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Republicans are winning over Asian immigrants like my father. Here's why

Geoffrey Mak
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Karen Ducey/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

My father is a Chinese immigrant, middle-class. Growing up, he and his family were often on the move, escaping conflict in Vietnam, then the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution in China. During the reign of Chairman Mao, my father remembers schoolmates in Shanghai who were disappeared by the government. He had heard of dissidents who swam from mainland China to Hong Kong by night. Politically, he considered evangelicalism, anti-communism and democracy to be radical: the west. America captivated his imagination by way of Woodstock – Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary – and pictures of the magical big houses that sprawled the suburbs.

After he immigrated to the States in the 1970s, he eventually did get his big house in the suburbs, which today stands at the heart of California’s 39th congressional district, comprising parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange county. It’s where the rapidly growing Asian American population was, in the last decade, heralded as the future of the Republican party. In November, the district flipped a House seat from Democrat to Republican. My father voted for Trump.

He is just one of many Chinese American immigrants who increasingly find sympathy and belonging in the Republican party. They appear undeterred by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, with slurs like the “Chinese virus” and “kung-flu”. More pressingly, they vehemently hate the Chinese Communist party and support Trump’s hawkish stance against China in the trade wars. Chinese voters make up the largest group within Asian Americans, who are collectively the fastest-growing demographic category in the country. While Asian Americans supported Biden overall, Trump gained seven percentage points with Asian Americans this election. (Among Asians, only Japanese Americans shifted toward the Democrats.)

This might be cause for alarm for Democrats, who like to see themselves as the bearer of a nationwide multiracial coalition. Is this a myth? In California, a Democratic stronghold, Asian Americans appear increasingly nonplussed about campaigns touting multicultural ideals. For instance, many Asian American families oppose affirmative action, fearing that their children would suffer in elite university admissions if merit were given less weight than race. So when Proposition 16 – which would have ended a 24-year-old ban on affirmative action in education, employment and contracting – appeared on the ballot, Asian Americans played a pivotal role in voting it down. They were not taking it for the team. But should they be expected to?

I voted for Proposition 16 in support of affirmative action, but I represent a segment of the liberal elite: a photogenic if not misleading face of the Asian American constituency. For people like my father, Democrats’ messages of inclusion and multiculturalism are leaving them cold.

When Kamala Harris identified as the first Asian American vice-presidential candidate, my father did not particularly “feel seen”. When he read that Black Lives Matter protests turned violent, he bought an American flag from Amazon and hoisted it above his front door. Some of his views and choices mystify me, but I see how, for instance, a term like “Bipoc” – which stands for Black and Indigenous people of color, and stakes authority based on relative disadvantage – risks leaving many Asian Americans feeling squeezed out of the minority coalition, like an expendable casualty. This breeds the kind of resentment that the writer Wesley Yang identified when describing Asian Americans as “a nominal minority whose claim to be a ‘person of color’ deserving of the special regard reserved for victims is taken seriously by no one”.

While the Biden campaign heavily courted the suburban vote, it still missed demographics like my father’s. In California’s 39th district, where my parents live, Democrat Gil Cisneros launched a much-lauded campaign where Chinese-speaking staffers reached out to voters on apps like WeChat and Line (popular with Chinese), and Korean speakers to voters on KakaoTalk (popular with Koreans). This diversified approach helped secure his victory in 2018. Yet this year he still lost to the Republican candidate Young Kim.

The Republican campaign to Asian Americans was narrower in scope than the Democrats’, but Republicans still won the hearts and minds of California’s 39th district. That so many swing congressional districts pivoted Republican seems to indicate that Biden’s victory is more indicative of a general impatience to vote Trump out of office, rather than a long-term persuasion towards Democratic interests. While Democrats still hold the majority of Asian American voters, they can hardly take them for granted.

Today, Asian Americans are the only major demographic category in which naturalized citizens make up the majority, and the immigrant population is increasing. While the multiracial coalition is certainly an ideal worth fighting for, the Democrats need to find ways of reaching immigrant voters that go beyond an identity politics that treats Asian Americans as a consolidated monolith, and listen more to the grievances and enthusiasms immigrants feel today. Asian Americans will be ignorable up until they’re not.

  • Geoffrey Mak is a writer based in Berlin, and his first essay collection is forthcoming