The Sunday, November 20th edition of the Los Angeles Times contains a puzzle of Pynchonian complexity. And like the postmodern novelist’s finest inventions, the solution to this puzzle reveals profound contradictions in liberal Los Angeles’s self-imagination.
We start below the fold, with David Ng’s report on Breitbart News Network’s plans for global expansion. Ng’s piece is a typical corporate profile, the sort of thing any reporter might write about any up-and-coming media company. Set aside, for a moment, the qualms you may have about Breitbart’s ethos and house style, and Ng’s piece is a good write-up of one media company’s rapid ascent.
If that were the whole story, there’d be nothing to report. But an aside on A10 hints at a different course. Breitbart is headquartered in Westwood, a fact that Ng expects will surprise us:
L.A. might seem to be an unlikely home to such an outspokenly conservative publication, given the city’s heavily liberal leanings. But both the founder and CEO of Breitbart grew up together in Brentwood (they were both adopted).
Ng expects that his readers will be shocked, simply appalled, that the self-proclaimed “platform for the alt-right” would be headquartered in Los Angeles. His parenthetical comment that founder Andrew Breitbart and CEO Larry Solov were both adopted even allows the concerned Los Angeles Times reader to chalk up the site’s reactionary tendencies to foreign meddling. No natural born son of California could be so un-chill as to found a site like that!
The California section is also eager to distance the left coast from the rest of our red-faced nation. Jazmine Ulloa and Melanie Mason’s “In Donald Trump’s America, will California replace Texas as chief antagonist?” highlights efforts by Gov. Brown, state Senator Kevin de León, and Assembly speaker Anthony Rendon to make California a “liberal counterweight to Trump.” The article ends with shades of #Calexit, as Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler asks “whether California will be seeking to go its own way, or whether California will be seeking to reorientate or guide the the policies of the nation.” The article leaves us with an unresolved tension: will California’s lawmakers choose a Texas-like secessionist route, or will they collaborate with the federal power in an effort to bring California-style liberalism to the whole country? This unresolved tension implies a narrative arc to come, even as it reassures the reader that whichever path California takes, it will always bleed blue.
Taken together, Ng and Ulloa and Mason’s articles confirm the self-image that Southern Californians have of themselves. We are the enlightened coast, the vanguard of a liberal-progressive capitalism that can serve as a model for the rest of this benighted country.
The pieces are restrained versions of comedian Tess Rafferty’s nearly nine-minute anti-Trump video “Aftermath November 2016,” which has been getting considerable play on many an Angeleno’s Facebook feed this week. After heaping vituperation on Trump voters in their “holier-than-thou churches/white power meetups,” Rafferty swerves to the coast:
“I live in California, the largest economy in the United States, and the sixth largest in the world. We’ll be fine. But have fun affording all those children your health insurance won’t pay for your birth control to prevent. I’m just kidding – you’re not going to have insurance. Won’t that be just great again!”
“We’ll be fine.” That, sans jokes, is Ng and Ulloa and Mason’s message for the Los Angeles Times reader. This is California; we are liberal; we’re good. And if the 3,841,134 Californians who voted for Trump — including some 54% of that dreaded, wealthy district north of the Beverly Hills Hotel — don’t like it, they can, presumably, move to Kentucky. (It is worth noting, incidentally, that my home state only added 1,202,942 votes to Trump’s total haul.)
So where is this Pynchonian scandal I promised in the first paragraph? Looking at the electoral maps, we see that Los Angeles was, as predicted, a solid Clinton city. And these Clinton cities, as NY Magazine’s Drake Baer is eager to tell us, will be America’s salvation.
But there was a scandal. And it was, as scandals usually are, below the fold.
Let’s head back to the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. In the Business section, well beneath an enormous picture of a Sharpie-wielding Captain Jack Sparrow passing by a charcoal drawing of Johnny Depp, was James Rufus Koren and Natalie Kitroeff’s “Aecom chief talks Trump, infrastructure.” It is an interview with Aecom CEO Mike Burke, whose engineering and construction company oversaw One World Trade Center and the Inglewood’s new football stadium. According to the article, Aecom’s shares increased some 13% after Trump announced his ambitious infrastructure plan, the much-touted cornerstone of his effort to “Make America Great Again.” The Aecom chief reveals that “sovereign wealth funds and pension funds around the world…are begging to invest in infrastructure,” both only if the federal government is willing to offer “the security and the guarantees” that will incentivize private capital to help rebuild the nation’s ageing roads, bridges, and water systems.
