Trump, Newsom and the Ties That Bind

Trump, Newsom and the Ties That Bind
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
Trump, Newsom and the Ties That Bind
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
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To understand the complicated relationship between President Trump and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, try watching “The Defiant Ones,” a 1958 film starring Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier. The plot line: Two inmates, one black and one white, are on the loose. But there’s a catch. They’re shackled together and, in order to elude the authorities, must learn to set aside their mutual animosity and work in tandem.

The Trump-Newsom telenovela of today is not to be confused with a racial morality play from the early days of the civil rights movement -- even though it does contain many of the same characteristics of bad Univision fare: moments of spite and revenge, plenty of outbursts and overreactions,  plus a femme fatale who crossed family lines for love (Newsom’s ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, presently is Donald Trump Jr.’s paramour).

Or so the story line went until COVID-19 came along. Suddenly, Trump and Newsom have started saying complimentary things about each other’s competency. Since the pandemic brought California to a halt and the nation’s economy to its knees, there has been no Twitter spit-balling between the two heads of state, which characterized the first year-plus of their interaction. Even the legal war between California’s Democratic governing class and the Trump administration seemingly has been placed on the back burner.

So what happened? For starters, the pandemic made the two politicians reliant upon each other in ways neither anticipated. Last week, Newsom asked the federal government for $1 billion in pandemic-related relief (setting up state-run and mobile hospitals, testing and treatment for individuals without health insurance, plus housing options to help Californians better socially distance).

Newsom also requested to have the Mercy, a naval hospital ship, redeploy to Los Angeles to help local hospitals deal with overcapacity (it set sail from San Diego on Monday, which Newsom thanked Trump for doing). That ask came in a letter from Newsom to the White House, which set off alarm bells when California’s governor tossed in, as an aside, that 56% of his constituents – about 25.5 million people – would be infected in an eight-week period (a misleading statistic given that it’s a worst-case scenario based on the presumption that California did nothing to curb the virus; indeed, the day after Newsom sent his letter, he issued a statewide stay-at-home order).

So Newsom, by taking the high road with his onetime nemesis, stands to benefit from federal largesse, as do other governors ordinarily at odds with the administration, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo being a good example. But what’s in this for Trump?

One is a pocketbook consideration. America’s economy simply cannot recover as swiftly as the president would like – i.e., on an upward escalator come Election Day – if California (by itself the world’s fifth-largest economy) is slow to bounce back. Before the outbreak, California’s economy was projected to outpace the nation’s in 2020. But the pandemic, with its effect on California’s economic cornerstones of trade, tourism and technology, places that very much in doubt. The more Trump helps California and the quicker its recovery, the better his reelection chances.

Second, what Trump can’t afford is the same visual that haunted George H.W. Bush during his reelect year: the spectacle of an unhinged California. In April 1992, after a jury had found four police officers not guilty of using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, South Central Los Angeles broke out in rioting. Residents set fires, looted stores and targeted light-skinned motorists for beatings (in retaliation for the four white cops pummeling the black King).

What America saw, in addition to urban mayhem: an incumbent president who seemingly possessed bad instincts (Bush was roundly criticized for sending in federal troops to restore order and then waiting five days to visit in person). Six months later, the Republican incumbent was out of a job. Trump is not in the same political straits as was Bush 41 back in the day – for openers, he has a healthier relationship with his party’s base. Still, Trump needs California’s governor to help maintain the calm in America’s nation-state, lest voters lose faith in his ability to manage the nation through the present crisis.

So, yes, Trump and Newsom are shackled, both because of a global pandemic and their respective destinies. Any American president seeking reelection needs a foil. Ronald Reagan had the Soviets. George W. Bush had Osama bin Laden. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama invoked heartless Republicans hellbent on cutting the public safety net.

And Trump? Once politics return to normal, he once again will stage rallies and scare Middle America with images of “Democratic socialism” run amok. But with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders looking like a spent force, Trump can always turn to California as a study case of progressivism gone to ridiculous extremes, be it immigration, homelessness or an insatiable appetite to tax and levy its residents.

As for Newsom, he needs another four years of a Trump presidency to position himself for a White House run in 2024 (a Biden failure as a consummate Washington insider, coupled with eight years of Trump fatigue, bodes well for a Western governor). Otherwise, Newsom is looking at one of two unpleasant scenarios: waiting until the 2028 election (assuming an octogenarian President Biden wants four more years); or, taking on a sitting vice president if, it turns out, Biden is but a one-term act. From Richard Nixon to Biden, history shows that vice presidents don’t always move up the ladder, but they’re hard to take down in primaries.

A plot spoiler in case you don’t want to stream the movie: The chained fugitives in “The Defiant Ones” manage to break their shackles, with the movie ending in a pair of unselfish acts. Not a happy ending, but a positive one. Can Donald Trump and Gavin Newson ever reach that point in their relationship? 

Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution’s Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow, follows California and national politics and hosts Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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