California Gov. Gavin Newsom has anointed himself as the avenging angel who will rain down righteous – or self-righteous – punishment on ideological heretics in red states such as Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.
“All across the country rights are being rolled back in real-time by Republicans,” Newsom warned in a fundraising text message last week, just hours after it was revealed that former President Donald Trump was being indicted in New York. “They cry ‘freedom’ but work overtime to dismantle our democracy to protect their power to dictate the choices people are allowed to make.
“I am going to flip that narrative on its head,” Newsom promised.
Two days later, having created a new political organization to finance assaults on prominent Republicans, he embarked on a tour of four red states to rally Democratic opposition to their GOP governors.
Newsom’s message is that those governors and other prominent Republicans, such as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, are “authoritarian threats,” citing such actions as banning books and subverting abortion access, gay rights and gender-affirming care for transgender youths.
The website of Newsom’s new organization, the Campaign for Democracy, singles out McCarthy, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott as “threats” to democracy. In a video, Newsom declares, “What’s happening in those red states, that’s not who we are. It’s un-American, it’s undemocratic. All it takes to fight back is a willingness to stand toe-to-toe and say ‘enough.’”
There are three potential explanations for Newsom’s self-declared crusade: that he’s genuinely worried about an “existential struggle” for democracy; that he’s just expanding his years-long drive to raise his national political profile in hopes of someday campaigning for the presidency; or that he craves attention.
Whatever his motives – and it could be a combination of the idealistic, the crassly political and the personal – the most intriguing aspect of Newsom’s campaign is his denunciations of DeSantis, Abbott, et al, as “authoritarian,” meaning that they are acting unilaterally, outside the democratic process, to impose their will on the residents of their states.
That’s patently untrue. Those two governors and those of other red states were duly elected and often re-elected by their voters, and wield the powers that accrue to elected governors. One can certainly take issue, on the merits, with the policies they espouse and enact. But one must also assume that they are doing what majorities of their constituents want them to do, which is the essence of democracy.
Besides, Newsom has been just as adamant in pursuing his own ideological goals.
Was Newsom being an authoritarian when he declared an emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic, suspended dozens of laws, closed public schools and ordered much of the state’s economy to be shut down, erasing nearly 3 million jobs overnight and pushing the state into a severe recession?
Newsom would say that he was just exercising his executive powers for the greater good.
Was Newsom an authoritarian when he unilaterally stopped executions in 2019, even though the death penalty was and still is state law, and won voter support the last time the issue was placed on the ballot?
Meanwhile, he has signed a number of new laws aimed at restricting or eliminating behavior he and his fellow Democrats consider to be wrong, such as owning guns or resisting construction of new housing. And how about those decrees banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars after 2035?
Newsom’s actions were no less arbitrary the governors he criticizes. When it comes to authoritarianism, he is, to use an old saw, a pot calling the kettle black.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.