Is surfer town Huntington Beach really the Maga stronghold Californians fear?

Though the pro-Trump sentiment is palpable, locals dispute previous media portrayals of the city and tell Mike Bedigan that the Republican presence is perhaps not as confrontational as is being made out

Saturday 09 March 2024 00:05 GMT
Donald Trump merchandise in Huntington Beach, California
Donald Trump merchandise in Huntington Beach, California (Mike Bedigan/ The Independent)

In a small beach shop in downtown Huntington Beach, California, the face of Donald Trump stares down from a wall covered in T-shirts bearing his likeness. “Impeach This,” one reads, with an image of the former president showing both middle fingers.

“He’s our best seller,” says Abdel Nate, who sits on the tills. “The boss doesn’t care about politics. He’s not red or blue, he just cares about his business making more money.”

Huntington Beach – located around 50 miles south of Los Angeles and known locally as “Surf City” – has all the laid back characteristics of a typical southern California beach town; bright sunshine, palm trees, with cafes and bars lining the front.

However, though the pro-Trump sentiment is palpable, locals dispute previous portrayals of the city as a “Maga stronghold” at the heart of the historically liberal Golden State, and say that the Republican presence is not as aggressive as is being made out.

Whether or not the enclaves of supporters for Mr Trump along the west coast will remain as passive as the US general election November rolls around, perhaps remains to be seen.

Huntington Beach has been described as a ‘Maga stronghold’ in California (Mike Bedigan/ The Independent)

‘Just people’

“I feel like it’s to each their own,” Abdel tells The Independent.

The 25-year-old has been living and working in Huntington Beach for two and a half years while he studies at nearby Orange Coast College. “It’s definitely different from when you go to any other city [along the west coast], like Long Beach, LA or anywhere in LA County,” he says. “Over here it’s a lot more Republican.”

Huntington Beach, one of Orange County’s largest cities, has long been associated with conservative beliefs, though in recent years the actions of local authorities has drawn attention to more right-wing stances.

The council — which is, in theory, nonpartisan — has taken actions that many would view as being in line with a hard-right agenda. It has previously banned mask and vaccine mandates, established a body to review children’s library books for sexual content, and has roundly condemned President Biden’s immigration policies.

In February the council passed an ordinance that forbade the rainbow Pride flag from being put up on city property, which was backed up by voters at the ballot box earlier this week. The city is also waiting on the outcome of the vote on whether ID will be required to take part in municipal elections, another stance that has angered liberal lawmakers.

On weekends, supporters of Mr Trump will often gather in large numbers on the Huntington beachfront to hold rallies. Their bumper-sticker clad vehicles fill the carpark and dozens of flags wave in the sea-breeze, while passing cars honk their horns in support, or disapproval.

This is typical for weekends, Abdel says, adding that he has never been made to feel uncomfortable by the events or their attendees.

“You know, like I see every single Sunday they’re out by the pier and they’ve got like hundreds of Trump flags… but I always pass by and I don’t feel like I’m being picked on,” he says. “I’m, like, I’m full-on Egyptian you know – 100% Egyptian – but I haven’t felt discriminated against.

“They’re not assholes, you know, I feel like they’re [just] people.”

A ‘Maga stronghold’

Across the road from the beach shop where Abdel works is a cafe, outside of which four friends are sharing coffee and a box of cookies. They are all pro-Trump.

Mike, 73, who is wearing a “Vietnam Veterans” hat, says that media portrayals and “liberal” perceptions about the Republican community in Huntington Beach do not concern him. “We never worry about what the media say, they can say whatever they want,” he tells The Independent.

Despite this, Mike concedes that there are “idiots” that do not help with the sensationalist image of the local pro-Trump movement. “We have idiots here for sure, but they’re all over,” he says.

Donald Trump merchandise in Huntington Beach, California (Mike Bedigan/ The Independent)

Larry, 75, reaches for an oatmeal raisin cookie. He has also seen the recent article in the Washington Post that describes the town as a “Maga Stronghold” – which he says is a term that is being “weaponised” and used incorrectly.

“The media tries to make such a big deal out of everything because they need an audience and because they need eyes or ears to see or hear them. And so they exaggerate everything beyond proportion,” he says. “They paint pictures of people that are surreal.”

