How Indian Americans View Trump and His Indictment. It’s Complicated
- While the former president’s negative view of Muslims and chumminess with Modi appeal to them, they still believe in the rule of law and accountability.
Indians are no strangers to their leaders being in legal trouble. Rahul Gandhi has just been ousted from parliament for comments made about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and potentially sent to two years in prison. Earlier, former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was indicted for corruption and served time in prison.
But the spectacle of the American president being indicted has no precedent. Donald Trump matters to South Asians because he has been quite popular with them. In 2016 when I took a group of American students to India and had them meet with families, one of which was my friend Arun’s, they reported back to me that he had said that he liked Trump.
Indeed, this has been the surprising finding from many developing countries – that ordinary people liked Trump. Specifically, they liked him for his ability to speak his mind, howsoever un-PC it was, and his lack of concern for the consequences. This is in direct contrast to the jaded speeches made by politicians who are products of their parties and political games and say very little that they actually believe in. So, despite the obvious racial overtones to Trump’s ramblings (labeling African nations as s@#$hole countries), there was a feeling that he was speaking his mind and, in any case, most American politicians probably thought that way but did not speak it aloud.
Trump casts a long shadow worldwide with his manners, soundbites, and campaigns being copied into a playbook and used globally, especially in India. This is evident from his “America First” policies which found resonance in Modi’s speeches of “India First” (spectacularly mocked by Hasan Minhaj in an episode of Netflix’s “Patriot Act”), and the casual adoption of fake news and untruths that are also copied in many South Asian campaigns and politics now. Trump too was not above borrowing another campaign slogan as evident from his “Ab Ki Baar Trump Sarkar” (this time a Trump government) directly lifted from the Modi campaign and targeting the Indian community (at least those that are Hindi speakers).
So, why is Trump popular with Indian Americans, a group that has been a dedicated Democrat party reliable over the years? There are various reasons, but social and cultural issues predominate. Indian Americans, indeed, all South Asian Americans, tend to be socially conservative. While they have chafed under racism when directed against them, they have generally been quite accepting of a subordinate role in politics as long as they got their economic due and cultural autonomy, thus earning the tag of Model Minority.
The liberal spectrum in America has skewed leftwards increasingly in recent years, mostly on social issues such as LGBTQ rights, immigrant and refugee rights, as well as the idea of a more progressive tax policy. None of these issues resonate with a large chunk of Indians, who tend to eschew sexual and gender politics, are unsympathetic to undocumented immigrants (as opposed to their own legal arrival and status), and support lower taxes, especially for those who are well off.
Numerous politicians of Indian heritage are leftist or progressive such as Pramila Jayapal and Rohit Khanna but their ideas may not resonate with Indian-Americans in the south and Midwest who are likely more conservative than their coastal counterparts.
A more significant platform is that of the Trump administration (and that of the Republican party) on Muslims. Since the Iraq invasion of 2003, many Hindu Americans have looked favorably upon the Republican party, believing it to be more in tune with Indian concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. Trump’s policy measures limiting entry by people from seven mostly Muslim countries found favor with Indian Americans.
So did his open courting of Modi – indeed both basked in the presence of each other. When Trump shared the stage with Modi at the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, TX, he indicated his approval of Modi’s policies (often considered anti-Muslim) which most Democrats have not endorsed. The isolationist and America-centric world vision of Trump sits well with a similar one in India (which is Hindu-centric).
However, there is a danger in reading all Indian Americans as Trump supporters. As mentioned above there are numerous Indian heritage politicians who are in the Democratic party and espouse its concerns strongly. If anything, Indian Americans are likely a bi-modal distribution of support which is both conservative and liberal tilted in favor of the latter. While a few authors and columnists like Dinesh D’Souza and Ramesh Ponnuru wave the conservative flag, Indian Americans are conscious of the increasing “whiteness” of the Republican party and its acceptance of white supremacy.
Trump’s indictment is therefore of crucial importance. This is the first instance globally of a populist politician who has lied and acted in personal rather than national interests being held accountable. As such, it sends a salutary warning to similar leaders elsewhere and also removes the stigma of the United States not touching a politico whose actions are considered reprehensible by his own party as well.
For Indians, it is evidence that democratic processes work in the United States and that no one is above the law – regardless of whether the indictment results in a conviction or not. It also suggests that populist leaders may, in the future, be held accountable for their actions.
Dr. Milind Thakar is a Professor of International Relations in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd project.