Here is the real story, the story that does not easily fit into California’s left(ish) self-image. A Los Angeles firm, Aecom, sees incredible gains in its stock price the day after perhaps the most hated candidate in American history takes the White House. Over the coming years, we will witness a prolonged battle over Trump’s plan to aggressively privatize infrastructure development, a plan developed by another Californian, University of California-Irvine economic professor Peter Navarro. Where do Navarro and Aecom fit into California’s liberal self-image? What does this below-the-fold story about corporate profits and the increasing privatization of American infrastructure do to Ng and Ulloa and Mason’s celebrations of California liberalism?
Liberals should consider their donor class’s stake in this economy. Daniel R. Tishman, the Vice Chairman of Aecom, is a prolific Democratic donor. President Bill Clinton appointed Linda M. Griego, another member of Aecom’s board, to the NAFTA-related North American Development Community Adjustment Committee in 1995. And yet both stand to profit from a Trump administration. Do they feel the panic that has pushed so many young people out on the street to demonstrate against Trump and his policies?
Liberals are great ones for self-congratulation. And to the extent that they stand as counterweights to the right’s grossest excesses, liberals deserve to praise themselves for their commitment to multiculturalism, inclusiveness, and social welfare programs that help the poor. But liberals should, in the wake of their disastrous loss, step back and analyze how the right has been able to prod this slow-moving country further down the road to authoritarianism and the total privatization of our vital institutions. Cinzia Arruzza has written about the repeated failures of anti-Berlusconi forces in Italy to do just this; her piece, “The Dangers of Anti-Trumpism,” should be read very carefully by the left resistance to the incoming administration.
This conflict between liberalism’s social doctrines and its economic base is inherent to the ideology. In his laudatory history Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Edmund Fawcett argues that liberalism has, from its nineteenth-century origins, attempted to harmonize a social world that is and must always be “a field of inescapable conflict.” Fawcett takes this to be liberalism’s greatest achievement; I take it to be the seed of liberalism’s undoing. Private equity flowing into infrastructure projects that, like the Los Angeles Metro, are designed to help ease the burden of folks who can’t afford cars is one of those “inescapable conflicts” that liberalism seeks to resolve. Yet there is a cruel irony to the fact that the very people whose livelihoods have been threatened by private capital run amok should rely on these same forces to improve the most basic functions of city governments — the maintenance of bridges, roads, water systems, trains, and the like. Isn’t that what they pay taxes for? Privatization of government services is not unlike an old miser stealing all the candy from the children on the block, and then awarding a contract to his cousin to open up a candy shop that will sell those same pilfered lollipops back to the children at (the cousin promises) a very fair price. If and when Aecom wins those enormous Trump-era infrastructure contracts, it will be interesting to see just how much the construction workers who lay down those new roads and help to reinforce those crumbling bridges will really benefit, in the long run. Since, as Tess Raferty tells us, “we don’t live in polite America anymore,” let’s not be polite about the contradictions subtending California liberalism’s recent victory laps.
The scandal I promised is this: without the below-the-fold story about Aecom and capital in the Business section, there is no A1 or B1 story that celebrates California’s liberal cred. Our inability to understand this derives from the “Now you see it, now you don’t” logic of global capitalism. It’s easy, when you’re driving down the 101 (or not driving down it, depending on the day’s protest situation), to forget where your car is made, where your gas comes from, where the gravel for the roads was quarried. A maquiladora in Tijuana, a quarry in Irwindale, an oil field in Kuwait, a coal mine in Kentucky: these are the hidden scenes of capitalism in action. We feel that divide out in the Red States too. The passive recipient of monthly income from mineral rights in Lexington, Kentucky would be distressed if she thought too long about the coal miner dying of black lung in Chattaroy, West Virginia. But realizing that a Vietnamese man who works in a beauty parlor in Westminster’s Little Saigon has more in common with a white SuperCuts stylist in Kentucky than he does Petra Flannery will, more than any coastal crowing, offer a way out of the current disaster.
