Organisations like ‘Hindus For Trump’ reveal parallels between right-wing populism in India and the US.The US presidential election season has brought with it a slew of articles claiming that social media will revolutionise the 2016 campaign. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram: these are now being used by the candidates and their supporters to appeal to the young voters (the so-called “millennials”) and to appear to be in touch with the changing times. Journalists have speculated that social media has particularly fuelled the rise of two candidates who have positioned themselves as mavericks, outside their parties’ establishment: Bernie Sanders on the Democratic Party side and Donald Trump on the Republican Party side.
It’s hard to say if social media really will have the outsize impact that journalists have predicted. But it has given rise to a whole host of unusual campaigning efforts, from Bernie’s Sanders Dank Meme Stash to Hindus for Trump. Yes, Hindus for Trump. If you haven’t already read about it in Scroll.in and Huffington Post, yes, this is a real thing. This is not a parody. These are actual Hindus backing the presidential candidacy of an actual real estate mogul/reality TV star.
At first glance, this seems a bit surprising. NRIs are very attuned to American racism (at least when it’s directed at them) and Trump is as racist as they come. And, with his economic populism and his demonisation of outsourcing, Trump treads close to the stereotype of India as the faraway land that has taken away American jobs.
Yes, Hindus for Trump. If you haven’t already read about it in Scroll.in and Huffington Post, yes, this is a real thing. This is not a parody. These are actual Hindus backing the presidential candidacy of an actual real estate mogul/reality TV star.
Many news reports, beyond their sheer delight at the absurdity of the ‘Hindus for Trump’ logo (a photo-shopped, cross-legged Trump seated on a red, white and blue lotus), gave only vague descriptions of why (some) Hindus in the US were supporting Trump; the Scroll article, for instance, mentions American Hindus’ support for Trump’s “policies on illegal immigration and the economy.” The Huffington Post digs a bit deeper, noting the group’s links to the “Indian American Intellectuals Forum,” whose founder had devoted much of his time to “warning Americans about the dangers of Islamisation.”
Ah! This is why some Hindus are supporting Trump’s “policies on illegal immigration.” In the American context, this phrase usually refers to poor migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, whom richer migrants, such as well-off Indians, often resent. Trump has certainly said his share of horrible things about Mexicans, suggesting they are rapists and promising to make the Mexican government construct a 3000-kilometer-long wall to keep Mexicans out of America.
But one suspects that this is not the part of Trump’s immigration policy that is most appealing to the self-proclaimed torchbearers of American Hinduism. Rather, it is his position on Muslim immigrants, and in particular Syrian refugees (who are, incidentally, fleeing the violence that the United States has played no small role in fomenting). Trump says he would ban all Syrian refugees, as they may be a “Trojan Horse” for terrorists. He has also said that he wants to monitor mosques in America and bring back waterboarding as a means of interrogating (read: torturing) suspected terrorists.
This violently anti-Islam rhetoric has been happily lapped up by the “Hindus for Trump” campaign. On the group’s Facebook page, while there are stray references to economic issues, the focus is clearly on Islam, and the allied fight of India and America against it.
This violently anti-Islam rhetoric has been happily lapped up by the “Hindus for Trump” campaign. On the group’s Facebook page, while there are stray references to economic issues, the focus is clearly on Islam, and the allied fight of India and America against it. One link, for instance, is to an article from the website ‘The Muslim Issue’, entitled “Islamic Invasion of India: The Greatest Genocide in History”. A bit further down on the page are several posts reporting on Trump’s remarks that he sees India as a check against an unstable Pakistan, which is, according to Trump, “probably the most dangerous” country in the world. But don’t worry, “Hindus for Trump” are not racist—they clarify this by saying that “Muslims are not a race.”
It must be noted, of course, that one Facebook page does not represent the entire American Hindu community, one that is deeply divided by class and caste (just like back in the home country). In fact, the Facebook page itself gives evidence of this, with other American Hindus leaving exasperated comments on various posts, saying things like “Please remove the group page. This is an insult to the educated Indian people living in USA” and “I have reported you hate-filled Bozos to Facebook.”
It is also important to note that the page puts the group’s Hindu identity front and centre; it is not “Indian Americans for Trump”, but “Hindus for Trump”. In various posts, the group makes the dangerous, and all too familiar, conflation of “Hindu” and “Indian”, mixing posts about the Indian-American community and Trump’s pandering remarks about the potential of “Indian students” with Islamophobic fear-mongering.
A divide has long existed in the American NRI community, and not just along religious lines. This is clearly reflected in the widely divergent reactions within the community to the “Hindus for Trump” campaign
A divide has long existed in the American NRI community, and not just along religious lines. This is clearly reflected in the widely divergent reactions within the community to the ‘Hindus for Trump’ campaign; it also maps onto the split reaction to Narendra Modi among Indian-Americans. While mainstream media attention went to the thronging crowds of Modi admirers outside Madison Square Garden in New York, alternative news sources pointed out that there were sizeable protests against Modi outside the venue.
The “Hindus for Trump” promoters, unsurprisingly, profess great admiration for Modi (and they’ve posted to articles that dwell on the similarities between Modi and Trump). It goes deeper than that. The Indian American Intellectuals Forum, the main organisation behind “Hindus for Trump” was also part of the team that arranged Modi’s Madison Square Garden visit.
Certainly, Modi and Trump are united by their embrace of violent nationalism. But they have their differences as well. Modi is much more rooted in his conservative religious identity, whereas Trump—though he is polling surprisingly well with evangelical Christians—is not particularly devout. And Trump’s economic populism has led him to oppose the type of free trade deals that Modi is eager to embrace. One also wonders if Indian and American nationalism would eventually conflict—after all, government bodies in the US are not very happy about Hindutva attacks on Christians, and the Indian government isn’t very pleased with American criticism on this issue. But for now, “Hindus for Trump” are papering over these differences. After all, as several Internet wits have noted, Trump’s skin tone is a bright orange—something to make Hindutva advocates feel at home.