Why too many Chinese Americans voted for Trump

Chinatown, NYC. Image: Julius Drost via Unsplash

Confusing rhetoric from the media, fear of an all-powerful China, and leftist language that ignores the experiences of immigrants have converged to push first generation Chinese Americans to Trump.

At a glance, Biden won the vote of the Asian American community in a landslide, capturing 63% of their vote. But this obscures a troubling fact; where 17% of Asian Americans voted for Trump in 2016, a staggering 31% voted for Trump in 2020. This is a scary and seismic shift — and it has gone largely unnoticed.

I’ve known many Chinese Americans who have voted blue all their lives; citizens who denounce Trump as a White supremacist and are appalled at the administration’s handling of COVID.

Those same citizens were also diehard Trump voters this year.

Here’s what I learned talking to them over the last few weeks:

Confusing media rhetoric

One fundamental issue was simple confusion between the terms “socialism” and “communism”. This is driven largely by politicians and media outlets using them interchangeably when, in reality, they are very different in both philosophy and application.

Socialism is a broad school of economic thought that calls for the egalitarian distribution of wealth and assets. In modern applications like we see in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway, or Finland, it embraces markets, private ownership of assets, and democratically elected governments. Socialism’s principles are the root of widely-loved programs in the U.S. like Medicare and Social Security.

(I should also note that while capitalism is often painted at the enemy of socialism, the reality is much more nuanced. No country is 100% socialist or 100% capitalist today; most are a mix of both. Ex: While most people would agree that you should privately own your property and that the government cannot seize it without cause, most would also agree that programs like Social Security are best run by the government.)

Communism is a far more extreme school of thinking that rejects all capitalism by definition. While it cites socialist thinking, it rejects capitalism as a root evil and calls for state ownership of all assets under a strong, centralized one-party government. There is no such thing as private property or competitive markets under communism. The government controls everything and distributes everything. Calls to communism in Cuba, Russia, and China were what eventually gave rise to the authoritarian regimes in those respective countries.

While having English as a second language can exacerbate this confusion, Senator Joe Manchin (Dem-WV) proves that speaking English all your life does not make you immune to silly statements on socialism. As an aside: “Defund my butt.” is a very excellent slogan.

Politicians and media pundits, sometimes purposely and sometime out of genuine ignorance, have been consistently and falsely painting Democrats as a front for an ever-encroaching authoritarian communist state. They purposely conflate communism — extremist, authoritarian thinking that is a threat to democracy — with socialism — a broad school of thought that is already widely and successfully applied throughout the American system and the rest of the free world. They continuously call China “communist” (no longer true) or “socialist” (partly true), rather than “authoritarian” (definitely true), when the country has embraced free markets for decades now. The confusion is compounded by the fact that, for many listeners, English is their second language.

Deliberately sowing confusion. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep-FL) contradicts his 2015 statement on Cuban Americans: “They fled communism, which is beyond socialism, obviously, where government controls society, but also government controls politics, life, the banning of religion, people were being executed.” Source: CNN

The reality is that politicians on both sides of the aisle fight for socialist programs, whether it’s Medicaid, Social Security, Veteran’s benefits, disability, unemployment, universal Pre-K, or even public schooling. Whether or not you agree with them, Democrats are not communists and are not calling for authoritarianism. There are productive conversations to be had around whether or not these programs are appropriate for the U.S. and how they can be applied, but by confusing communism and socialism, meaningful discussion on any policies that are labelled “socialist” (including definitively non-socialist policies like defunding the police, legalizing gay marriage, and reproductive rights) grinds to halt. The mere mention of “socialism” raises so much fear that all productive conversation ends.

“Tough Guy” messaging from Trump on China

Another common thing I heard from friends and family was the idea that Trump would be “tough” on China, where Biden would be a lapdog.

It’s true that there is inherent conflict between China and the U.S., but it’s not a physical one. It’s an ideological battle similar to the Cold War.

But unlike the Cold War, this stand-off is not about capitalism vs. communism. China has slowly and quietly embraced free markets since the 80s. It’s now an authoritarian and (mostly) capitalist nation. The U.S. is a democratic and (mostly) capitalist nation.

Which means that the ideological rift is now between Authoritarianism and Democracy. Communism, ironically, has very little to do with it anymore.

The Chinese propaganda machine has been painting the U.S.’s gross mishandling of the coronavirus (definitely true) as a result of democracy (definitely not true). This is similar to the line of argument they used against the Hong Kong protestors. There is chaos and friction, they argue, because individuals are allowed to act freely. Biden is the obvious choice, but look how many people are choosing Trump. Watch how, when left to their own devices, free individuals don’t wear masks and elect irrational leaders. Look how democracy destroys itself. It is propaganda and interference with a dramatically different strategy than that of Russia, but nonetheless meant to subvert the U.S. and deliver a win for China.

A prominent journalist for Chinese state media compares China vs. America’s response to coronavirus. A recurring theme in Chinese media paints post-COVID America as a dangerous place.

In spite of this, Trump’s “tough guy” language on China is very tempting to Chinese immigrants, who know better than anyone the power and scale of the Chinese government. They’re scared and want badly to believe Trump when he says he can face down the Chinese government.

