Huntington Beach has a long history of shirtless young white men getting violent on the sand. It happened in 1986 during what was then called the OP Pro surf contest, and again in 2013 at the latest edition of the event, the U.S. Open of Surfing. Over the weekend, so-called Trump bros transgressed against Trump protesters and reporters north of the pier on Bolsa Chica State Beach.
The ill behavior has some in the community blaming “beach bros” for being right-wing apes. But the truth, as always, is more nuanced. For one thing, none of the people involved in the Saturday morning fracas appeared to be surfers. And while surfers have had some ugly flirtation with far-right politics in the past, the sport today is more naturally allied with solidly blue environmentalism, for reasons of self-preservation. That's not to say there aren't hard-red surfers, like Orange County U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
“Surfers represent a cross-section of America in the water,” says University of San Diego anthropology professor Jerome Hall, who has taught a course on surf history and culture. “Good luck trying to figure out the politics of surfing, because that is a moving target. Environmental issues tend to be a dividing point for what side of the fence you're on.”
In the postwar explosion of surfing's popularity, some beach bums dropped out and went far right, embracing the term “surf nazi” in complete societal defiance. Malibu legend Miki Dora had swastikas painted on his boards. And that symbol could be found on the beach in Malibu and at La Jolla's Windansea, the subject of Tom Wolfe's 1968 book Pump House Gang.
Relatively rich kids dropping out and embracing the dark side is nothing new in American history. But even in the most economically depressed days of 1970s Venice, where a rag-tag group of surfers of all ethnic backgrounds braved the waters of the defunct Pacific Ocean Park Pier, Nazi symbolism surfaced.
“I began seeing SS lightning bolts and swastikas on boards and graffiti” in the '70s, Todd “Ger-i Lewis” Gessel, organizer of Venice's 23-year-old Surf-a-Thon surfing contest, said via email. “It was more of a shock value sort of thing than any white power ideology. However, some surfers did express the white power ideology.”
Gessel says he was involved in a brawl against right-wing surfers in the 1990s in San Clemente. Indeed, Orange County has long been home to right-wing violence, both on and off the beach. But its slow change from red to blue politically (or not) reflects the evolution of politics among surfers, too. “Surfers are a mixed bag and perhaps more left of the divide in my experience,” Gessel said.
“I do know a lot of extremely conservative surfers, and they are older guys,” Professor Hall says, “older, white, unemployed or retired — who feel like they aren't getting a slice of the pie they deserve.”
Surfing politicians, including Rohrabacher, former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, Trump adviser Peter Navarro and former U.S. Rep. Fred Hemmings of Hawaii, tend to be Republican. But they're also all well into retirement age, with the exception of Navarro.
In the meantime, surfers are filling the ranks as “oceanographers, physicists, engineers,” Hall says. “The stereotypical surfer isn't Sean Penn any more.”
So the next time you see shirtless bros in the sand trying to make America great again, don't blame surfers.
“The political boiling pot that's on the fire today is just about everywhere across the United States,” Hall says, “not just on the beach.”
So I leave Huntington Beach…and then a fake Donald Trump shows up to surf. SoCal is something man. pic.twitter.com/KUTsVmsPkZ
— Ashley (@AshleyRae_) June 20