When you envision one of the over 70 million Trump voters, you may be imagining a certain type of voter – perhaps one that is white, from the South, maybe Christian, and likely very angry. But there was some surprise when the 2020 elections results slowly rolled out revealing that against stereotype, immigrants and minorities were voting for Trump. A lot of people wondered why someone would vote potentially against their own self-interest when Trump has demonstrated signs of rampant racism and anti-immigration tactics.
Vietnamese-Americans happen to be one of those groups. A poll before election day 2020 found that although a majority of Asian Americans gravitated toward Joe Biden, Vietnamese-Americans were the only major Asian ethnic group that had net favorability for Donald Trump.
Knowing my father’s heritage, life story, and trauma as a Vietnamese-American has never made me question why he would vote for Trump.
But knowing my father’s heritage, life story, and trauma as a Vietnamese-American has never made me question why he would vote for Trump.
My parents are a part of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that fled the country on rickety fishing boats when communist North Vietnamese forces captured South Vietnam in 1975.
My mother rode off on a motorcycle in the middle of the night without the chance to say goodbye to her family, not knowing if she would ever see them again. My father even stayed in a refugee camp in Indonesia for a year owning a lone pair of clothes before coming to the United States.
And those aligned with the South Vietnamese and the United States that did not escape - including my parents’ close friends, family, and neighbors - were captured where they faced torture and death in communist re-education camps.
Since then, that older generation of Vietnamese Americans has favored the Republican party due to the GOP’s traditional anti-communist stance. A lot of those Vietnamese immigrants fled to Orange County, California, specifically to an area known as “Little Saigon”. During most of the 20th century and all the way up until 2016, Orange County was known for its political conservatism and for being a stronghold for the Republican Party, likely continuing to influence Vietnamese immigrants.
And this election was no different. Many years ago, my father told me that Joe Biden had “opposed Vietnamese immigrants from entering the U.S.”, something that older Vietnamese Americans (falsely) hold against him. My father also said he couldn’t support someone like Bernie Sanders because “socialism is too similar to communism”. Many Vietnamese Americans even have the opinion that Kamala Harris is even more left leaning than a Democratic socialist like Sanders.
My father and others like him will always be wary about their adopted country’s politics ever since their own home fell to communism. Trump is also very “anti-China”, a strongly shared sentiment. I personally have had the difficult conversations with my father including the fact that Biden never opposed Vietnamese immigration and there are important differences between socialism and communism.
The ongoing global coronavirus pandemic also contributed to why my father and other immigrants ended up casting their ballot for Trump. Due to the public health crisis, a lot of people found themselves self-isolating at home in all the weeks and months leading up to election day. And since Facebook is the most popular social media network for older generations, it is where my father interacts with many others in their support for Trump.
And because social media thrives by keeping users engaged, it is where impassioned people amplify baseless stories and opinions whether by accident or on purpose. Add to that the language barrier preventing any opposing side from refuting false claims or propaganda and you have a group of people that are firm in their beliefs. And trust me, I know – I have seen way too many of his posts and comments.
Vietnamese-Americans now makes up the 4th most populous Asian American group with close to 2 million former refugees and their descendants living in the United States. And I suspect other immigrants groups such as Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan-Americans in places like Florida voted had similar reasons for voting for Trump. And when elections in certain states come down to a few thousand votes, appealing to these voters can make a difference. So how do Democrats gain these voters?
The first step is to actively listen to and understand these group of voters and their background. Treating those that did not vote the same way you did like the enemy is never the right move. An active outreach to these particular groups in person would be beneficial and those that seek out these community of immigrants should be a person of the same ethnicity and speaks the same language fluently.
Furthermore, that person needs to be of the same generation and felt the same anguish from the war - those that firsthand experienced the war do not want some millennial trying to sway their vote. A person who did not directly feel the devastation of the Vietnam war will never connect with those that did, the first argument immigrant Trump supporters bring up without fail.
Eliminating the language barrier on social media in a non-judgmental and non-combative manner would be extremely valuable. Articles, posts, comments and replies should always first acknowledge the trauma conservative immigrant voters have survived and then go on to refute misinformation. Too many times, just like with many political discussions, I’ve seen those that try to dispel myths and propaganda get heated, contentious, and condescending too quickly.
It’s hard to even fathom the intense devastation felt by my parents and other Vietnamese immigrants due to the Vietnam war. So I do understand why my father and other immigrants feel like they need to continue to cast votes against the Democratic party.
But I think it’s an important first step for us to realize that the millions of votes for Trump didn’t just come from the stereotypical angry White Christian voter, but also from a subset of restless minority immigrants, shaped by experiences many of us could never imagine.
And that as long as we acknowledge their background and have empathy, there is indeed hope to flip their vote.
Karen Tran-Harding, MD