On a Saturday evening in October 2016, with the presidential elections less than a month away, Donald Trump addressed a rapt crowd in Edison, New Jersey. New Jersey is not a swing state—it has voted for the Democratic candidate in the last seven presidential elections—so it was an unusual campaign stop. But then, this was not the usual Trump rally. The familiar “Make America Great Again” signs had been replaced by ones more relatable to this particular audience: Trump for Faster Green Cards. Trump Against Terror. Trump for Hindu-Americans.
The fundraiser, hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), was one of a series of overtures from Trump toward Indian-Americans. “We love Hindus,” Trump proclaimed to the audience. “And if elected, you would have a true friend in the White House.”
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True to his word, earlier this month President Trump personally hosted a party in the Oval Office to celebrate Diwali, the most important religious holiday for Hindus. Joining him were his daughter and advisor, Ivanka Trump; RHC founder and Trump campaign megadonor Shalabh Kumar; ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; and several other senior Indian-American administration officials. President Trump, notably, did not attend his Jewish staff’s annual Passover Seder, and ended a decades-long White House tradition by declining to host an Iftar dinner to celebrate the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Hindus make up about three quarters of the nearly four million people of Indian origin living in the United States. In November, nearly 80 percent of the Indian-American vote went to Hillary Clinton.
Given this, and a campaign and presidency in which engagement with minorities—especially Hispanics, Mexicans, African-Americans and Muslims—has been conspicuously absent, if not overtly hostile, Trump’s overtures toward Indian-Americans are unusual.
One explanation is that Trump is simply appeasing an important donor: Kumar, who donated more than a million dollars to the Trump Victory Committee, the big-donor fundraising vehicle his campaign shared with the Republican Party. The Chicago-based businessman—who has expressed support for Trump’s calls for monitoring Muslims and cracking down on Pakistan—claims that the RHC’s efforts swung tens of thousands of votes in key battleground states. It’s possible the president is merely paying back a debt.
But if President Trump is throwing bones to his benefactor, he hasn’t limited them to campaign appearances and White House parties. The president has appointed Indian-Americans to positions of real power, and not just Nikki Haley: Ajit Pai, Seema Verma, Raj Shah, Neomi Rao, Neil Chatterjee and Vishal Amin all hold key administration positions. Indian-Americans have not only become the face of diversity in a White House that is decidedly not, their decisions will influence the lives of millions of Americans. (President Obama’s administration is still the high-water mark for Indian Americans in a presidential administration, but no White House has had more high-level Indian-American appointees than Trump’s.)
But it may be in foreign policy where Trump’s pro-India tilt is most keenly felt. The president’s speech this summer announcing his new Afghanistan policy was tough on Pakistan, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who traveled to India for the first time in his official capacity last week, laid out a new strategy for South Asia with India squarely at the center. In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Tillerson said, “In this period of uncertainty and somewhat angst, India needs a reliable partner on the world stage. I want to make clear, with our shared values and vision for global stability, peace and prosperity, the United States is that partner.” In a rebuff to China, he later said, “We’ll never have the same relationship with China, a non-democratic society, that we can have with a major democracy.”
In some ways, Trump’s apparent embrace of Indian-Americans—and specifically, Hindu-Americans—makes perfect sense. Trump, who tends to love those who love him, is popular with India’s sizeable Hindu nationalist bloc, many of whom are virulently Islamophobic. Like Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power on a wave of anti-Muslim, populist fury about government corruption, terrorism and a lackluster economy. Once in office, he launched his “Make in India” campaign to encourage domestic manufacturing more than two years before “Made in America” became Trump’s rallying cry.
Kumar, who travels regularly to India and has close ties to the Modi administration, has taken pains to equate Trump with the Indian leader. So far, Trump doesn’t seem to mind. After Modi’s visit to the White House this summer, Trump remarked, “I’m proud to announce to the media, to the American people, and to the Indian people, that Prime Minister Modi and I are world leaders in social media.” (Both men are active on Twitter and have more than 35 million followers.)
Republicans have long believed that Indian-Americans, are a natural fit for the GOP, but the party’s outreach ramped up significantly after President Obama’s re-election in 2012. The following year, former chair of the Republican National Committee Reince Preibus made a push to expand Asian-American outreach, incudling to Indian-Americans, saying, “It’s no secret that Republicans have ground to make up among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. To earn voters’ trust, we must be present in their communities.” Back then, this was a reasonable theory: As a group, Indian-Americans have high rates of business ownership and the highest median household income in the country. That, coupled with India’s history with terrorism, makes Indian-Americans potentially receptive to GOP priorities like tax reform, healthcare overhaul and border security.
