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Who are the Asian Americans still voting for Trump in spite of his 'China virus' rhetoric?

Experts say a coalescence of cultural and historical baggage and the fragmented nature of Asian America have helped lead some groups to shift toward Trump.
Image: Early voting
People wait in a line to vote in Queens, N.Y. during early voting for the Presidential election on Oct. 24, 2020.John Nacion / Star Max via AP photo

President Donald Trump's repeated use of anti-China rhetoric like "kung flu" and "China virus" to describe Covid-19 quickly became a customary part of the election cycle. Soon after, his word choice prompted analysis around how it could affect Asian American voters.

For the most part, Trump's discriminatory language hasn't done him many favors with Asian American voters. A survey released in September shows that a majority of the electorate is supporting Joe Biden, at 54 percent, while about 30 percent is backing Trump. But the community's depth and diversity can't be explained in one statistic.

Asian Americans as a whole have trended left in recent elections, but research shows that some populations have shifted toward the right, specifically Vietnamese Americans and, to a lesser extent, Indian Americans. In some cases, that's because of the rhetoric that many fear has emboldened people to attack those in the community.

Experts say a coalescence of cultural and historical baggage and the fragmented nature of Asian America have helped lead to that shift.

These groups haven't necessarily been exempt from the pandemic racism. And advocates say that to get groups to understand the reality of Trump's policies, outreach should come from a place of empathy.

"We can and should continue to challenge people's assumptions and views, but when we do it with empathy, we make space for our communities to come together, instead of further divide," said Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American author who is campaign strategist at the nonprofit Progressive Vietnamese American Organization.

The Vietnamese community has made a significant move toward the right compared to the past election cycle. In 2016, it voted for Hillary Clinton at a far higher proportion than for Trump. But the recent survey shows a reversal, with about 48 percent of Vietnamese Americans saying they would vote for Trump, while 36 percent said they would vote for Biden if they had to choose today. Trump's habit of blaming China for the pandemic and his continued use of the discriminatory language, Thi said, could have helped spur the change.

Vietnam has had a long, contentious relationship with China, spanning thousands of years, before the French occupied the country in the late 1800s. Its history is lined with several periods of Chinese colonization. Animosity toward Beijing only persisted with a series of bloody border wars in the late 1970s. Today, tensions still reverberate throughout the region, even though relations between the two countries were normalized in 1991. Last year, a Chinese survey vessel engaged in a standoff with Vietnamese ships after it entered Vietnam's exclusive economic zone.

"It's kind of part of the Vietnamese identity to be anti-China only as a former annexed state of China," Thi said. "This relationship continues with China's conflicts with Vietnam over borders and fishing rights and various things. ... And many people right now fear that China will swallow Vietnam unless a strong leader stands up to them."

Trump has taken a hawkish stance toward China, claiming that it will "pay a big price for what they've done to the world." Thi said that hearing "Trump, the strong man," voice such ideas is appealing to a population that is processing its history.

"The Republicans have been very adamant about pushing that anti-China rhetoric, if only to deflect from Trump's many failures in domestic policy, but even if it's not completely true, it is what they want to hear, because it's such a source of fear for them," Thi said.

Dr. Anh-Thu Bui, chair of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization's Election Committee, said many in the Vietnamese community — a predominantly refugee population who arrived in the U.S. following the Vietnam War — still have memories of persecution under a communist regime. Those experiences often pull them toward the Republican Party, she said, because they are baked into the language.

"Even the name of the Democratic Party, 'Đảng Dân chủ,' brings up the old history of those groups that supported the eventual victory of the Communist Party, including Đảng Dân chủ Việt Nam," she said. "The old Republic of Vietnam, 'Việt Nam Cộng hòa,' is the old country that no longer exists, for which the Vietnamese refugees abroad still yearn. The Republican Party is translated into 'Đảng Cộng hòa,' the same name as the old republic, with clear favorable association."

She said the older generations of Vietnamese Americans favor Trump, particularly because his "tough on China" talk feels reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan's aggressive approach to communism. Reagan famously supported anti-communist resistance movements to counter the Soviet Union. Dr. Anh-Thu Bui said that ultimately, the stances of many Vietnamese Americans stem from a reaction to intergenerational trauma from a colonial history of Chinese domination.

