On Saturday at a convention center in Edison, N.J., GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is scheduled to give an address unlike any he has given before — in front of a crowd of fervent supporters who will be mostly nonwhite.
The address, hosted by the Trump campaign and the Republican Hindu Coalition, is part of a charity benefit for Hindu victims of terrorism. With Bollywood-style entertainment and Indian celebrity guest appearances, the spectacle will provide welcome optics for a campaign that has provoked almost nothing but backlash from minority voters.
The event is also unusual because the Indian American community overwhelmingly leans Democratic, with 70 percent planning to vote for Hillary Clinton compared with 7 percent for Trump, according to the most recent polls.
But some Trump supporters are working to improve those numbers, arguing that business-minded and socially conservative Indian Americans are a natural fit for the Republican candidate. Trump’s tough talk on national security, and on Pakistan in particular, has also invigorated some Hindu Americans who see Islamic extremism as the gravest threat facing both the United States and India.
“Trump really is colorblind,” said Shalabh Kumar, the electronics magnate who founded the Republican Hindu Coalition, or RHC. “What better way to show that than a rally of thousands of people who are brown?”
Together with his immediate family, Kumar has given almost $2 million to super PACs that support Trump. He is spending between $3 million and $5 million of his own money on the event in New Jersey. Like many of the Indian American community’s leaders, Kumar comes from a business background. Admiration for Trump’s business background is the bedrock of what support he has among Indian Americans, and belief in his promise to root out “radical Islamic terror” is the topsoil that lies above it.
Undeterred by numerous recent allegations of sexual assault against the candidate, Kumar said Saturday’s event would go on. “The Hindu and Indian people do not abandon their friends in times of crisis,” he said. “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.”
Immigrants who grew up in India are well acquainted with a broken governing system. Sujeeth Draksharam, a Houston-area civil engineer who is now the Republican precinct chair for Fort Bend County, says Democrats remind him of the Indian politicians he so despised in his native country.
“We’ve seen pay-to-play in India. Oh, man — that’s a great scheme right there,” Draksharam said. “I’ve seen terrorism and corruption. People here, in the land of plenty, they don’t know what they have, and maybe that’s why they vote Democrat. Maybe we’ve seen enough of life to know what’s real.”
“For us, when it hits in the wallet, or in an attack, that’s when we realize we’re Republicans,” he added.
Kumar agreed that Trump’s hard line on Muslims is a source of support for him among some Indian Americans. “A lot of Hindus see it that way,” he said. “Butchers and killers have declared war on India, on the U.S. and on civilization. You better recognize the war and win it.”
Recent voter surveys, however, indicate that Kumar is overestimating that pull, as well as the community’s conservative leanings. In a spring 2016 survey, 70 percent opposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States, a plan Trump proposed last year before altering it this year to include unidentified nations with terrorism problems.
But it is immigration reform that is one of the biggest draws of the Democratic Party for Indian Americans. More than 60 percent of Indian Americans now in the United States arrived after 2000, according to Devesh Kapur, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India and a contributing author in the forthcoming book “The Other One Percent: Indians in America.”
The Democratic Party’s tradition of “big tent” politics and its embrace of cultural diversity appeals to many recent immigrants. Shekar Narasimhan, of Fairfax, Va., said he thinks that Indians are actually being driven further into the Democratic fold by Trump’s antagonism toward immigrants. “It is as if a GPS is telling us, ‘Go left, young man!’ ” Narasimhan said.
Like Kumar and Draksharam, Narasimhan came to the United States as a young man to obtain a master’s degree. But while the others veered toward business, Narasimhan took his MBA to rural eastern Kentucky, where he lived for four years working on an affordable housing project. The racism that he encountered informed his political inclinations. In 2006, his son was called a “macaca” in public by then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) at a campaign stop. At the time, The Washington Post noted that his son was Fairfax County-born and raised — “a tournament chess player, a quiz team captain, a sportswriter at his college newspaper, a Capitol Hill intern and an active member of the Hindu temple his parents helped establish in Maryland.”
“What it said to me was, you can integrate and be part of the fabric and still not be accepted,” said Narasimhan. “Trump is not a foreign object to me. I’m hearing his dog whistles and thinking, I have to do something about this.”
Narasimhan, now in commercial real estate, is raising money for the Clinton campaign. He thinks Kumar’s touting of Trump’s business acumen is absurd.
“Other businessmen tell me that he doesn’t mean all the nasty things he says and that he’s a good businessman and we should follow him,” said Narasimhan. “I say, ‘Do you really believe that? He may be wealthy, but that’s different than being a good businessman. And, the big and — he’s an immigrant basher.’ ”
Kumar acknowledged that “sometimes, the way he speaks, you could have reservations.” But he recalled a meeting he had with Trump on July 9 armed with more than 500 questions from fellow Indian Americans.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Kumar said. “He knows about Hindus. He has investments in India. He called us peaceful people. He said he’d never had a problem with us.”