Did da Vinci spray graffiti over the Mona Lisa? Did Hitchcock destroy reels of Vertigo?

Of course not. So why are Republicans waging war against California, their party’s greatest masterpiece? 

For all the denunciations of California as Democratic bastion, the larger, historic truth is exactly the opposite: Modern California is in almost all respects the creation of Republicans. Even now, when Democrats hold so many elected offices, the structures of this place remain fundamentally Republican.

Indeed, the state of California and the Republican Party were born at the same time and grew up together. Both owe a debt to John C. Fremont, the U.S. Army officer who in 1846 declared a republic in California, then part of Mexico. He then became California’s first U.S. senator, and, in 1856, the first Republican presidential nominee. Fremont’s volatile personality—including talents for controversy and insubordination—still define his state and his party. 

But Fremont’s impact pales in comparison to that of Leland Stanford, our first Republican governor, elected in 1861. In scandalous, self-dealing fashion, Stanford linked California to the country with his railroads, and gave us our greatest private university. In the process, Stanford established the template for the disruptive, corrupt, (if public-spirited) California oligarch embodied by Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk today.

To be fair, Republicans in California did more than pioneer corruption: they found new ways to counter it. In the early 20th century, Republicans—notably the popular governor and U.S. senator Hiram Johnson—backed women’s suffrage and established the initiative and referendum process that still dominates California governance. Under Progressive Republicans, the state pursued environmental conservation measures and adopted a corporatized government bureaucracy, with independent commissions, such as the Public Utilities Commission, that still hold sway a century later. 

Between 1899 and 1958, California had just one Democratic governor—the one-term atheist Culbert Olson, who was ineffective. So even as the Depression and Second World War built up an American welfare state, California largely skipped the New Deal and remained an ungenerous, if wide-open, place. When Republicans spent money, they devoted the dollars to institutions. Gov. Earl Warren, easily the most distinguished California Republican of all time, made plans and saved money for expansion of our universities, roads and water systems. Warren, as governor and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, combined support for civil rights with protection of the national security agencies and corporations that would build California’s aerospace industry and birth Silicon Valley.

Cheerleading this growth were America’s two most important 20th century Republicans.  California-born Richard Nixon, while pioneered our now dominant brand  of conspiracy-minded, race-baiting politics, made history in government by establishing the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Ronald Reagan set up California’s smog-fighting Air Resources Board and legalized abortion as governor, and as president embraced the forces that still shape our economy and culture: free trade and immigration. 

Reagan also inspired the tax revolt, including the 1978 ballot initiative Proposition 13 that remains the foundation of California governance. The Prop 13 systems helps keep our school funding at levels closer to that of Republican Mississippi than of Democratic Massachusetts.

More recent Republicans governors left their marks. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, established the climate change regime—based on the Republican idea of a cap-and-trade system—that stands at the heart of California policymaking today.

Yes, Democrats have now ruled Sacramento for nearly a decade. But, remarkably, they have been willing to accept—and even celebrate—the historic, and very Republican, California consensus. Jerry Brown, on fiscal matters, was more hostile to spending than his conservative predecessors. California’s poverty and inequality persist at levels antithetical to Democratic talking points. And while Gavin Newsom has vowed to transform the state in a progressive fashion, he’s so far governed as a fiscal steward and portrayed himself primarily as a father in a family tableau so white-bread it would make country club members blush.

But now, in the face of all this Republican history and Republican reality, Trump’s Republicans look in the California mirror and somehow see the enemy. And so they make war against all of our Republican-ness—our direct democracy, our commitment to environment and health, our technological supremacy, our love of immigration and free trade, our tradition of independent governance and regulation. Nixon and Reagan, those great California anti-communists, must spin in their graves as the president seeks election help from China’s communists, and writes love notes to the dictator in Pyongyang. 

This is an ugly war that today’s national Republicans now wage against us. And it already has its victims, most tragically the immigrants lawlessly locked in federal detention. Let’s pray the GOP considers history and retreats from this dark turn. Because you can’t win a war that you fight against yourself. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square