Adi Sathi was vice chairman of the Michigan Republican party last November, and believes the party’s aggressive Indian-American engagement helped turn the state red for the first time in nearly three decades. Around 60,000 Indian-Americans live in Michigan, and President Trump won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes. “I think it made a tremendous difference,” said Sathi, now National Chief of Staff for the Young Republican National Federation. “One of the new coalitions we founded during Ronna Romney McDaniel’s chairmanship [in Michigan] was the Indian-American Coalition,” Sathi said. The coalition, led by members of the Michigan business community, convened gatherings between Indian-American voters and local and state Republican leaders throughout the campaign.
Sathi, who also serves as an advisor to Ed Gillespie’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, points to that state as another example of the GOP’s recruitment and engagement efforts within the Indian-American community and, in particular, Subba Kolla’s campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates’ 87th district, where Kolla is running against Democratic incumbent John Bell. “He has actively been focusing on engagement in his district, which has a very high proportion of Indian-Americans,” said Sathi. “I think [what happening there] is indicative of the Republican Party and the RNC’s engagement with the Indian-American community and the importance that they’re putting toward that community.”
In Dayton, Ohio, Ramesh Mehan was a diehard Democrat before switching allegiances and supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. He has voted Republican ever since, including last November. Mehan, who was on the steering committee for Mitt Romney’s manufacturing coalition in Ohio in 2012 and actively campaigns for Republican candidates, thinks many Indian-Americans have a distorted view of the GOP. “I was under the impression that Republicans were terrible, racist people. But when I got inside the Republican Party, I saw that wasn’t true,” he said, adding that he believes President Trump is a “nationalist,” not a racist. Mehan considers himself a moderate—he campaigned hard for Mitt Romney in 2012 and supported Marco Rubio in the Republican primary last November—but he is rooting for the president to succeed.
But Republicans may have a tough time finding more Ramesh Mehans, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside and director of the National Asian American Survey. “Indian-Americans consistently over time tend to be the most progressive leaning among Asian groups,” he said. A survey of Asian-Americans conducted before the election found that only 18 percent of Indians had a favorable view of the Republican Party, compared with 64 percent who viewed the Democratic party favorably.
And while Trump may be beloved by Hindu nationalists, the diaspora in the U.S. is different in a few crucial ways. For starters, they’re highly educated. Seventy-two percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In the November election, education emerged as one of the biggest predictors of voting behavior, with college graduates backing Clinton by a 9-point margin. That’s a much wider gap than in past elections—Barack Obama had just a 2-point margin over Mitt Romney among college graduates in 2012. Still, Democrats have held a consistent advantage among more educated voters for the past three elections. Indian-Americans also tend to be more tolerant of government spending on social services, a vestige of India’s brand of socialism-infused capitalism.
But the biggest barrier to the GOP gaining ground in the Indian-American community, according to Ramakrishnan, is the exclusionary policy and rhetoric coming from the White House. Trump famously said that Mexico was sending criminals and rapists over the border. He has advocated building a wall to keep undocumented immigrants out and has repeatedly tried to ban or restrict travel into the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries. After white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, North Carolina, the president stated, “I think there is blame on both sides.”
About three quarters of Indian-Americans are foreign-born, making them highly sensitive to racial dog whistles. Since 9/11, there have been several high-profile attacks against Sikh-American men, who wear turbans as a symbol of their faith. Sikhism, which originates in India, is distinct from Islam but its followers are often confused for Muslims, who are among the groups most targeted by hate crime. Most recently, the shooting death in Kansas of 32-year old Indian immigrant Srinivas Kuchibhotla by a man shouting racial slurs hit home for Indian-Americans who have been at the receiving end of racial discrimination. President Trump’s initial silence—he waited six days before publicly condemning the attack in a joint session of Congress—angered many Indian-Americans, and his family members back in India blamed Trump.
On the issue of immigration, nearly two-thirds of Indian-Americans agree with the statement, “Undocumented or illegal immigrants should have an opportunity to eventually become U.S. citizens.” And Asian-Americans, including Indian-Americans, strongly oppose a Muslim ban. Last week, President Trump tightened restrictions on people working in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, a move that has antagonized Indian-Americans, who have been the overwhelming beneficiaries of that system.
Any appeal that the GOP might hold for Indian-Americans is liable to disintegrate against a backdrop of race-baiting and ethnocentrism. Until that perception changes, it’s going to be an uphill climb for Republicans to loosen the Democratic stranglehold on Indian-American voters. “Unless Trump is able to significantly or forcefully deal with the nativist strain within the Republican Party” said Ramakrishnan, “it’s going to be really hard to make inroads with Indian-Americans.”