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A conversation with Gavin Newsom: Part 2



In Part 1, California Lieutenant-Governor Newsom reacted to the hacking hearings in the Senate, began analyzing the results of the election, and speculated on the enormity of the challenges facing American institutions, including the two major political parties. Today, in Part 2, we begin with Trump’s victory.

GN: I mean, all of us were shocked. It was hardly a mandate; it wasn’t historic, except for the fact you had a historically naïve candidate in Donald Trump, who is unqualified to assume the Presidency. Beyond that, there was nothing particularly historic about it. He was below the mean average in terms of electoral victory.

SH: And Hillary got more votes, and a greater percentage of the popular vote, than any losing candidate in history.

GN: So when these guys [Trump] talk about it in historic terms, there’s many ways to analyze it, but clearly, he should be more cautious in terms of the takeaways, and the possibility of overreach is pretty self-evident.

SH: Caution is not part of his—

GN: No. It’s ready-fire-aim with these guys. So we need to be prepared for that. And, you know, there’s the old adage—people talked about it in the campaign—some people took him seriously but not literally, some people took him literally but not seriously. I am of the opinion you have to take him literally and seriously until further notice. And so I am particularly concerned about the prospect of him doing the kind of damage that he promoted during the campaign.

SH: So where do Democrats go from here? Conventional wisdom is that 2020 is wide open.

GN: I think the biggest mistake is thinking about 2020. We’re so fixated on the Presidential that we’ve missed the entire point, which is that we’ve been shellacked. This party is bankrupt. This party has gotten crushed in municipal elections, gotten crushed in statewide elections for years. In some ways, it’s the best thing that happened to our party, because that’s finally been exposed. Had Hillary Clinton succeeded, we would still have been in denial. Now, we have to wake up to the reality that over two-thirds, close to three-quarters of the State Houses, the legislative and gubernatorial ranks, are in the hands of Republicans. And we have prospects that are very dim that we will take back the Senate, let alone the House. We’re so fixated on top-down politics, not bottom-up, that we’re our own worst enemy.

SH: So what do Democrats do?

GN: Gotta focus on grass roots. Gotta focus on bottom up. Gotta focus on municipalities large and small: rural, suburban communities. You gotta get your base activated to support school clerk candidates, city administrators, boards of supervisors, city councils and other electeds. That’s where we’ve been off-base for far too long. But that’s a deeper conversation that just the national conversation about a national message.

SH: Let’s follow up on that. I understand that six million fewer people voted Democratic in 2016 than in 2012, and nine million fewer than in 2008. A lot of those people bailed on the Democratic Party because they say it’s as corrupt and under the heel of Wall Street as the Republicans—Hillary and Bill got rich, and all this kind of stuff. How do you win them back, especially the Millennials, when they say “A pox on both your houses”?

GN: Well, something deeper is happening. Institutional apathy, institutional atrophy. Institutions of all shapes and sizes, private and public, are collapsing. We’re going from something old to something new; we’re in a hinge moment, economically, demographically, technologically. The industrial economy has run out of steam. So we’re at a profound inflection point in our history. And I think we’re missing the larger narrative, where I.T. and globalization have detonated at the same time, changing everything, the way we live, work and play. And as a consequence, you’ve seen it in the private sector, large top-down hierarchical institutions are collapsing, and something new is taking shape. And government is on a collision course with that same future. And I think that was demonstrable in this Presidential campaign, was the distrust of institutions, distrust of government, and the consequence of that was “A pox on both houses.” And there were two candidates who took advantage of that narrative and understood it: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. And it wasn’t surprising, the crowds and energy around them. And, of course, with Sanders out, Trump in, Hillary trying to take the mantle of some of that energy, she wasn’t able to capture that, and she wasn’t necessarily able to communicate it. And I think we have to come to grips with that. It’s not just about better policy or better strategy of communication, it’s understanding the world we live in.

SH: Well, along those lines, let me read you something from this morning’s [Jan. 5] New York Times. Two guys in Iowa, blue collar—

GN: — Oh, is that the one someone sent me?

SH: It’s an amazing story.

GN: That’s what they said, you have to read this, it’s amazing.

SH: “They’re hard workers, they wash dishes, sweep the floors,” blah blah. Now one is a welder and—

GN: [holding up cell phone with article] Is this the same?

SH: Yeah, yeah! Because this is what you’re talking about. “They’re conservative, believe in hard work, family, the military and cops, and they know abortion and socialism are evil, that Jesus Chris is our savior, and that Donald J. Trump will be good for America.” Governor, what do you say to them?

GN: Well, you know, people want to believe. I respect that. People are looking, I think unfortunately, for the wrong thing. I think we have this gravitational nostalgia for the guy or gal on the white horse to come save the day. And that world no longer exists.

SH: But what do you say to these two guys?

GN: I don’t know what to say to them, specifically, but the reality is, they’ll see demonstrably that Trump can’t deliver on his promises and [their] aspirations.

SH: Do you believe Trump will just—

GN: — I think he’ll leave them wanting. Unquestionably. And that’s the most ominous thing, is that Trump’s going to leave millions and millions of people wanting. And what becomes of them then?

SH: What does?

GN: And I worry about this country.

SH: So where do they go? Do they ping-pong back to the Democrats, or go third party, or—

GN: First of all, Trump was an invasive species. He took over the Republican Party. Bernie Sanders was an invasive species: he took over the Democratic Party. He’s not even a Democrat. Both parties are in turmoil. Both parties were gutted in this election. This notion of tribalism, Democratic, Republican, I mean, the fundamental framework needs to be questioned. These guys are not even versions of the old meme; they’re something completely new.

SH: And yet, you remain a Democrat.

GN: Yeah. I remember we went through this, the late 1990s, early 2000s, with Howard Dean’s ascendency, and people were jumping to the Green Party, people were walking away from Al Gore, and it was [Bill] Bradley, and they were sick and tired of both parties, they were both corporatized, bought and paid for by Big Labor, Big Business, two sides of the same coin. And people were jumping ship. And my point was, you’ve got to fight to change things from within. I’m not going to walk away [from the Democratic Party]. It would be like walking away from the rest of the country by having Cal-Exit. I mean, I’m not going to walk away. I’m going to punch, to fight.

SH: So you’re not in favor of Cal-Exit?

GN: No. You don’t secede. You lead.

SH: A lot of people are [in favor].

GN: Yeah, well, I think it’s naïve. The last time a State decided to walk away, there was a lot of bloodshed.

SH: The Civil War.


  1. Jonathan King says:

    I don’t quite get it: The fundamental framework needs to be gutted, party tribalism eschewed … so that’s why he’s staying a Democrat? Because yada yada Bill Bradley? Artful dance. He never did answer your question either, as your italics indicate you realized at the time. He’s a party opportunist, no mistaking the brand.

  2. Jonathan King, perhaps because I’m a journalist who sees things from multiple angles, perhaps due to my Gemini nature, I can appreciate how honest people can be on different sides of this issue. When do you leave the political party you’ve belonged to for a lifetime? Or do you work to change it from within? Reasonable people can disagree. It’s unfair to call Newsom an opportunist, unless you’re prepared to say that all politicians are opportunists. Which, to a certain extent, they are…so what? All ambitious people are opportunists.

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