Kanchan Chandra is a professor of politics at New York University whose research focuses on comparative ethnic politics.
“If I am elected president,” said Donald Trump, speaking on Saturday to a gathering in Edison, N.J., organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition, “the Indian and Hindu community will have a big friend in the White House.” In that speech, Trump tried to appeal to Hindus among Indian Americans in three ways:
First, he equated Indians with Hindus, erasing India’s religious minorities — 172 million Muslims, 28 million Christians, 21 million Sikhs and 8 million Buddhists, among others — from the picture.
Second, he equated his position on Islamic terrorism with that of India’s government. As he put it: “We appreciate the great friend that India has been to the United States in the fight against radical Islamic terrorists . . . we are going to be best friends.”
Third, he equated himself with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I look forward to working with Prime Minister Modi who has been very energetic in reforming India’s bureaucracy. Great man, I applaud him. I look forward to doing some serious bureaucratic trimming right here in the United States . . .”
Several news sources suggested that even though the majority of Indian Americans do not support Trump, his effort to associate himself with Modi and his anti-Muslim rhetoric might win him some support. The New York Times, for example, reported that his tracking of the language of Mr. Modi “has given Mr. Trump a foothold of support among Hindus in the United States, some of whom are also drawn to his strong talk about Muslims, their longtime adversaries on the subcontinent.” WNYC reported, “The other way that Trump aligns with some Indians and Hindus in the U.S. is his proposed ban of allowing Muslim immigrants to enter the U.S. For decades Hindus and Muslims in India have been fighting and there were outbreaks in the late 1980s that left hundreds dead. So to some extent these two communities continue to harbor suspicious against each other. . . . Trump did get a rise out of the crowd when he mentioned fighting radical Islam.”
But the real story when it comes to the political preferences of Indian Americans — and Hindus in particular — is not that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is attracting some, but that it is repelling most. According to the 2016 National Asian American Survey, conducted in August and September, only 7 percent voted for Trump in the primaries and only 7 percent report that they are likely to vote for him in the presidential election.
In the 2012 presidential election, according to the 2012 post-election National Asian American Survey, 16 percent of Indian Americans voted for the Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Indian Americans have historically voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. But the sharp drop in even the small percentage voting for the Republican candidate between 2012 and 2016 suggests that Trump’s rhetoric has cost, rather than won, him votes from Indian Americans.
The figures in these surveys do not break down the political preferences of Indian Americans by religion. But 54 percent of the Asian Indians surveyed by the 2016 National Asian American Survey were Hindu. So even if we assume that all of the 7 percent of Asian Indians who plan to vote for Trump are Hindu, it is clear that the vast majority of Hindu Indians in America do not support Trump.
In contrast, Modi draws wide and deep support among Indian Americans and especially among Hindus. There are no available survey data which record their preferences for Modi, but the adulation he has attracted at gatherings of Indians in the United States, including a crowd of nearly 20,000 at Madison Square Garden in 2014, hint at the groundswell of support. And much of the support Modi draws is because of, not despite, his Hindu nationalist ideology.
Modi’s Hindu nationalism is not a benign ideology. As a systematic attempt to fuse Hindu majoritarianism with nationhood, justifies intolerance towards India’s non-Hindu minorities. The question raised by Trump’s poor reception among Indian Americans in general and Hindus in particular, then, is why even those attracted to a strongman who represents Hindu nationalism are not attracted to Trump’s rhetoric.
The answer may lie in how distinct Trump’s rhetoric is even when compared to right-wing nationalisms, including Hindu nationalism. Most right-wing nationalist movements identify a single ethnic group as the enemy, whereas for Trump, the sheer range of enemies, both within and outside the United States — African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Mexicans — is remarkable. Most right-wing nationalisms usually package the hatred of an enemy within some kind of coherent ideology, and are backed by an organization. But Trump appears untroubled by the need for coherence and has lost the support of his own party. And while right-wing nationalisms usually restrict the range of acceptable behaviors for women, Trump’s violent misogyny sets him apart even in this relatively unflattering comparison set.