Lance Watanabe has long bought into Republican ideals. He does not, however, buy into Donald Trump.
“I just don’t feel he’s qualified,” says Mr. Watanabe, a commercial real estate manager who lives in Santa Monica. “I watched him debate in the primaries and I never really was convinced with his arguments. I just hear him belittling his opponents so they can’t respond. That’s not the way to find solutions.”
James Mustain isn't enamored either, but the lifelong Republican sees no alternative.
“I look at things through a biblical view. [Trump] doesn’t see the world through that biblical view,” says Mr. Mustain, a conservative Christian who teaches middle school in La Crescenta, just north of Los Angeles. But “I categorically oppose all of [Hillary Clinton's] viewpoints. In my eyes, Trump is the lesser of two evils that we’re faced with.”
The two men’s different responses echo the frustration and discord Trump's candidacy has sown among the GOP elite. Over the past few weeks, prominent Republicans have refused to show their support for their party’s nominee or – like Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman – outright defected to the Clinton camp. Reports of tensions among Trump’s staff and plots by his allies to intervene in his campaign have only added to the picture of disunity.
Interviews with GOP stalwarts like Watanabe and Mustain suggest that the turmoil is making its way down to voters in California, where a core conservative constituency continues to exist in the northern inland areas, Southern California outside of Los Angeles County, and the Central Valley.
So while the Golden State will almost certainly vote Democrat come November, political analysts say it’s still a good place from which to do a gut check on how establishment Republican voters across the nation are feeling about Trump and their party.
“California is America, only more so,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, echoing the famous 1959 declaration from author Wallace Stegner. “He wasn’t talking about voter attitudes about Donald Trump when he said it, but he might as well have been.”
Trump’s success in the primaries as a populist candidate underscores a GOP disconnect that has been papered over for decades in California.
“For the last two generations, Republicans have used a combination of economic, foreign policy, and cultural conservatism to form a coalition,” says Professor Schnur. “When Republicans were able to succeed here, it’s by combining the social and cultural conservative priorities of rural and inland voters with the economic and national security conservatism of suburban and coastal voters."
“What you’re seeing now is economic and cultural conservatives … going in largely different directions,” he adds.
But the Trump campaign has gone further than that, crossing red lines that have upset both camps. His lack of commitment to free markets, for example, is alienating economic conservatives while his support of issues like gay rights cuts against values of the cultural conservatives.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” says Mustain, the middle school teacher, of the Republicans who have publicly denounced Trump. Though he will vote for the man, “I don’t see that Mr. Trump and I have the same eye to social issues. He could be persuaded one way or another on certain issues, issues that to me would be fundamental.”
“I just don’t think he’s conveying his message diplomatically,” adds Watanabe, the real estate manager. “It’s terrifying that the Republican party has actually elected this guy … who doesn’t have the professionalism of a presidential candidate … [or] to build the relationships among his own party. To me that’s really indicative of an inability to collaborate for a common goal.”
“I work in an office full of Republicans that do not support Donald Trump,” he adds.
None of this is to imply that Trump has no strong base of support. In fact, a flood of small donations over the past two months “all but erased” Mrs. Clinton’s month-to-month fundraising advantage against him, reflecting his populist appeal.
It's just that, until Trump's candidacy, this populist group of Republican voters hadn't shown the clout of the economic and cultural conservatives.
“If you’re a traditional economic conservative who has presumably succeeded because of your ability to work effectively in this system, [Trump] is probably less appealing,” Schnur says.
In California, that contingent would include Silicon Valley bigwigs like Ms. Whitman – which is why her defection doesn't surprise Schnur.
“[But] if you’re an economically populist, blue-collar voter afraid of what the technology-driven economy holds for you,” he notes, “[Trump’s] challenge to the establishment can be very inspiring.”
Thousands of supporters showed up to Trump's rallies here in the weeks leading up to the California primary on June 7. His appearance drew heated protests, but packed venues in Sacramento, Costa Mesa, San Diego and elsewhere in the state.
“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Republican intellectual Avik Roy told Vox in July. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism – philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”
California's eclectic Trumpism
In California, at least, that appeal has moved beyond whites to at least some degree. Trump's rallies, though majority white, included Middle-Eastern Christian conservatives and Latino small business owners. Even the Chinese community had its own contingent.
David S., an Iranian-American who did not wish his last name be used, considers himself a Trump supporter. Although sometimes the way the real estate mogul talks grates on him, ultimately Trump stands for things that he as an immigrant and business owner can’t help but agree with, he says.
“I like most of the ideas he brings about,” says Mr. S., who moved to the United States from Iran in 1969 and now owns a rug and carpet business in West Hollywood. He is especially drawn to Trump’s tough stance on border security: “Freedom doesn’t come free. We have to protect it. If you have a big house, would you like the windows, the doors, the gates open? You don’t care if somebody robs you? Murders you?”
“I wish he would just filter his temper and attitude,” he adds. “But I think he’ll be good for business. Strong for veterans, the army, creating jobs. Fighting ISIS. A lot of important issues.”
Despite the criticism and chaos, most Republican leaders say they would rather stick with the nominee they already have rather than risk the consequences of abandoning him three months before Election Day. The GOP has congressional majorities to protect, not to mention the thousands of Republican candidates in state and local races. As long as Trump remains relatively popular, party leaders are likely to keep backing him.
The same may be true for Republicans at the polls, in California and elsewhere.
“It’s reasonable to assume that a large number [of them] might vote for Trump,” Schnur says. “Whether they switch sides or simply sit it out is a lot tougher to predict.”