the Great Depression.

This slide to the left took place as the state became more diverse—absorbing millions of immigrants from Latin America and Asia—and as Republicans on the national stage took a harder line on women’s issues and illegal immigration. Latinos surpassed whites as the biggest ethnic group in 2014, and today more than a quarter of the state’s population is foreign-born, twice the average across the country. About 10 million immigrants live here–more than the entire population of such states as Michigan or Virginia–and an estimated 25% of them are undocumented, according to the New York–based Center for Migration Studies. Officials in cosmopolitan coastal cities proudly refuse to help federal authorities deport people, especially if their primary offense is lacking paperwork. “We are a sanctuary city, now, tomorrow, forever,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said in a speech on Jan. 26. The line got him a standing ovation. There’s even been talk of California becoming a sanctuary state.

Vague worries about what Trump might do crystallized in his first 10 days as President, as he started making good on campaign promises to build a wall along the border with Mexico and starve sanctuary cities of federal funds. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti called that threat “un-American,” citing the 10th Amendment, which says any powers not delegated to the federal government belong to the people and their states. In one of his first acts as the state’s new top lawyer, Democrat Xavier Becerra joined attorneys general from 15 other states on Jan. 29 to condemn Trump’s order to severely restrict immigration and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. He vowed they “will use all of the tools of our offices to fight this unconstitutional order and preserve our nation’s national security and core values.” With some travelers prevented from boarding planes bound for the U.S. and others detained, thousands swarmed airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles yelling “Let them in!” just as they did elsewhere around the country.

The resistance is coming on the heels of panic that has set in among immigrants since Election Day, many of whom have loved ones who came here illegally even if they did not themselves. “I kind of just shut down,” an undocumented teenager from Berkeley says of how she reacted to the election, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of legal repercussions. “For me, this is my home. This is where I grew up. This is all I know.” On Inauguration Day in San Diego, just miles from the border, hundreds of protesters marched through cold rain behind a leader holding a Mexican flag high in the air. They chanted in English (“Refugees are welcome here! Immigrants have no fear!”) and in Spanish (“Trump, ¡escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!”). A white woman had a sign taped to her back: “I Will Stand With the Most Vulnerable.”

That evening, diehards holding soggy cardboard signs stood shaking in a park in a Latino neighborhood. Many individuals nervously refused to speak to the press. An exception was Pedro Rios, local director of the American Friends Service Committee, a 100-year-old Quaker organization that supports border communities. He has been hosting forums with immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, reminding people of their rights and helping them develop plans for what they’ll do if there are immigration raids or if the family’s breadwinner gets deported, “just as when you’re kids and you make a plan in case of a fire at your home,” he says. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are meanwhile championing state legislation that would bar state and local resources from being used to help the feds with immigration enforcement and dedicate funds to defending immigrants in deportation proceedings.

How much California can fight back on immigration may well be resolved in court, as the latest chapter in one of the oldest struggles of the American political system. On Jan. 31, the city of San Francisco filed a lawsuit against Trump and his Administration, alleging that depriving sanctuary cities of federal funds is unconstitutional. “There’s always been big fights between the states and the federal government,” says Paul Nolette, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University, on subjects ranging from “small things” like the drinking age to issues like slavery that nearly ripped the country asunder. Though the supremacy clause, which says federal law trumps state law, might seem simple, “the line of when that actually happens gets really, really complex quickly,” he adds. During Obama’s tenure, Texas was famously litigious, with its then attorney general once describing his job this way: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home.” While Obama was in charge, Texas sued the government at least 48 times, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune, with cases covering everything from air quality to contraception. The state, both as a lone plaintiff and alongside others, won some and lost some. Many are still pending.

At state attorney general Becerra’s first confirmation hearing in early January, most questions were about what he could—or would—do if Trump made changes that went against the California grain on everything from marijuana to minimum wage to LGBT rights. Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer foretold “a looming, long, ferocious and hard-fought legal war with bloodshed stretching from the Golden State to Washington, D.C.” Becerra, the son of immigrants, sounded a more measured tone. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m going to disobey federal law.” But, he said, if the federal government goes after people “simply because of who they are … I’m going to be a big bull.”


Before Trump even put his hand on the Bible, more than 1,000 progressive lawyers gathered in San Francisco in January at a “strategic engagement conference” to sound the alarm bells over what the new President and his Cabinet picks might mean for environmental standards, violence against women, workers’ rights, voting rights and more. In the same hall where Tim Cook introduced a new iPhone months before, they made plans to “repudiate the disgusting, terrible policies that the Trump Administration is going to try to push forward” before there technically was a Trump Administration. Organizations signed up volunteers, attorneys joined issue-based working groups, and plans are under way to replicate the conference in cities such as L.A. and Seattle.

