This was a Donald Trump rally like no other.
On the same day that the Republican presidential nominee told a mostly white crowd in Maine that he would unite the United States under “one god,” he appeared in front of a crowd of thousands of people of Indian extraction and lit a Hindu ceremonial candle.
“I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India,” he said, to loud cheers from a crowd composed of many American citizens, but also many, who are at various stages along the path to citizenship or just visiting from India.
The rally, in Edison, N.J., was organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition, whose founder, Shalabh Kumar, is one of Trump’s biggest fundraisers. Trump repaid Kumar’s generosity with a remarkably warm speech toward Hindus and India in which he said the two nations would be “best friends.”
“There won’t be any relationship more important to us,” said Trump.
At the end of a week in which Trump faced a seemingly ever-growing number of sexual assault allegations, the rally in New Jersey provided a welcome diversion. The nominee stuck entirely to praise for India and its prime minister, Narendra Modi, as well as his standard policy positions, which he read from a teleprompter.
In a statement days before the rally, Kumar defended Trump against the allegations, saying, “The Hindu and Indian people do not abandon their friends in times of crisis. With India and Pakistan on the brink of war, and lives at stake in the global war on terror, Mr. Trump is the president we need at this time.”
Hindu supporters of Trump at the event said they find common ground with the candidate on his perceived toughness against “radical Islamic terror,” as well as promises of low taxes. On the other hand, Trump has often said he would curtail immigration to the United States, which seemed at odds in a room filled with immigrants and those hoping to become Americans. The organizers printed hundreds of signs for attendees to hold, including many that said “Trump for faster green cards.”
More than half of the two-dozen-odd attendees interviewed for this article were not (yet) American citizens. And while the smattering of white people in the audience wore Trump campaign paraphernalia, much of the rest of the crowd donned sequined and starched Indian attire.
Many who were present said they were not aware that the event was meant to have any political overtones. For more than two hours before Trump’s speech, the convention center where the rally took place witnessed a celebration of Bollywood culture, much of which took place in Indian languages. That cinematic masala, or verve, is what many said made the event alluring — not Trump.
“I am here to see Prabhudeva,” said Kashyap Patel, 29, who is a green-card holder working for a pharmaceuticals company in Piscataway, N.J. Prabhudeva is a major celebrity, known for his intricate dancing style and commonly thought of as India’s answer to Michael Jackson. “I think most people came for entertainment purposes. My focus is to see Prabhudeva and then leave.”
That Prabhudeva and other household-name Indian stars would effectively introduce Trump came as a surprise to many on Indian social media, as well as to many in the Indian-American community, which leans overwhelmingly Democratic. Roughly 70 percent plan to vote for Hillary Clinton compared with 7 percent for Trump, according to most recent polls.
But Trump won major applause for comparisons between himself and Modi, who he called a “great man,” as well as his condemnation of the Islamic State, which included a jab at Clinton.
“We will stand shoulder to shoulder with India in sharing intelligence and keeping our people safe mutually,” he said. “This is so important in the age of ISIS, the barbaric threat Hillary Clinton has unleashed on the entire world.”
The national security messaging made its way into part of the Bollywood routine, too. One onstage skit featured two dancing couples who were abruptly interrupted by robed, bearded men with fake machine guns masquerading as terrorists. Only after they carried out a mock execution, did men and women dressed as police officials come on stage and “shoot” them. Then the police officials and couples danced a number before transitioning into the American national anthem. The event itself was billed as a charity event for Hindu victims of terrorism in both Kashmir and West Bengal, Indian states that have seen major incidents of communal violence.
The linkage of Islam and terrorism was made more explicit by Hindu supporters of Trump who were passing out fliers outside the convention center. A man named Vincent Bruno caught the attention of many who were milling about while waiting to enter when he confronted a small group of protesters. Bruno is a gay man, married to a Venezuelan, who converted to Hinduism from what he called “paganism” because he found the former religion to be more “refined and intact”
“If you support Muslims, you support rape culture,” he said, during a nearly three-minute long attempt to shout out the protesters, who were carrying signs that said “South Asians Dump Trump.”
Back inside, the few white Trump supporters seemed to be enjoying the music and dance. Ruth Janiszak, 68, said the rally in New Jersey was her first for Trump, though she’d been an active Republican for decades. Her son Steve had found out about the rally almost by accident, he said, because it was mostly advertised to the Indian-American community.
“Bollywood is real different for people like us,” she said, adding that she had only ever had good experiences with Indian Americans in her years as a private piano instructor. “We all believe in a God. I’m just glad they’re turning out.”
As for Trump, she said she was tired of him straying away from the issues. Trembling with anger, she said Clinton was “a terrible disgrace” and “a crying shame.”
“We need to close immigration right now, and get to work assimilating the ones who we already let in. We cannot let anymore in until we figure out what is going on,” said Janiszak, who claimed her own family had been in America since 1658, “before it was a country.”
After what he found to be a satisfying speech by Trump, Steve Janiszak said the event proved to him that “it can be good that people come from other countries.”
“I don’t want to get into terms and all,” he said. “But people make Trump out to be a racist and a xenophobe, and he’s not.”