Trump and his cronies are back, only this time Democrats are loving it

The California governor recall exercise may not exactly be the forerunner of the mid-term elections of 2022, but it has sent a message to both Republicans and Democrats

Donald Trump
The FBI raid comes at a time when Trump was preparing to launch his 2024 US presidential bid | File Photo

The California governor recall exercise may not exactly be the forerunner of the mid-term elections of 2022, but it has sent a message to both Republicans and Democrats, especially to the Grand Old Party. The winner of the recall was undoubtedly Governor Gavin Newsom, but the loser was not Larry Elder, the fiery African-American one-time radio jockey, but the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. Extremists in the GOP and cronies of Trump tried to paint the exercise as some kind of a referendum on the eight-month old presidency of Joseph Biden, but when the chips were down they were dismayed to find that even Republicans would have none of the worn out nonsense about the November 2020 election.

The recall battle had all the trappings of the coronavirus debate between conservatives and the liberals that spilled into what the leadership in the Blue and Red states were doing. Essentially it was a choice between staying with California’s tough COVID mandates, which closely mirrored the Biden administration’s measures including mandatory vaccinations for federal government employees, or going back to a looser framework that governors in some Red States were attempting. In the words of Biden, it was a choice between the Democratic governor of the Golden State or the Republicans who were going about to “block or undermine the life-saving mandates” that had been proposed.

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“Voting ‘no’ will be protecting California from Trump Republicans trying to block us from beating this pandemic. We don’t need politics in this battle against COVID. We need science. We need courage. We need leadership. We need Gavin Newsom,” Biden said. Till the last minute Newsom’s standing in the opinion polls was quite weak; in fact Democrats were quite worried that he was up by only about three points, which was when strategists came to the conclusion that the best way to get out of a difficult situation was to galvanise the voters, basically a Democratic bastion, and paint Larry Elder as a personification of Trump.

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The plain speaking radio jockey could have been the first African American governor of America’s largest state and was clearly the top of the 46 candidates who were angling for the job in the event of the re-call succeeding. But Newsom did two things that turned the fortunes: he put Trump as the centrepiece of his campaign and enlisted top-flight Democrats to rallies like former president Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and finally Biden himself. “We may have defeated Donald Trump but we have not defeated Trumpism. Trumpism is still on the ballot in California,” Newsom said at one of his boisterous rallies.

And Biden delivered the knock out punch calling Elder a “clone” of the former president. Speaking a day before the vote, Biden called Elder as “the closest thing to a Trump clone I’ve seen in your state”, stressing a victory for the GOP candidate would be a blow to women’s rights, labour protections and weaken California’s stand on climate change. “You either keep Gavin Newsom as your governor or you’ll get Donald Trump,” Biden argued, urging voters to make sure that “Trump’s dark, destructive, divisive politics never finds a place in California”.

Newsom and the Democrats did not have to go very far to dig into where Elder came from: the extreme views ranged from opposing minimum wage to gun control; in his belief that there is no gender gap; the climate crisis is a “crock”; and that Black leaders exaggerate discrimination in the country. But where Trump and his loyalists really put their foot in their mouths is when they started spewing the discredited messages of post-November 2020 elections — that Newsom could win by voter fraud. Political analysts are saying that this perhaps was the tipping point for even the Republicans and the leadership as they were trying to finally get over the bizarre conspiracy theories, at times even bordering on lunacy.

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The recall exercise, according to some pundits, must have a sobering effect on the GOP in spite of all the brave faces that are being put out; and a lot of attention will be on the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia this November where Democrats are trying their best to hedge their bets on the tough COVID measures as opposed to other customary focus on law and order, gun control and so on. The California vote has once again reminded voters that Trump remains a lightening rod with a good measure of Republicans, including some of the former president’s loudest supporters, wanting to slowly distance themselves from a person and an era. But Democratic operatives are perhaps finding out that giving a national touch to a state event perks up and energises not only the base but also the collection plate.

It is early still to read too much into the impact of the California re-call on the midterm elections of 2022 as both Democrats and Republicans will be cautious. To Biden, the outcome in California came at a very opportune time especially when he was slipping at the polls thanks to the bungled departure from Afghanistan and in all that mess that came with that. A defeat in California could have made things politically more difficult to the White House as the Republicans were making high-pitch noises about a president leaving town to campaign for Newsom in the midst of a foreign policy crisis.

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What goes around, the saying goes, comes around. In 2019 Elder is said to have told a conservative gathering: “The election of Donald Trump in 2016, in my opinion, was divine intervention.” Two years later former Democratic Governor of California, Gray Davis, said of Elder: “He was a gift from God. He conducted his entire campaign as if the electorate was conservative Republicans.”

A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.

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