In more conservative and less diverse inland parts of the state, there are Californians who wish their neighbors along the coast would give it a rest. As the Cold War ended and defense-industry jobs in Southern California dried up, Republicans moved inland where it was cheaper to live, says Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at UC San Diego. Many others just left the state, as more progressive young people and people of color moved in near the seashore. Gradually California went from being a state that had a north-south divide (with a more liberal north) to a state with an east-west one. Several sparsely populated counties east of the I-5 went more than 60% for Trump last year. And speaking to people who live in the area, it’s easy to imagine how Trump’s Inauguration speech—with his promises to never again forget anyone who felt forgotten—would have resonated with them.

“There are conservatives all over California, but they live in areas where their vote doesn’t end up meaning anything,” says Vicky Reinke, chair of the Republican Party in Calaveras County, southeast of Sacramento. “I get called a racist, a bigot, just because I’m a Republican.” She calls the legislature’s decision to hire Holder’s law firm “disgusting.”

Among Trump’s natural allies are manufacturing and agricultural industries in areas where people like 31-year-old Jason Giannelli live. The farm manager in Kern County—home to dusty Bakersfield, which went solidly to Trump—was wooed when Trump came to visit during the campaign and told water-thirsty farmers that he valued them over wildlife. In the Central Valley, there is hope that Trump’s election will mean relaxed environmental regulations that help farmers get more water for crops that show up in grocery stores all over the country. The area continues to be hugely dependent on immigrant labor, but Giannelli doesn’t believe any of the more extreme outcomes people fear–like raids at schools or mass deportations–will come to pass. “Just give it a chance,” he says of the Trump Administration. “We saw what we had with the last eight years; let’s see what we have with at least the next four.”

The plight of Republicans who are sick of feeling ignored in the state has led some counties to sign declarations saying they’d like to secede and be part of the 51st state of Jefferson, the goal of a movement that began decades ago in isolated towns along the Oregon border where people felt steamrolled by decisions coming out of the capital. (Calaveras County’s Reinke is an ardent supporter, fantasizing that the resulting state “could be like Idaho.”) But the election naturally energized a very different, if equally quixotic, movement to secede stage left: #CalExit, the hashtag used by those who would like California to leave the U.S. and form its own more liberal country, went viral in the hours following Trump’s win. A group called Yes California, which has supported that effort for years and is preparing to gather signatures to get the secession question on the ballot in 2019, saw its following blow up overnight. An email list of 13,000 became 130,000, says the group. A Twitter following of 1,500 became 15,000.

The quest remains the longest of long shots, but the attention it is getting says something about the Californian state of mind in this moment—and the perception that for all their cutting-edge technology, many people here are living in a disconnected bubble. “These people are a people, and they’re very different from everyone else in America,” says Yes California’s Marcus Ruiz Evans, noting how strongly the election would have gone to Trump without the Golden State’s votes. Remove California, and rather than lose the national popular vote by nearly 3 million, Trump would have won by more than 1.4 million. “American decisions,” Evans says, “are constantly being viewed as horrific by Californians.”

The feeling can be mutual. In a recent debate over a contentious bathroom bill in North Carolina, a conservative lawmaker in Raleigh spoke out against “the hateful crowd from California” after Hollywood icons like director Rob Reiner and tech titans like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff joined a chorus of voices shaming the Tar Heel State for not upholding transgender rights. What some Californians see as setting a fine example for the rest of the states can seem like a sense of superiority from places east of here—much as America’s sense of exceptionalism can appear nauseating abroad.


Yet the fact remains that the liberals are steering this ship, and California’s west side has been stirred to action in the north and the south. In her acceptance speech for an achievement award at the Golden Globes on Jan. 8, actor Meryl Streep used her pulpit not to speak about herself but to argue that Trump is targeting the vulnerable: “Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” Accepting a Screen Actors Guild award on Jan. 29, Julia Louis-Dreyfus mocked Trump’s rhetorical style (“I’m the winner. The winner is me. Landslide!”) before noting that her father was an immigrant who fled Nazi-occupied France and calling the “immigrant ban” a “blemish” on the face of America.

Reiner tells TIME that this is what influence in La-La Land is all about: “Hollywood is always used for bringing attention to issues. That’s basically what we’re good for.” And more of that is surely coming when Hollywood has the world’s attention for the Oscars on Feb. 26. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose feature The Salesman was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film, said he wouldn’t be attending the ceremony—even if he could get a waiver from the immigration order.

