How did a California city turn into Trump country?

The Forgotten Man’s Ground Zero lies an hour and 20 minutes east of Hollywood at a dusty and sunbaked San Bernardino, Calif. intersection that hasn’t changed much in a decade.

And yet, the crossroads of Waterman Avenue and Orange Grove Boulevard, which houses a makeshift memorial to 14 men and women killed in a terrorist attack here on Dec. 2, serves as a reminder of how much fly-over country perceptions of government have altered since President Barack Obama took office in January 2008.

Just ask Henry Nickel, a Donald J. Trump supporter and one of a handful of Republicans on a City Council in an overwhelmingly blue city.

“We’ve been through a lot,” said Nickel, a sharp-dressed public relations consultant and analyst who is known as a “doer” among his colleagues in San Bernardino County. “What’s happened here in the past decade is a microcosm of what’s going on in the nation and around the world.”

Described by the Los Angeles Times as “a symbol of the nation’s worst urban woes”, San Bernardino stumbled through the Obama years while its infrastructure crumbled and its legacy as a blue collar “All America City” at the rainbow’s end of Route 66 faded along with the fabled cross-country highway.  

In August 2012, the city of 210,000 filed what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city had fallen on hard times and the blows to its reputation continued to rain down.

Between 2013 and 2014 San Bernardino saw City Councilman Chas Kelley plead guilty to perjury and resign while former City Councilman Robert Jenkins admitted to various felonies and misdemeanors that included stalking and identity theft while he was in office. During it all voters were subjected to protracted bankruptcy battle and recall elections that crippled government while most of the rest of Southern California emerged from the Great Recession bruised but not broken.

Then came the attack. Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook targeted county health department employees at a Christmas luncheon in a meeting room of the Inland Regional Center. In all 14 people were killed and 22 others were injured. it was the deadliest terror incident in the United States post 9/11.

“I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWe must eliminate nuclear weapons, but a 'No First Use' Policy is not the answer Building back a better vice presidency Jill Biden unveils traditional White House holiday décor MORE said in a speech from the Oval Office four days later.

Later on in his address, Obama said the nation needed tougher gun laws.

“We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino,” he said.

Many would later argue that the address and a brief meeting with surviving family members more than two weeks after the attack occurred showed that Obama and the Washington elite were out of touch with the forgotten men and women of San Bernardino County. 

“This was an obscene act of violence,” Nickel said. “It comes from a nihilist ideology that doesn’t see any problem with murdering individuals that do not conform to their way of life.”

These were normal people who were slaughtered at their normal jobs on a normal day. It not only affected San Bernardino, which was already reeling from a combination of recession, mismanagement, corruption and decay. The attack ultimately afflicted the rest of the country and played a role in much of 2016 presidential campaign.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, then candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE took a stand at odds with Obama’s.

"If you look at Paris, they didn't have guns, and they were slaughtered. If you look at what happened in California, they didn't have guns, and they were slaughtered,” Trump said. "I think it would've been a lot better if they had guns in that room, somebody could protect… They could've protected themselves if they had guns.”

Nickel and others believe that difference in philosophy is what appealed to voters in forgotten communities across the nation. He sees members of the GOP as increasingly appealing to conservative Democratic voters at odds with the their party’s “more vocal and obnoxious social justice/equality/entitlement faction.”

I’ve been to where the Twin Towers once stood in Manhattan in the year after 9/11 and the finish line of the Boston Marathon twice in the past year. Both are moving tributes to victims of terror, neither is as stark as the San Bernardino Memorial on that dusty corner in the middle of nowhere. Vanishing sun drenched photos of the victims hug an 8-foot high wrought iron gate beneath a plethora of American flags. Slowly decaying teddy bears covered in road soot hang in bushes. Messages to lost loved ones and friends share space with faded plastic roses and a hand-printed notes in crayon from a group of elementary school students. 

A recent visitor modified an official banner with a message written in indelible ink.

“Let the people protect ourselves,” it reads. “Allow us to concell (sic) carry.”

The effect of it dovetails with something Nickel saw in Trump’s campaign.

“He got his messaging right. He figured out what was on the minds of the people and connected to that. Hopefully what happens now will turn out to be best for our country and for San Bernardino.”

Girardot is an award-winning former editor and columnist with the Los Angeles News Group. He is co-author of true crime tales "A Taste For Murder" and the soon-to-be released “Betrayal in Blue: The Shocking Memoir of the Scandal that Rocked the NYPD.” Follow him on Twitter @FrankGirardot


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.