ast month, I was surprised to find that the first Trump supporters I know of turned out to be Vietnamese Americans. They’re a middle aged couple, family friends, and while I’ve always known them to be Republicans, (most Vietnamese who left the country for political reasons naturally gravitate to the Republican party) the tenacity of their support for Trump and abhorrence for Hillary and Obama nevertheless baffled me.
When we met and I told them I was taking a break from living in Hong Kong, they offered their condolences for the plight of the student demonstrators of the umbrella movement, along with warm support for their cause and well wishes for some of their roles as elected officials. I was touched, and glad to know they were aware of these events – most Americans wouldn’t have known much of what happened in Hong Kong, goes my presumption.
But this transitioned rather quickly into a conversation about whom people should vote for this election – in their eyes, Trump. I thought: how could someone be empathetic and so aware of such a political item as the umbrella movement, and not have the same acumen to see what a disaster a Trump presidency would be? I would learn later of a few other Vietnamese Americans I know of who support Trump, even as his poll numbers dip and his candidacy crashes and burns.
Vietnamese that escaped Vietnam often veer right into the Republican party’s fold; it makes logical sense. It’s a platform that promises smaller, less invasive government, something the diaspora fundamentally agrees with given their experience in their old country. This mistrust of government is there even as they are still deeply politically active – thus democratic involvement becomes a check, a way to fend off the “harmful reach” of the government. The same Vietnamese American community holds ennobling views of free enterprise and entrepreneurism, placing trust and implicit faith that open market policies lead to better systems and that Adam Smith’s invisible hand pushes people who compete to their fair and justly deserved wealth. The first elected Vietnamese American official in 1992, was a self made millionaire in America after all, a refugee like me who exhibited this narrative. His political party: Republican.
The recent financial collapse and what it revealed will not deter this trust in the free market. No number of clips of Elizabeth Warren talks or putdowns of dishonest CEOs seem to change their minds. I suspect this to have been coupled with the Vietnamese American belief in the unfettered freedom to pursue wealth and opportunities in their adapted country that wasn’t possible from their original land, years ago. Embedded in this belief, of course, is a more insidious one that claims: those that didn’t make it, probably didn’t because they hadn’t tried.
In a recent online argument I had with a Viet American Trump supporter about whether or not the recent clip Fox News aired of Chinatown was racist, my interlocutor (who shared my last name, but is no relation) said we were all just too sensitive. Toughen up, he advised his readers. He argued that Trump isn’t racist either. Then he explained his perspective:
“I feel for the weak and think they should be helped, but most people are not weak, they’re just lazy. I have no sympathy for the lazy… I’m more of a survival of the fittest kind of person. If some silly words could make you run crying to your mama, then you are probably too fragile to live in the real world.”
The last sentence is for the Asian Americans like me who “over reacted” to the Fox News clip.
You can see how Trump, in spite of his petulant, whiny self, could appeal to such Vietnamese in America. His tough talk on China offers supposed contrast to this somehow entrenched belief that Obama was too soft on terrorism, on communism, on Isis, and so on, all the way down to Vietnamese communism. It doesn’t matter what the truth is, the perception is that Obama let the world boss the U.S. around. It doesn’t matter where Bush’s bluster and tough “cowboy diplomacy” has brought us, either. We need strength. We need a braggart, a brash, impetuous man from outside the system to come in and pummel our enemies. Never mind that sissy liberals like me are as terrified of Hillary’s tough talk on Russia as we are of Trump’s tough talk on every other nation BUT Russia.
These are generalizations compiled from my chats and my sense of what’s happening with my family friends, and reactions from other friends of mine on the election. There is also apparently a gap between the generations. Demographic numbers suggest that young Vietnamese Americans are voting Democratic, while their parents and any that was born in Vietnam, my generation, tended to vote Republican.
So my family friend went through the talking points that I’ve heard this entire election: Hillary is evil, she lies, Trump is strong, tells it straight, is a businessman who’ll know how to run the country, knows entrepreneurism, he won’t be afraid of America’s enemies, etc…
My eyes started to glaze over as I realised there’s nothing I could say to change his mind, nor anything he could to change mine. The clincher, the one argument I’ve heard so much before, came at the end: “Hillary is just too frail. She doesn’t have the stamina for the job.”
“Women past a certain age,” he continued, “post-menaupasal women, can’t really do such a demanding job anymore.”
That one did it for me. I knew there was nothing left we could say. My mother is a practicing doctor, near Hillary’s age. Trump is years older than both her and Clinton.
Even as I’m a moderate liberal, a Democrat through and through, it’s my hope that the Republican party recovers its reasonable base somehow, somewhen, in the near future. As soon as possible. I don’t enjoy seeing this crash and burn of civil, substantive dialogue, this continued vitriol, misogyny, racism, this hate.
Reports now say many conservative Vietnamese Americans are turning away from Trump. I am hopeful that this becomes more than just a trend. And ultimately, I do think we are wise to con artists, especially if they keep getting exposed as Trump has. I don’t think my family friend’s mind will ever be changed, but others’ in the community seem to be, and that is, if nothing else, cause for hope.