When Tram Nguyen, a Democratic State representative from Massachusetts, posted a Facebook video declaring support for the Black Lives Matter movement, she thought the message to her constituents was relatively undisputed. Millions of Americans took to the streets to protest the brutality of the police. And as an elected civil servant, she had to stand up against systemic racism and express her commitment to “fight for equality for all”.
However, the video enraged a group of conservative Vietnamese Americans outside their district who flocked to Nguyen's side, accusing them of having communist sympathies and coordinating with "domestic terrorists". The comments on her video branded her a traitor, a disgrace to her family.
"I respect people's right not to consent," she told me in July in an interview for the interpreter, a volunteer-run website that translates English-language news into Vietnamese. "I represent a purple neighborhood … but I've never had an attack like this on myself before."
Nguyen wasn't the only victim of a Vietnamese-American online mob this summer. Lê Hoàng Nguyên, an insurance agent in Houston, used his savings to finance a “Black Lives Matter” billboard that reads “Stop Racism” in Vietnamese and English. He intended this to be a statement of solidarity, but received messages from the Vietnamese pro-Trump community in Houston urging him to lynch and boycott his business.
In the months following my conversation with Nguyen (no relationship), I began lurking in the online rooms targeting them personally, browsing Vietnamese-language local Facebook groups, political news sites, and YouTube channels. I kept coming across a worrying trend: Many Vietnamese Americans – especially older first-generation immigrants with little knowledge of English – had either become radically more conservative or had been exposed to and approved of these pro-Trump views.
From my coverage of Asian immigrant communities, it emerged that some Vietnamese immigrants, who may not understand the nuances of racism in America, felt threatened by urban social unrest and looting. Some even became counter-protesters at local Black Lives Matter rallies. This coincided with the emergence of anti-Asian hate crimes triggered by Covid-19, which President Trump referred to as the "China virus".
All of this might not be intuitive to a minority. Of the six ethnic groups in the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, conducted this summer, Vietnamese Americans were the only enclave that supported Trump (46 percent) more than Biden (36 percent). They were also more likely to vote Republicans for House and Senate candidates, while Asian American support was more democratic overall. (The term "Asian American" is itself a vague descriptor; it encompasses a variety of ethnic groups who happen to be from the same region but have different economic and political histories.)
But many first-generation Vietnamese were already conservative. After leaving a communist-run country, they may be averse to liberal politics, deeply religious, and invested in the idea of the American Dream. However, guided by a deluge of Vietnamese and English-language misinformation, these right-wing extremist views are now tacitly represented by a not so insignificant minority – and often left to younger, more progressive family members to challenge and dismantle.
In 2016, Trump won 32 percent of the Vietnamese-American vote, according to a poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. This was a sharp drop compared to support from Romney (54 percent) and McCain (67 percent) over the past few years, but even in 2016, more Vietnamese-American voters preferred Trump than any other Asian ethnic group – and it has only been since then gone up.
Vietnamese support for Donald Trump and the Republican Party has gained an eager, almost fanatical lead in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Vietnamese Americans have hosted events in states like Virginia, Texas, California, and Florida that have established cultural centers.
For example, a Houston-based choir posted a YouTube video dedicating a song to Trump's re-election, showing middle-aged Vietnamese singers in MAGA attire. During Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings, Vietnamese for Trump organizers from various cities gathered in front of the Supreme Court for a rally in which participants dressed in áo dài (traditional Vietnamese robes) with patterns of the American and South Vietnamese flags sewn on. In early October, hundreds of Vietnamese Republicans in Orange County – some in South Vietnamese military outfits – took part in a drive-by demonstration that saw Trump 2020 flags flown.
This Trump mania certainly doesn't reflect every Vietnamese voter. Some longtime Republicans who dislike Trump are on Biden's side in the election, and young liberals are stepping up their democratic efforts through the Vietnamese Americans' campaign for Biden. What is remarkable, however, is the jump in support from 2016.
It is easy for Democrats, confused by Vietnamese loyalty to the GOP, to infantilize them or to believe that they have been misled by online misinformation alone. One could even see Vietnamese Americans simply as a political departure from other Asian American voters and completely exclude them from national electoral politics as they are only around 2 million.
But while the working-class background of the Vietnamese diaspora seems on paper to be at odds with Trump's nationalist message, it makes sense to anyone familiar with the strain of cultural and historical conservatism ingrained in the Vietnamese refugee identity.
Some Vietnamese Americans do not fully join other immigrants. Many are war refugees who fought with American soldiers against the communist North Vietnamese army, my mother explained. They had no choice but to leave their homeland.
The way she sees it, the Vietnamese deserve to be here, but America shouldn't just accept anyone. "A country is like a home," she told me in Vietnamese. "You can't just let anyone into your house."
However, this mindset – that they are "good" or "special" immigrants – fails to recognize how Trump's immigration policies are actually damaging some Vietnamese families, especially newcomers who direct the green card process.
Those who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon are still strongly opposed to major government policies, are suspicious of politicians who sympathize with socialism, and are open to China, pursued by China's imperialist agenda in Vietnam and the South China Sea. Many are religious and come from patriarchal households in which the male breadwinner makes all important family decisions.
"The issue of anti-communism or anti-China weighs heavily on the minds of the first generation," said Linda Vo, professor of Asian-American studies at UC Irvine. “Many got involved in politics when there were Republican presidents, which interested them in politics. They see the GOP as socially conservative and anti-communist, which is more in line with their values. Even so, it took many foreign-born Vietnamese people time to get involved in the political process. "
"The subject of anti-communism or anti-China is a heavy burden on the minds of the first generation."