If this sounds personal, it is. My grouchiness comes from the slight embarrassment I have always felt went telling my friends in New York City and Los Angeles that I am from Kentucky. I can deal with the jokes. “You wear shoes!” “Did you marry your cousin?” I love jokes! But what I still can’t deal with is the tender condescension, a liberal stance that now promises to devolve into all-out war against anyone who hasn’t “caught up” to California, Middle American working classes included. In the old narrative, those of us who have “escaped” our backwards homes are “the good ones,” the exceptional non-coastal weirdoes, and we are invariably treated as such. Simply by being in California and not Kentucky we have made the right decision. We came to the city! We must be the smarties.
Put another way, this election promises to deepen the antagonism between town and country that Adam Smith saw as being at the root of capitalist development. Revanchist California liberalism of the Rafferty variety, no less than the self-congratulatory liberalism of all of our Facebook and Twitter feeds lately, promises to elevate this fight to epic proportions. In Rafferty’s words, “If Trump actually does what he says he’s going to do, then your petty backwards state and your small angry town can pay for your own school to not educate your children.” Watch out, West Virginia: those California tax dollars that never helped you before won’t be helping you now!
The liberal Californian’s answer to the Muslim woman who teaches pre-K in Oklahoma or the lower-middle class black teen in Alabama who is now afraid of her state is to say: Leave it. Come to California (or New York), where people are chiller (or realer). You will be safe here! But what does this really do? It swells those cities with more young people who can rent the liberals’ mothers’ and fathers’ few available apartments. It staffs the restaurants with workers the liberals can Yelp! about. You will be safe here! Yes, a trans* youth in Los Angeles may be safer here than in North Carolina. But like a peasant in feudal times, she will pay dearly for that protection, a fact many liberals either cannot or will not recognize.
What Rafferty and other, less pugnacious California boosters fail to understand is that the antagonism between town and country, or “red state” and “blue state,” is more illusory than real. The city produces for the country, and the country produces for the city. Without all those movie theatres and Walmarts and McDonald’s dotting the middle American landscape, the wealth of the cities would collapse. Your celebrated museums are structurally related to the unaesthetic places that revanchist liberalism would prefer not to consider or see (save, perhaps, in a Vice spread). Rafferty should thank middle America for consuming the technology and cultural productions dreamed up in California. And perhaps both the red state and blue state should recognize that, as the inexorable acid wash of capitalist modernity continues to erode national borders, the U.S.’s national consciousness and regional antagonisms will matter less and less.
And let’s not for one moment forget the real reason that Trump took the White House. His victory was, per Van Jones, a “whitelash,” but it was not a whitelash driven by “the white working classes.” As the Los Angeles historian and social critic Mike Davis puts it in his excellent post-election write-up for Verso Books, the electoral map of the nation does not so far indicate that Trump’s victory can be blamed on “white working class” voters. “The great surprise of the election was not a huge white working-class shift to Trump,” Davis observes, “but rather his success in retaining the loyalty of Romney voters, and indeed even slightly improving on the latter’s performance amongst evangelicals for whom the election was viewed a last stand.” Arruzza similarly notes that, contrary to all logic, it is likely that Trump fared better than Mitt Romney amongst Latino voters. Does this mean we should now scapegoat those Latinos and evangelicals — none of them in Los Angeles, we pray! — who voted for Trump? No. Instead, Arruzza suggests that we focus on Trump’s ability to serve as a “catalyst for entirely heterogeneous voting motivations.” The “Trump Coalition” will be a fascinating cadaver to dissect, and when it’s laid out on the slab and autopsied by future cultural historians, I am sure we will all be shocked by the results.
In the meantime, let’s focus less on regional antagonisms and spend more time asking who stands to benefit most from a Trump presidency. The post-election economic situation demonstrates the wisdom of this approach. Surely if the interests of the owning classes were imperiled by a rabble of nativist white workers we would see a mass exodus from the markets! But despite the centrist DNC’s repeated warnings of dire, Brexit-like market consequences should Trump win the election, the stock market has in fact surged. Bigly. Is that a coincidence? It can’t be. And so I return to the scandal below the fold, this unsettling fact that Trump’s victory was a coup orchestrated by powerful business elites, many of whom are as L.A. as Huell Howser, the Black Dahlia murder, or anti-vax mania.