20th July 2018   •   opinion
Why do some Indian-Americans support Trump? Here is what they told me

Eviane Cheng Leidig

Let me tell you a story of immigration, opportunity, hard work, and education.

"When I was expecting my green card I would get up every morning and flip the computer to see if it came. And you know, that very act, and I might have done it for two months till I got it in the mail, and I know for a fact that that’s something I share with many, many people who over the last 25 years have naturalized as Americans. And they love their country dearly, we love our country dearly. Because we believe in these values. We believe in what we stand for as a country."

This was told to me by an Indian American Republican candidate running for a US House of Representatives seat in an upcoming election.

Stories like these were common at the IMPACT Summit in Washington, D.C. last month, an initiative that support Indian Americans running for public office. According to Gautam Raghavan, a co-organiser of the Summit, it was founded to address Indian American underrepresentation in US politics.

In the 2016 election, 85% of Indian Americans voted for Clinton and 15% for Trump.

For the past year and a half, the latter has motivated my PhD research. I attended the Summit hoping to interview Indian American Trump supporters with little expectation that I would be able to meet any. But I found them.

A group of older businessmen, who I sat down with for lunch, told me they and their friends support Trump but often feel ‘stigmatised’ for their political leanings within and beyond the Indian American community. I asked if I could interview them anonymously, they agreed.

Supporting Trump for tax cuts

Two of them were business partners who had both immigrated from India about 20 years ago. They described how their professional backgrounds influence their political beliefs, in particular identifying as “fiscally conservative”.

Both had supported politics on the left and the right, even donating to Democrats in the past. With Trump, though, this changed. They saw in Trump a “natural business man” who promised lower taxes and less government regulations.

One admitted supporting Trump as a “selfish act” because he benefited from tax cuts. The other said supporting Trump was viewed negatively because of political polarisation. “I’m a moderate but unfortunately the country has become two sides… not everything’s good about Trump, but not everything’s bad about Trump.”

I sensed neither would be attending a Trump rally donning MAGA gear any time soon, but they believed in conservative economic principles that Trump aligned with in the Republican party.

Supporting Trump on immigration

It isn’t just economic issues that motivated some of them. I interviewed three others for whom their immigration stories were equally important. Like Democrat Indian Americans, they agreed the immigration process needed reform, but they wanted preferences for highly skilled immigrants. Some approved of Trump’s border wall as immigrants from Mexico and Central America were not viewed as contributors to American society.

One person whom I spoke with at length is a Christian from Kerala. According to him, moving to the US was a political awakening:

“I was very active in politics before I came to the United States, in India. I was always on the opposite side of the Communist Party. Even as a young boy, I realized that communist ideals, socialist ideals are a political dream, it’s not real, because human beings are human beings. When you work hard, you want to make sure that you, your family come first. You don’t want to work for the community, for the society, first it’s you. The individualism is the root of my being […] So I was always a fake communist. So I didn’t know what the opposite is, cause everybody in India was socialist.”

“And then I came to America and I realized that there is not really that thinking. That individualism mattered. So when I came to politics in America, I didn’t quite understand hard differences between... Democrat party and Republican party, I thought they are kind of pretty much in the same job. I was an Obama supporter. First term I was really an ardent supporter, I knocked on the doors for Obama. And second time I was a reluctant supporter. Because I knew that his policies are not good. They’re going more towards the hard left, which is not practical. So by the time Obama came, everything came, what it did to the economy, my company, small businesses all over the place, I realized that this thing is not making America any better. He’s actually pulling down America. And making America in the path that India and other socialist countries has gone […] So that’s when I decided in 2016, 2015, to become a Trump supporter because he was talking sense. Everything that he talked resonated with me. He’s a very real person. He was talking with his gut feelings, his real talk, not his manufactured talk. And I really like it.”

Such stories reveal a major generational divide amongst Indian Americans.

One person told me: “you don’t come to this country to change this country. You come to this country because you love this country. You don’t fix issues here.’

But what about Indian Americans who didn’t immigrate, i.e. those who were born and/or raised in the US? Their experiences of growing up as an ethnic minority do not equate to life in India and they are more ready to ‘fix the country’.

IMPACT say they want Indian Americans to invest domestically. “The first generation of Indian Americans did well, gave a lot of money back to India… and what we’re trying to do is say that’s fine, but you also need to be investing in our community here in our country, the country we call home,” Raghavan told me.

For now, they also face a difficult challenge of uniting a divided community.


Eviane Cheng Leidig is a PhD research fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism, University of Oslo.
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/evianeleidig
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