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The Landslide State

Does California still have space for dreamers and freaks?

Jonah Raskin
November 03, 2020
Library of Congress
Library of Congress

At the end of an hourlong interview with former California Gov.r Jerry Brown, the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer, Joe Garofoli, asked him about hope. They both were live on a webinar, albeit in separate spaces. “I don’t deal in hope,” Brown said. “The expression ‘I’m hopeful’ can be deceptive and passive. What we need is clarity and zest.” Garofoli had to ask that question. After all, hope is practically the state religion in California. Popular writers like Rebecca Solnit, the author of Hope in the Dark (2006), published by The Nation Books, have helped to make it so. Even in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Californians were hopeful. John Steinbeck expressed a sense of optimism in The Grapes of Wrath and earned the ire of East Coast intellectuals and writers.

California is still, on the whole, a place where hope thrives, especially in remote places like Colusa County, where Brown now lives. Colusa is solidly pro-Trump. Sonoma County, where I live and work, is not. Of the county’s 300,000 registered voters, 169,000 are registered Democrats, 54,000 are registered Republicans, with 61,000 unaffiliated. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won 70% of the vote in my county. Unlike Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Iowa, California is not a swing state, so the media has not aired stories about it and the 2020 election. I have not watched a single story about Biden and Trump in California on PBS.

In Sonoma, as in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, Trump supporters are mostly in the closet. Along with my friend, David Drips, I met with one of them the other day. Walter Collings, 85, was sitting in his front yard as he often does. He wore a cap that read “Cold War Veteran.” I’ve written about Collings for a local newspaper because he grows marijuana in a part of the county where many of his neighbors are anti-pot. The signs on his road read, “No pot on Purvine.”

Like Collings, Drips is a marijuana grower, but big time—much bigger than Collings, who is an ex-military man. Collings was stationed in Germany from 1958 to 1960 and saw the Cold War up close. Drips did three tours of duty: in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and couldn’t bring himself to vote for either Trump or Biden. He likes Trump’s in-your-face style, but not his politics. He likes some of Biden’s stated policies, but thinks he comes across as the opposite of charismatic. “On my ballot, I wrote in Elon Musk,” Drips told me.

As soon as Collins recognized Drips and me as we walked toward him, he asked, “Do you want to see my marijuana?” Of course we did. With his hand-held device he opened the garage door and dialed in the combination for a huge safe that was plastered with autographed photos of President Trump. “I voted for him because of the stock market,” Collings said. “I’ve been making a lot of money.” Inside the safe he had six or seven rifles, plus just as many pounds of pot already harvested, dried, and bagged. “Next year I’m going to grow an acre,” he said. Collings and Drips are both hopeful men, especially when it comes to marijuana. They’re certain that next year they’ll grow bigger crops than ever before and make a lot of money.

Former Gov. Brown went against the unofficial state religion when he said he didn’t deal in hope, but otherwise he fit the stereotype of the “Left Coast” politician, though he also explained that he rejected “neoliberalism.” He told Garofoli, “I think Biden will win. When he does he’ll have to connect with his inner Roosevelt. We need a Green New Deal.” Maybe so. I found myself in agreement with Brown when he said: “A lot of the Biden vote will be revulsion against Trump. People don’t want the Trump craziness.”

At times during the interview, Brown sounded Trumpian, especially when he said “we need to pull America together.” He was also still a religious person. “I believe in redemption,” he said. “People can change their lives.” If that didn’t sound hopeful, I don’t know what would. Brown was also an alarmist. “If we don’t want an authoritarian state we’ll have to have a governing coalition. Right now we need polar lucidity in the face of the impossible.” In an essay in the Nov. 19, 2020, edition of The New York Review of Books, Brown said, “we are on a collision course with China that could easily slide into an armed conflict.” How’s that for the opposite of hope?

California is a cliché and it’s also not a cliché. My California has room for Brown, but it also has room for Cold War veterans like Walter Collings who voted for Trump, and David Drips who served five years in the U.S. Navy and voted for Musk. Neither of them, nor I, will be surprised when California goes overwhelmingly for Biden.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.