Donald Trump’s (lack of) religious and cultural literacy was on full display Saturday, during a charity event set up by the Republican Hindu Coalition.
On Saturday, the GOP presidential candidate visited Edison, New Jersey, home to one of the state’s largest Indian populations, to drum up support among American Hindus ― a demographic group that tends to swing Democratic.
Billed as a charity concert, the program mixed Bollywood-style performances with overt Islamophobia and nationalistic rhetoric.
Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of religion at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, watched the televised event from his home. Like a number of Indian Americans online, he found many aspects of the event disturbing. Rambachan, a Hindu from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, told The Huffington Post that even though the organization had the word “Hindu” in its title, it seemed to have “very little to do with Hinduism” as a philosophy and much more to do with promoting a strong relationship between the United States and India ― and trying to rally Hindus for Trump.
While there were plenty of bizarre, ludicrous, and ridiculous things that happened at the event, here are six that stand out.
1. Trump said he’s a big fan of “Hindu.”
True to form, Trump started his speech off with a faux pas.
Hinduism is a set of ancient Indian religious philosophies. Hinduism is not a monolith. On the other hand, a Hindu is a person who follows one of those philosophies. So, no Donald, you can’t be a big fan of “Hindu.”
2. No one apparently stopped to acknowledge that all Indians ≠ Hindus and all Hindus ≠ Indian.
India has a long history of religious diversity and the diaspora is reflective of that ― there are Indian American Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. Not all Indian-Americans follow Hinduism. And not all American Hindus would identify as Indian ― there are Hindus in the United States from Fiji, from the Caribbean, and many others who are not of Indian descent.
There seemsed to have been little effort on the part of Trump, or organizers from The Republican Hindu Coalition, to make this distinction. During his speech, Trump lavished praise on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had strong support among Hindu nationalists in his country and whose rise to power had been compared to that of Donald Trump. Trump also promised that India and the United States would be “best friends” if he won the election.
“There won’t be any relationship more important to us,” Trump said.
3. The blatant Islamophobia was downright frightening.
Amidst the Bollywood-style performances and celebrity guest appearances, perhaps the most bizarre part of the event was a dance that featured terrorists brandishing light sabers. Two waltzing couples were attacked by the armed men and forced to kneel on the stage. After American police officials swooped in to save the day, the American national anthem came on the loudspeakers and the performers stood in a line with their hands placed over their hearts. A swift transition later, the performers were dancing to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
The performance tapped into the anti-Muslim sentiment that’s growing in both America and India. The RHC’s founder and businessman Shalabh Kumar, one of Trump’s biggest financial supporters, praised Trump for proposing an “extreme vetting” policy towards refugees ― the latest version of the candidate’s controversial Muslim ban.
4. These absolutely ludicrous signs.
The RHC seemed to be promoting the idea that Trump would help Indian immigrants get their green cards faster. The organizers printed hundreds of signs for attendees at the charity event that said as much ― even though Trump has often spoken about his plan to restrict immigration to America.
In fact, he’s said that he’s “totally committed” to ending the use of the H-1B visa as a “cheap labor program,” in favor of giving jobs to American workers first. Indian citizens receive almost 70 percent of all H-1B visas issued worldwide.
“There is an attempt on the part of the organizers to somehow distinguish immigrants of Indian origin from other immigrants,” Rambachan said. “To say that we’re very special or that we should be treated differently is to not identify with the plight of other immigrant communities in the U.S. who have been the object of Mr. Trump’s hateful and fear-mongering language.”
He went on to add,“It’s ludicrous.”
5. The myth of the “model minority” returned with a vengeance.
Conveniently forgetting his anti-immigrant stance, Trump praised Indians during the RHC event, stating that their values of “hard work, education, and enterprise” have enriched America and pointing out the Indian Americans have high rates of entrepreneurship and college education.
“That’s pretty impressive, by the way. You don’t hear that often, I tell you,” he said during the speech.
This rhetoric fell into the trap of painting Asian Americans as an affluent “model minority” in America, which ignored the very real economic and social struggles faced by this group.
In other words, Trump’s saying he appreciates wealthy and successful Asian Americans. But will he support those who live in poverty, those who don’t ever get to college, and those are undocumented workers?
The Aftermath: Indian Americans across the country collectively cringed.
Overall, Rambachan said that the Hindus he’s spoken to about this event were “troubled and embarrassed.”
“They think the Hindu tradition is being used to rally support for this particular candidate in a way that is divisive,” he said.
Murali Balaji, director of education and curriculum reform at the Hindu American Foundation, said the rise of Hindus for Trump is a demonstration of a growing ideological diversity within the faith community, and perhaps an indication that some Hindus felt ignored by Democrats. Still, he doesn’t think the majority of Hindus will vote for Trump.
“In conversations I’ve had with other Hindu Americans, namely folks like me who are from the United States, they do wonder how Trump has gained traction among some in the community,” Balaji told The Huffington Post.
In a blog for The Huffington Post, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, wrote that Donald Trump doesn’t deserve the support of American Hindus.
“Just last month, an Indian-American teenager – one of Trump’s own supporters, in fact – was thrown out of a Trump rally,” Tanden wrote. “If Indian-Americans aren’t even welcome at Trump’s campaign events, what makes Mr. Kumar think we’ll be welcome in Trump’s America?”
Despite Trump’s misguided attempts to reach out to Indian Americans, it’s likely that most won’t be fooled. In an Oct. 5 report, the National Asian American Survey found that only 7 percent of Indian American voters were likely to vote for Trump. Sixty-seven percent said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton. The four American Hindus running for Congress this year are all Democrats.
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