The day after Trump’s Inauguration, women (and men) flooded downtown L.A. to show their strength in numbers at the Women’s March. “We’re luckier than most places in the country because we have a state that’s going to take care of us,” said Hannah Waldman, a consultant and mother who brought her 5-year-old son. By some estimates, the number of marchers who showed up in L.A.—350,000 or more—rivaled the number that turned out on the Washington Mall the day before. On a stage at the rally, celebrities handed the mike off to one another like a baton in a relay race, many pushing the crowd to focus their efforts on change at the local level. “All that stuff that’s unsexy and doesn’t seem exciting, that’s actually the place where we can make the most immediate change, the most effective change,” said comedian Keegan-Michael Key, half of the duo Key and Peele. “And I’m going to roll up my sleeves,” he said to the cheering crowd, “because for the first time in months, I am proud to be an American.”

Andy Spahn, a deeply connected political consultant in the Los Angeles area, estimates that efforts led by the entertainment industry raised $40 million for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. And he says he’s been busy taking meetings—with people from the Obama Administration, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, think tanks like the Center for American Progress and others—about how to best deploy resources for the left in the next four years. Will that be on redistricting fights? Senate races in 2018? Embattled organizations like Planned Parenthood? “Patience is a virtue,” Spahn says. “We’ll have to pick our fights, and I think a path will emerge in terms of the national play.” Celebrities like filmmaker Judd Apatow and comedian Rosie O’Donnell have already been among those making hefty public pledges to the ACLU.

That organization will be cashing checks from Silicon Valley too, a place that depends on—and works hard to recruit—the most skilled engineers and executives from all around the world in the pursuit of disrupting everything. Ride company Lyft pledged $1 million to the ACLU following Trump’s order, as companies scrambled to get dozens of employees home from overseas. On Jan. 30, employees at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, walked out of work to protest in Mountain View, holding signs with slogans like “Make America Welcoming Again.” In a company memo, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, “It’s painful to see the personal cost of this Executive Order on our colleagues.” One of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin, who was born in the Soviet Union, was among the hundreds who descended on San Francisco’s international terminal. When asked by a business news reporter why he came to the protest, he said, “I’m here because I am a refugee.” Airbnb meanwhile announced that it would be providing free temporary housing for refugees and others affected by the travel ban.

A psychologist who practices in the Berkeley area, Deborah Kory, says the region has been experiencing a “collective trauma” that she imagines being like what the New York City area experienced in the wake of 9/11. “This is just a whole other level of change that we’re not able to give assurances around,” she says. She says feelings of panic and disbelief in an area where about 80% of people voted for Clinton are giving way to determination among her clients. “We can’t really maintain a level of anxiety and hyperarousal forever,” she says, “so people are less dissociated and panicked and are beginning to be able to reach out to one another.”

On the Saturday after Trump’s immigration order, residents in the Bay Area town of Alameda left flowers and signs decorated with hearts on the doorsteps of local mosques. Not 24 hours later, roughly 400 people rallied together outside an Islamic center with signs that said “Everyone Belongs Here” and “We Love Our Muslim Neighbors.” Motorists who drove by honked in solidarity, sending waves of cheers through the crowd as they marched around the block. “It shows we are one. And we’re human and we love each other,” said Eslam Oodin, who attends the center for prayer, as he walked with the crowd of local families. “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.” As the march drew to an end, one woman approached an organizer hoping for more: “So is this going to be a regular thing?”

Back in his studio in San Francisco, artist Rewitzer takes issue with the notion that he lives in a bubble, though the reality he describes sounds rather bubble-like—a place where people all believe in the same progressive future. “When Trump won, it reminded me how comfortable I had become in just accepting that progress was going to continue. If the bubble is anything, it’s a sense of comfort that we’re doing the right thing,” he says. “What happened after the election is I felt I have to stand up. I can’t take for granted that this is the way good people think everywhere.”

His wife Annie Galvin is standing by him. She emigrated from Ireland decades ago, but she doesn’t even think of herself as a immigrant anymore. After Rewitzer carved and printed his ferocious bear, she painted some of her signature orange poppies—the state flower—around the hulking beast’s feet. “You can be powerful and kind,” Rewitzer says. He also made a version that included a statement that the Democratic leaders from the legislature issued in the hours after Trump was elected, which he says helped inspire the piece. “California was not a part of this nation when its history began,” it reads, “but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”

This appears in the February 13, 2017 issue of TIME.