Larry continues: “We’ve lived through many bad presidents and many bad times, and we will survive anything. We’re Americans.

“However, what the liberals do is they try to paint Maga as extremists, and that’s not true. Their term Maga, they use it wrong. Make America Great Again – that’s what it is, and we believe that yes, we’d like to believe that, certainly.

“But if you say we stand for the stupid ideals that they put behind the word Maga. No. We look to build our country.”

Pushy but respectful

Through speaking to them, it is clear that Mike and Larry and their two friends hold many of the standard right-wing Republican views on issues including vaccine mandates, LGBTQ curriculum, trans issues, and President Joe Biden.

Last month the Huntington Beach City Council approved the introduction of an ordinance that would limit the flying of flags on city property to government flags, as well as the POW/MIA flag and the six flags of the US military. “Measure B” passed with more than 58 per cent of the vote on Tuesday, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters election results.

The rainbow Pride flag is among those now not allowed, something that has caused backlash among liberal advocacy groups. Mike and Larry believe that such outrage is fuelling “tribalism”.

Street vendors sell pro-Trump merchandise in Huntington Beach, California

“Liberal people feel we should honour gays because they’ve suffered so much,” says Larry. “However, I'm Italian. Italians had more people that died in World War Two for America than anybody. We've never asked for a dime or a flag or a hand-out or anything.”

Mike adds: “Before you guys got so far off to the left, we didn’t care, do whatever the hell you want to, just don’t bother me about it.

“But definitely don’t teach sex to my five-year-old.”

Despite these strong view-points and opinions seemingly being commonplace in Huntington Beach, those without strong political conviction say that real incendiary confrontation is rare.

Lina Nate, Abdel’s sister, works in a separate beach shop further up Main Street, having moved to the US just six months ago. She says that although she has heard exclusively Republican politics from both tourists and locals, she has not felt imposed on.

“If they see the prints [of Trump on T-shirts], they come and talk to me, and the first thing I say is, ‘I’m not into politics’, but I understand because I’ve been hearing a lot of points of views of Republicans. I haven’t heard the other side,” she said.

“They tried convincing me but in a very, like, biased way. You know how when people try to convince you with something, they don't show the other point of view?”

But, similar to her brother, she adds: “They’re not die-hards. They’re not aggressive. They’re pushy with their views, but like, respectfully.”

Mike and Larry would like to think the same. “We get along with everybody. We have parties, we have parades, we have surf contests,” Larry says.

“Our kids go to school together, everybody lives together. There’s no issue.”

Over the course of the conversation, many people have stopped by the cafe, some of whom stop to say good morning to the quartet. As one friend leaves Larry says with a smile “You see! He’s a liberal”

Trump merchandise in a surf shop in Huntington Beach, California (Mike Bedigan/ The Independent)

The advent of Trump

Though it appears that the laid back vibes of the surfer town and right-wing views are, seemingly, able to coexist for the moment, there are some who worry how a ramping up of political campaigning by Donald Trump will affect local dynamics.

Sean, 26, says that the pro-Trump presence in Huntington Beach is “obvious”, but he has not had run-ins with anybody who is “super radical with their views”. However, Sean – who says he does not have a specific political identity – wonders how that might change in the coming months heading into the general election.

“I already know there’s going to be people right down the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) with their signs, and that’s where I think a lot of people that have been quiet for a while are going to really come out,” he tells The Independent.

“That’s where you really see everybody, you know, take their flag out from under their bed.”

He clarifies: “I mean, it’s not like it’s a bad thing that you’re a Trump supporter. It’s just he has a lot of people that kind of prove the stereotype.

“You have some people, they’re pretty chill you know? Some of them are just like, ‘hey, I like Trump. That’s just who I voted for. I have my reasons’. And you know, that’s that.”

Mike also thinks the rallies will become more frequent along the west coast, but only as much as one might expect in an election year.

“There’ll probably be rallies every weekend now as we get closer to the election. There’ll be a rally every Saturday or every Sunday,” he tells The Independent.

“We’ll just sit here [at the coffee shop] and go ‘cool’.” Mike flashes the thumbs-up.

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