The first time I met John Eastman, he was what passed for a respectable Republican voice in Orange County.
Sparring with him on a local television public affairs show about a decade ago, I noticed his wide, almost mischievous smile.
Contrary to his reputation as a conservative fire-breather, he seemed more yip than bite. He offered nothing intellectual, nothing sharp — just the usual pablum of that era’s tea party Republicans.
A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Eastman was dean of the law school at my alma mater, Chapman University, and mounted an unsuccessful run for California attorney general in 2010.
His quotes on legal matters appeared in local newspapers, including this one. He and noted legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky had a weekly segment called “The Smart Guys” on fellow O.C. conservative blowhard Hugh Hewitt’s nationally syndicated radio show.
But at some point, Eastman changed for the worse. The man I remember, who advised Orange County supervisors on pension reform, became a full-on culture warrior.
Throughout the last decade, the professor fought against same-sex marriage and abortion rights for nonprofits, gaining a following in national conservative circles. He slipped deeper and deeper into the fringe side of the right, to the point that he wrote a widely mocked Newsweek opinion piece in 2020 arguing that Kamala Harris was ineligible to become vice president because both her parents were immigrants.
His name came in and out of my social media feeds, but I didn’t give him another serious thought until Jan. 6, 2021.
That’s when he strode onto the stage at the “Stop the Steal” rally near the U.S. Capitol, looking every bit the Batman villain: tan trench coat, floppy brown hat that unsuccessfully hid his wiry white hair, paisley scarf that complemented his ruddy face, and that same big smile I remembered from so long ago that all of a sudden looked sinister.
Even more nefarious was the Machiavellian scheme he had crafted to subvert a presidential election.
After Rudy Giuliani introduced him as one of the “preeminent constitutional scholars in the United States,” Eastman laid out his case.
With angry words and finger jabs, he alleged that widespread voter fraud required Vice President Mike Pence to reject the electoral college count that was happening that day.
We all know what came next. We’re still suffering the legal and spiritual repercussions of this attempted coup a year and a half later — a constitutional crisis that a House select committee is investigating in hearings this month.
Among the people they’ve called to testify? Eastman.
In a videotaped deposition released last week, the smiling schemer of the past is no more. A downcast, schlubby Eastman invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination 100 times, according to committee member Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands).
Emails have emerged detailing how Eastman unsuccessfully asked Giuliani if Trump might be able to pardon him ahead of possible criminal investigations. A federal judge opined in April that Eastman’s plans were “a coup in search of a legal theory” and that their “illegality … was obvious.”
Eastman’s comeuppance has received nationwide coverage and ridicule. His downfall is also significant locally. It represents one of the last gasps for what used to be one of the most insidious, influential freak shows of American politics: the Orange County conservative.
For decades, this Southern California archetype — conspiratorial, bigoted and avaricious — helped transform the party of Lincoln into the dumpster fire of today.
Donations and manpower from O.C. helped put local boy Richard Nixon and adopted son Ronald Reagan in the White House and ensured that the John Birch Society became the grandpa of QAnon.
O.C. Republicans turned immigrant-bashing into a winning electoral strategy. True believers went through a finishing school of local offices before they made it to the big time of Sacramento and Washington, spewing so many inanities from their prominent perches that Fortune magazine — hardly a progressive publication — once called my home county “nut country.”
O.C. conservatism won — until it didn’t. It wrecked the Republican Party in California so badly that the GOP has been an afterthought in Sacramento for almost a generation. And through Eastman, the vestiges of this movement have nearly destroyed our democracy.
Like a parasite that takes over a host, it turned the man from a run-of-the-mill law professor into a cautionary tale.
Eastman was never a prominent figure in the Republican Party of Orange County. But its culture wars became his. When he addressed the Jan. 6 crowd, he embodied the O.C. GOP’s religion of whining and resentment.
In a previous era, Eastman’s newfound fame would’ve made him an O.C. folk hero.
Instead, after an outcry from students and professors, Chapman University effectively forced Eastman to retire a week after his Jan. 6 speech.
Few prominent local conservatives have spoken up in his defense. Eastman has been reduced to bemoaning his fate before whoever will hear him. In one of his last public appearances, in March at the Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel, was for an audience of just over 100.
Kooky conservatives still exist in Orange County. Trustees with the local Department of Education have wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer money on unsuccessful lawsuits fighting Gov. Gavin Newsom over his COVID-19 policies. Pandejos have stormed city councils and school boards over mask and vaccination mandates and have demanded that classrooms ban critical race theory and ethnic studies. Dozens of O.C. residents milled in and around the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6; some have already pleaded guilty to assorted crimes.
Congresswoman Michelle Steel, who missed the Jan. 6 electoral college certification because she had COVID-19, has repeatedly declined to answer questions about how she would have voted that day.
But as every election cycle passes and Orange County becomes more diverse, the old-school O.C. conservative becomes more and more a relic of yesteryear.
This is a place, after all, that voted against Trump in 2016 and 2020, whose congressional delegation is majority Democratic, and whose Republican representatives are Korean American women.
John: We hardly knew ye.