But when you look at hard facts, Trump cannot protect them. Far from it.

This is an ideological battle— authoritarianism vs. democracy — and to win you need ideological leadership like President-Elect Joe Biden’s plan to bring together other democracies like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Thailand. These countries, because of their complex histories and political baggage, can only be brought together with America, still the world’s largest economy, at the helm. They need to be reinforced by our democratic allies in Europe and beyond to balance the influence of China. This is just one (grossly simplified) example, but illustrates the kind of work needed over the long term to regain democracy’s moral and ideological standing on the world stage.

Trump, on the other hand, has abdicated ideological leadership. He cozies up to dictators like Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin. He ended preferential treatment of Hong Kong. He praised the Tiananman crackdown as a show of strength. He enthusiastically encouraged President Xi on his plan to mass intern Uyghurs in camps in 2017, and declined to pass sanctions on China for its treatment of the Uyghurs in 2020 in favor of a trade deal. His blundering of COVID has fed straight into the Chinese propaganda machine. His “trade war” ran up the largest trade deficit with China in history. He has exited global climate accords, leaving a vacuum for China to step in as the leader on one of the most important issues of our generation.

Young marchers in Brooklyn take to the streets after an 89-year old Asian woman was slapped, beaten, and set on fire in a suspected hate crime.

For all his posturing, his actions are anything but tough on China. Do not believe his words simply because you badly want them to be true. Do not trust a man who cannot make simple distinctions between China the regime, the cultures of China, and the people of China. “Kung Flu”, he says, ridiculing all of them at once.

Violence against Asian Americans in the U.S. under Trump is rising. He doesn’t care about Asian Americans. And he is not only incapable of taking on China, he has supported its agenda at every turn.

Triggering Progressive language

Chinese Americans have been alienated by the rhetoric of progressives, who have taken Chinese votes for granted while doing little to try and address the cornerstone issues of the demographic.

Rather, the messaging and language that many left-leaning Democrats have adopted only reinforces the confusion and fear that the media has perpetuated.

Talking to Chinese friends and family, many expressed the idea that the American left is absolutely clueless on China. They hear young progressives make false moral equivalencies between the U.S. and China — “America already isn’t free. America is already fascist. America is already a surveillance state.” They hear democratic socialists make impassioned cries — “End capitalism! Eat the rich! Guillotines for billionaires! Route the elites!”

Let’s be clear: this past year has shed a stark light on the very real, systemic injustices in the American system. When you peel back the rhetoric, the core beliefs of the left — wage equality, true equality for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, a better social safety net — are widely supported ideas that will make America a better place.

But that’s not what Chinese Americans hear.

When they hear about ending capitalism, they think about growing up under communism in the 60s. They remember not having running water, food shortages, rationing sugar, and making their own clothes. They have family and friends in China whose quality of life is now on par with the developed world because of the introduction of free markets — aka: capitalism.

When they hear people equate America to a fascist state, they remember actually living under a government that censors every aspect of its civilians lives. They uprooted their lives and left China for freedom and a better life, and they got it. Equating China and America insults their sacrifices and erases their experiences.

When they hear cries to “eat the rich” or “guillotines for billionaires”, it’s not funny. It’s the same rhetoric that sparked the Cultural Revolution. They remember losing homes, livelihoods, and loved ones because of rage towards an amorphous “intellectual elite”. At best, they hear these things and shake their heads at the sheer cluelessness of this rhetoric. At worst, they remember the last time they heard these words and their tragic consequences.

While most Democratic and Progressive leaders have not adopted this language, their followers have, often unaware of the guttural pain and fear they trigger for Chinese Americans and other survivors of authoritarianism. This is ideal fodder for media outlets who have stoked their fear and confusion about encroaching communism. See, what did we tell you? This is what Democrats really think. This is what they will do to America.

Putting these three factors together — rhetoric that conflates socialism and communism, fear of an all-powerful authoritarian China, and a vacuum left by Democrats — Chinese Americans have been left in a lurch. Where Republicans have stoked fear and confusion, Democrats have done nothing to make their case. Rather, in failing to listen, Democrats have unknowingly embraced hurtful language that feeds back into misleading Republican rhetoric.

There are over 5 million Chinese Americans in the U.S., ~1.5% of the electorate. This article only reflects their experiences, but I would not be surprised if the story draws parallels with the Cuban American voters who came out so staunchly pro-Trump in Florida.

The Democratic party has created a problem for itself by treating minorities as generic voting blocks grouped by color. If the American left wants to make meaningful change over the next four years, we need every ally we can get. That means identifying these cornerstone issues before critical elections and going out of our way to speak to them; not by tossing confusing labels around, but by building real consensus around tactical policies and a vision of a more equal, kind America.

Trump doesn’t listen. He creates and feeds into chaos. He cannot distinguish between Asian, or Latino, or Black America. He doesn’t care if his words hurt.

We cannot win against Trump, or Trumpism, if we do the same thing.

Thoughts on tech, design, and life as a Chinese American cat mom.