It’s a common psychoanalytic trope that within ostensibly democratic societies, constituents vote most often not for their immediate material interests, but rather for a leader as proxy for an ideal parental figure. So - to generously borrow from and bastardize the work of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott, California is having daddy issues. On June 3rd, the state’s second ever recall for the Office of Governor reached over 1.6 million signatures and set in motion an upcoming special election that will take place some point later this year. After concerted efforts from Silicon Valley’s Dark Enlightenment libertarians, the small business tyrants of the Central Valley’s factory farms, and rich Orange County Republicans who don’t want to wear a mask to Red Lobster, the figurative father of the Golden State is essentially facing a custody hearing for the nation state’s 40 million acrimonious suntanned children.
So who is current governor Gavin Newsom? He is, in fact, the second cousin twice removed of avant harp songstress Joanna Newsom. But can he be California’s ideal Lacanian father figure? As with most piecemeal neoliberal Democrats, perhaps Governor Newsom would prefer to be weakly defined by his contrast from the opposition. Newsom’s competition in the upcoming recall election represent the swathes of deranged, atomic microcultures of a state that boasts the global headquarters of the culture industry, international arms manufacturers, celebrity astrologers, and TikTok houses. California is also, of course, the epicenter of the world’s comprehensive shift towards the gig economy - owning nothing, working for no one, commodifying even the most private aspects of one’s life, relationships, and property with sinister ingenuity. Admittedly, such splintered cultural energy presents a difficult center for any single figure to hold. As such, Newsom’s hope of securing his title hedges on his pleasant smile, slicked hair, and image of presentability in a state pulled apart at the seams.
On the Republican side of the ballot, the candidates include a bail bondsman and a motivational speaker. The hopeful who’s garnered the most attention on the GOP ticket, however, is the infamously bad driver of cars, Caitlyn Jenner. Vowing to “CANCEL cancel culture and wake up the woke,” Jenner hopes that a clear cultural crusade and the state’s historic appetite for celebrity governors can override her lack of a traditional voting base and admitted shortage of state budgetary expertise.
Outside of the Republicans, other gubernatorial contestants include Randy Quaid, former adult film actress Marey Carey, a Bay Area venture capital goon, the creator of the O. J. Simpson Tour and pop-up O. J. Museum in Los Angeles, and a self-described “landlord influencer” who extols the virtues of misleading tenants.
Gavin Newsom, to be sure, is not any of these candidates. He is well mannered, stern, and looks like Matthew McConaughey. He enjoys resting on his progressive laurels like legalizing same-sex marriage in San Francisco in 2004, years before the California Supreme Court ruling to legalize it and in direct violation of state law. On the other hand, he also benefits from his family’s tight business connections to the Getty Oil barons of California’s Guided Age. He mind-numbingly once described himself as a “social liberal and fiscal watchdog.” In the early years, he was the straight Mayor Pete before there was Mayor Pete.
And if Gavin Newsom was Mayor Pete, Kimberly Guilfoyle was his Chasten. In 2004, the couple posed sprawled across the rug of Ann Getty’s home in San Francisco overlooking the bay for Harper’s Bazaar. The story hailed the duo as the “New Kennedys.” SF Gate referred to their marriage as “a royal wedding” where “the two hottest public servants in San Francisco got hitched.” All good things, however, must come to an end. The Jack and Jackie of their time split within five years.
In her twisted 2016 prophecy, reporter Ashley Feinberg remarked (apropos of nothing) that “Gavin Newsom is what Donald Trump Jr. thinks he looks like.” Recently, Guilfoyle has disavowed the coastal liberal elite, reinventing herself as an advisor to the former Republican president and as Don Jr.’s girlfriend since at least 2018. To give the governor credit, Newsom did rebound more quickly. Just two years after his divorce from Guilfoyle, he remarried to Jennifer Lynn Siebel, the daughter of a San Francisco Artificial Intelligence dynasty who crowdfunds her Sundance Films on Kickstarter.
But to understand the fall of grace of Newsom as the state’s pearly white liberal darling, perhaps we need to push past his contrasts, past his ill-fated romance, and back to the site where the psyche is said to be irrecoverably molded: the childhood. A third generation San Franciscan, Newsom’s father was a California Court of Appeals Justice and a Getty Oil attorney who once traveled to Southern Italy and disguised himself as a priest to deliver a $2.7 million ransom and rescue the kidnapped grandson of J. Paul Getty in 1973. Newsom would later tell reporters that his early years “weren't easy.”
As great leaders are prone to do, Gavin Newsom unloaded his childhood trauma onto a room of second grade students at Paradise Ridge Elementary School in 2019. His first childhood pet, he confessed to the young children, was an otter. An otter named Potter. “Potter the Otter.” Potter was one of Newsom’s earliest friends. In a description eerily reminiscent of his photo shoot for Harper’s with Guilfoyle, he told the students that he and Potter would sleep curled up together in bed - “I’d get cozy with it.” But despite the tender companionship that Potter gave young Newsom, the otter brought an insurmountable tension to Newsom’s family that simply could not be overcome. One fateful morning, Potter bit the mailman. His mother gave his father an ultimatum: “It’s either your son and daughter or your damn otter.” Newsom’s parents divorced. “He kept the otter,” Newsom said laughing.
All of this is to say in a very roundabout way, that Gavin Newsom is probably one of the worst and most annoyingly tepid father figures a state could have as it emerges from the Trump Era and regresses into a renewed stage of collective adolescence. The embodiment of mid-life crisis, captain of an ever-shrinking neoliberal consensus, passed over for a Presidential failson with the charisma of a cumrag and a rabid otter by his closest family and lovers - Newsom is a leader we can no longer seriously respect. And yet, given the alternatives he may be the one that California will choose to tolerate.