In 2020 more Santa Monicans voted for Donald Trump than in 2016. Really? In the uber-progressive People’s Republic of Santa Monica? Yup. As Casey Stengel used to say “You could look it up.”
So have the populist strategies of Trumpism taken root in Santa Monica? Let’s take a look at the sea change in Santa Monica politics in recent years.
Trump’s first tactic was to rile up an aggrieved class and to convince those voters only he could resolve their concerns. Here in Santa Monica, political dissidents began talking and writing about “the residents” as neglected by an allegedly corrupt establishment and fanning the flames of discontent with a decidedly dystopian view of our city. Never mind that the residents of Santa Monica are hardly a monolithic bloc of like-minded individuals. And never mind that not so long ago our political discourse was aspirational rather than divisive and focused on “community” rather than “us v. them.”
Baseless conspiracy theories were then promulgated on social media to expand the group of voters who believe “the elites” are working against them. My favorite here in Santa Monica is the absurd hypothesis that certain political groups only want more affordable housing to expand their constituent base – sound at all like the Great Replacement theory?
Phase Two is to win over those unhappy voters and to enlarge that base with bogus campaign promises: for instance, we’re still waiting for Mexico to pay for that wall. Locally those pledges included reducing homelessness by 50% in one year; limiting development to no more than four stories; and cutting the size and cost of government.
Once elected, those assurances prove to be empty. While in West Virginia the miners are still waiting for Trump to bring back coal, in our town homelessness remains unabated; there’s been no downzoning as the state doesn’t allow it; and all City staff were granted substantial raises this year.
Then, having railed against the purported corruption of the prior administration, Trumpism prescribes wallowing in your own cronyism and self-dealings: book Secret Service into your own hotels and appoint your relatives and allies to important posts regardless of qualifications. Here in Santa Monica we’ve seen a real estate developer who makes large campaign donations and who has one of the notorious “builder’s remedy” projects appointed to an important City board; Councilmember meals paid for by lobbyists in violation of ethics laws; and a recent letter to voters from three Councilmembers supporting a candidate on a fake City letterhead, a clear violation of local election code.
Betrayal of rules around confidentiality? When allegations were made that some Councilmembers were leaking information from closed sessions in violation of State law, a majority of the Council voted to thwart an investigation of these possible misdeeds. Can you picture the President of the U.S. having such a blatant disregard for restricted documents? Oh, wait, never mind.
Another facet of Trumpism? Anti-intellectualism. So we had a President who got his “facts” from Fox and Friends rather than source documents. In Santa Monica we have Councilmembers who feel reading staff reports is too much work. The consequences? Intolerably long meetings as our elected have to be spoon-fed information on the dais they should have already digested. Unacceptable errors such as not realizing a non-compliant Housing Element could lead to unconstrained development. And a staff morale at City Hall that’s at an all-time low. Can you imagine working long hours to draft a comprehensive report on an agenda item only to have Councilmembers disdainfully ignore your efforts? We’re already losing important staff and I hear that next year there will be an exodus of 200-300 people from City Hall. What will happen to City services then?
Cozying up to authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban? Four of our Councilmembers just voted No on County Measure A, which would have provided for checks on the reckless behavior of thuggish Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose support this election cycle comes primarily from Republicans.
Now before anyone bursts a blood vessel, I’m not suggesting the “change slate” Councilmembers and their endorsed candidates are MAGA Republicans, although some might be called DINOs (Democrats in Name Only). But they have followed the Trump playbook so effectively that they are now the ensconced political establishment. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the tens of thousands of dollars donated by developers and corporate real estate interests to PACs such as Santa Monicans for Change – the big money knows who’s really in charge.
So our city is at a crossroads. Voters can choose on November 8th for more of the same or they can cast their ballots for the progressive Council candidates who seek to restore a culture of inclusiveness, compassion, and competence to our municipal government.
Ted Winterer, Santa Monica