"It's not rational, because Vietnam is currently under threat of territorial expansion by mainland China, and Viet refugees are against communist Vietnam but still want to defend their homeland against invasion by China," Dr. Anh-Thu Bui said.

Data from the hate incident reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate show that those of Vietnamese descent have been targeted by Covid-19-related racism. But even though the group isn't exempt from the discrimination so many Asian Americans face today, Thi said, "it wouldn't be the first time that Vietnamese people, especially those who experienced the wars of the 20th century and fled their homeland as refugees, have felt like they had to choose between evils or prioritize one kind of survival over another."

Another group that has shown evidence of a shift is Indian Americans. In 2016, 70 percent of Indian Americans said they would vote for Clinton, while 7 percent reported that they would vote for Trump. While the community was most strongly inclined to choose Biden of all Asian subgroups in this election cycle, Trump managed to make inroads with the group, drawing support from about 28 percent, while 65 percent would vote for Biden, a new survey shows.

Trump's discriminatory rhetoric about the coronavirus isn't as much of a concern to Indian Americans, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the policy research nonprofit AAPI Data. The group's more recent immigration patterns to the U.S. could have something to do with it. Indian Americans largely arrived in the 1990s, when the country escalated efforts to recruit highly skilled Asian immigrants. Ramakrishnan also said the Y2K bug set off a major demand for software engineers in the U.S., pulling in many from India and China.

While many Asian American groups have been immigrating to the U.S. for decades, most Indian immigrants came over in the last 30 years. Therefore, identification with the broader term "Asian American" may not be as strong, he said; neither is the sense of a "linked fate" with East Asians. The strong sense of solidarity among other groups under the Asian American umbrella tends to be weaker among immigrants but progressively stronger with later generations.

However, Ramakrishnan added that "just as many East Asians didn't experience the rise in hate crimes, including violence and hate speech following 9/11. ... The reason why you don't see as much cross-ethnic solidarity is because they're predominantly foreign-born."

A further breakdown of the survey shows that Trump made more progress among men compared to women in the community. Ramakrishnan said Trump's "masculinist approach to foreign policy" makes him engaging to certain segments of Indian American men.

"I think it's a kind of authoritarian politics that appeals at some level because of a lack of political correctness and providing very simplistic solutions," he said. "And projecting a kind of strength and power that seems to appeal to a certain portion of men."

Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at the nonprofit Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Trump's friendly relationship with India's controversial prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has a divisive reputation as an authoritarian Hindu nationalist, has also helped him. Last year, the pair appeared before a crowd at a rally in Houston, as well as in front of another audience in Modi's hometown in Gujarat this year. Many suspect that the appearances were efforts to connect with the Indian American community.

"I think that of the minority of Indian American voters that voted for Trump and continue to support him — these same voters likely support Modi and his Islamophobic policies. That is where there is an overlap — hatred for Muslims, which translates into policies, the Muslim ban, etc.," Vattamala said. "Just as Trump appeals to the notion that 'real Americans' are white and Christian, Modi likewise appeals to the notion that 'real Indians' are Hindu and everything else except Muslim."

The group on the receiving end of Trump's rhetoric, however, is moving the other way. Chinese Americans, who make up the largest subgroup within the community, had experienced momentum in the "Chinese Americans for Trump" movement during the last election cycle. The emergence of the racialized Covid-19 language took a toll on support for him, Ramakrishnan said.

"He used a lot of anti-China rhetoric in 2016, if you remember," Ramakrishnan said. "I would say that what was additional that we saw this year was the racist rhetoric surrounding Covid-19."

Thi said that in her work with the Vietnamese community, she has found that the best way to reach those voters who may not be getting a full picture of Trump's impact on the Asian American population is to frame issues in a way that is accessible and relevant, explaining his stance on programs they may use, including welfare and unemployment. She said that's far more effective than conducting outreach based on "the merits or evils of abstract concepts like socialism and communism."

"We can ask questions about their families, their hopes, their worries, what they think about current events, why they think those things and how they arrived at those opinions," she said. "We can make sure people are aware of federal, state and local policies and their representatives and how policies affect their lives and communities in ways they may not have understood. We have to also be reaching people in the language they feel comfortable with. All of these things can be done compassionately."