Long before I became politically conscious, I knew that political beliefs were central to the Vietnamese community in which I grew up. I was raised by strictly Republican Catholic parents near the heart of Little Saigon in Orange County, a California suburb where the first members of The Vietnamese Diaspora settled in the 1970s. At the dinner table, my father spoke admirably about George W. Bush, his post-9/11 politics, and his militaristic stance toward China in relation to Taiwan.
Many men like my father – some of whom are former South Vietnamese veterans – supported this Hawk politics against China. And nobody speaks as harshly against China as Trump (without delivering results). My uncle, whom I call Bác Huy, believes Trump will stand head to toe with China.
"I would say that over 50 percent of my decision to vote for him had to do with China," he said on a phone call last week. "We like Trump because he connects with us on China."
While most American-born Asians were appalled by Trump's racist coronavirus rhetoric, some older Vietnamese Americans are excited about it. Online, they uncritically parrot the expression "Chinese virus" or "kung flu", even though Trump's stance seems to arouse anti-Asian sentiments. Many see the president as their only hope against China's territorial encroachment on Vietnam in light of China's actions in Hong Kong. It doesn't matter that both Trump and Biden are similarly vulnerable in negotiations with China. Vietnamese supporters point to Trump's tough speech and business acumen as evidence that he is fit for the job.
"There is a big myth that Trump is very anti-China and that he is the only hope for Vietnam to get territorial protection from China," said Anh Thu Bui, a member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT). "There is a belief that Biden is soft on China by comparison and that the Democratic Party is prone to communist ideas because of certain attitudes toward socialized medicine."
Bui added that explaining the geopolitical complexities of Vietnam is difficult, even for second and third generation Vietnamese Americans. It is a unique type of identity politics because "part of Vietnamese identity is to be against China," she told me. “China is an existential threat to the Vietnamese. It is historical and integrated into our culture after 1000 years of Chinese rule. And the border conflict of 1979 wasn't that long ago when China tried to invade Vietnam. "
The language barrier has made immigrants particularly vulnerable to misinformation or messages that feed into their affirmative bias. The concept of messaging is now only vaguely understood. "Many heritage speakers get their news through radio, television, or social media," said Vo, professor at UC Irvine. "Misinformation can occur in these ethnic enclaves, just like normal Americans."
On Facebook it was surprisingly common for some Vietnamese users to repeat what Fox and Breitbart News said: The mainstream media perpetuates "false news" that the Democrats are weak or at odds with China, American universities (with money from China advised)) brainwash their children.
On online progressive forums, young Vietnamese Americans have complained about their parents' viewership of Fox News, conservative Vietnamese YouTube personalities, and biased Vietnamese-language news programs. While PIVOT and the interpreter's news aggregator website (where I volunteer as a translator) have attempted to provide factual and accurate information, it is uncertain whether this can radically change the perception of Trump in the community – or even in the Are able to understand criticism of the president.
My uncle is a constant listener to Rush Limbaugh and conservative AM talk radio, while my mother relies on Facebook and Vietnamese language sites like BBC Vietnam and Voice of America Tiếng Việt for her news.
My mom thinks Trump is a patriot. She used the phrase "yêu nước" to describe the president, which translates as "love for the country," and said she was concerned about the Biden family's business relationships in China. (Biden did not generate any income from his son's non-illegal ventures, and Trump has also done business with China.)
But when I asked my mother if she could tell me what Trump and the Republican Party stand for, she hesitated for a moment and wasn't sure if she and my father were registered Republicans or Democrats. Annoyed, I made it clear to her that they always vote Republicans.
Bui told me this scenario is known to Vietnamese immigrants who have difficulty understanding how politics in the United States differs from that at home. "I've heard stories from community organizers who help people register and say they don't know who the Republicans or Democrats are," she said. "They have only heard of Trump and since they recognize his name, they want to sign up for his party. There are no linguistic or cultural explanations for the two-party system."
There might also be some linguistic similarities between the Republic of Vietnam (Việt Nam Cộng Hòa or South Vietnam) and the Republican Party, which translated into Đảng Cộng Hòa, Bui theorized.
"You've only heard of Trump and since you recognize his name, you want to sign up for his party."
I have always known that my parents were moderate conservatives who appear apolitical in public in order to avoid conflicts or, in their words, harsh conversations. However, many children are actively fighting with their parents over the 2020 election. Some have tried to get their parents to join the Democratic Party by looking at the platform and explaining how it will benefit working class voters.
For others, this is a breaking point in family relationships in the face of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. I've heard anecdotal, online, and from my own family members that they are concerned about "anarchy" and want "law and order" restored. Misinformation on social media fuel these fears and often plays in anti-black tropes. Some children have moved out or stopped talking to their parents altogether.
"My frustration that the older generation of Vietnamese Americans are legitimate, hypocritical, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic and any other kind of bigotry under the sun has turned into sheer contempt," wrote a user on Facebook -Group Asian Americans with Republican Parents Support Group. "It's got to a point where I don't care what they think of me or what they say to me."
Comments responding to the post agreed, and another user wrote, "I gave up clearing them up on the matter. … They are so high up in Trump's ass that it is impossible to take them out."
A common joke among young Vietnamese progressives is that one must be called a communist or Cộng Sản for expressing openly left-wing political views. Yet I find that this political divide between a war-ridden generation and their children is something uniquely cruel, that beyond the language and cultural barriers that already alienate older Vietnamese Americans, there is now a strong political wedge rooted in hatred is. Misunderstandings and trauma.
During a recent phone conversation, my mother said unsolicited that people are free to choose who they want in America. I told her I agree and I hope everyone she supports preserves our freedom rather than interfering with it. Maybe that's all we can do now. Agree, disagree, and hope it doesn't tear us apart.
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