POMONA, California—My friend, education scholar OiYan Poon, says that it’s hard to criticize people you don’t talk to or know.
It was OiYan who told me, when describing her own research on politically conservative Chinese Americans, about a “Filipinos for Trump” rally on Sunday, Oct. 4. The event was to double as a rally against California’s Proposition 16, the initiative that would reinstate affirmative action. The location: a Filipino shopping plaza in West Covina, 10 minutes from my home in Pomona.
Now, I have no love for this president—he who called Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists, bragged about sexual assault, implemented a Muslim travel ban, and disrespects Black women journalists. He’s the same man who’s incited state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters and evades responsibility for the more than 215,000 American lives lost to the coronavirus (or as he insists, the “China virus”).
But an uncomfortable truth I’ve avoided these past four years is that I love people who love this president. While my parents and many of my US-born cousins are vocal critics of this administration, I have immigrant uncles and aunts who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. They will likely do so again in less than a month. For our family, this president is the ultimate Rorschach test;everybody sees something different in the human inkblot that is Donald Trump. Which is why, like many American families, we’ve avoided talking about politics.
I will not be voting for Trump, but many people in a community I love will be. I don’t know who’ll win this election, but I do know one thing: I will be Filipino longer than Donald Trump will be president, and so it behooves me to get to know a segment of my community—and family—I’ve ignored these past few years.
I decided to go to the “Filipinos for Trump” rally. But I hoped for insight amid polarization and a window into Filipino conservatives.
The political schisms in my multigenerational Filipino family aren’t unique; they mirror broader trends among Filipino Americans and Asian-American voters at large. According to the most recent wave of data from the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), most Filipino Americans lean Democrat (48 percent) and plan to vote for Joe Biden (52 percent).
But the percentage that tilts Republican (34 percent) and plans to vote for Trump (34 percent) is far from negligible. Filipinos are slightly more liberal and less conservative than the average Asian-American voter, but not by much.
For our family, this president is the ultimate Rorschach test; everybody sees something different in the human inkblot that is Donald Trump. Which is why, like many American families, we’ve avoided talking about politics.
As an academic who studies race and immigration, I run in professional and social circles that presume that people of color should lean progressive, and if prompted to choose between the two parties, should vote Democrat. Being a Republican person of color (let alone, a Trump-supporting person of color) isn’t just socially unacceptable; it’s read as a denouncement of one’s ethnic or racial community.
In his book Black Elephants in the Room, sociologist Corey Fields writes about the way Black Republicans are typecast by other Black people as “racial sellouts” who are denying their Blackness and are voting against their own interests. I’ve heard similar remarks (and worse) about Filipino Americans who openly support Trump.
They’re brainwashed. Their minds are colonized. They just want to be white.
While such characterizations flood social media’s echo chambers, the sociologist in me knew there’s more nuance to the story—and that there’s often a story behind how many Filipinos and other people of color understand their places in the U.S. political landscape as the “good kind of immigrant.”
There’s most certainly a story in how the rally organizer, Marc Ang, became a fervent Trump supporter.
On a whim, I emailed Ang, a Filipino American financial planner and business owner from Orange County, on the Tuesday before the rally. To my surprise, he wrote back within a half-hour, saying he was happy to chat.
The next day, Ang started our conversation with an expression of gratitude; he was “honored” that someone was “finally” giving airtime to Filipinos on the right. I’d seen on Ang’s online profile that we’d graduated college the same year, 2003. Within the first few minutes of speaking, I learned we had many similarities besides our age: We were both U.S.-born sons of Filipino immigrants and grew up in ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Southern California. We were both raised Catholic (though as an adult, he became an evangelical Christian).
I wondered, how could Ang and I end up on polar ends of the political spectrum?
Funny enough, Ang traces his conservative awakening to Howard Dean, the early frontrunner of the 2004 Democratic presidential race. In 2003, a few months after graduating from college, an uncle from New York was visiting and asked Ang to meet him at a Los Angeles airport hotel. What Ang didn’t realize was that his uncle had reeled him into attending Dean’s speech for 80-20, an Asian-American political action committee. He was immediately turned off by what he felt was racial pandering.
“I just felt like someone was selling me snake oil. And I decided after that, I said, whatever party he is, I’m the opposite of that. … I’m a Republican. That led me to support President Bush in 2004. That was the beginning of my history of being conservative.”
Paralleling Fields’ findings on Black Republicans, Ang had a series of watershed moments that alienated him from the Democrats and crystallized his connection to the Republican Party.
Ang recalled a time in college when “white liberals” condescended to him for not reacting to a racist incident. “White liberals should not be telling me that they’re getting offended for me. Why are you telling me to be offended? That is very rude. Very presumptuous. And that is racist. How dare you.”
In the summer of 2004, Ang went on a road trip from Texas to Georgia to visit friends. “I went through the supposedly most racist states, and instead, I actually got the most hospitality from [people in] red states. Met the nicest people. … Liberals would say these things about the racist South, racist Republicans, racist conservatives. And all I saw was the exact opposite of that. People welcoming me in their homes, being interested in a very real way, and not in some tokenized fashion.”
By 2008, Ang was phone banking for the late Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. When McCain lost, Ang attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2009 and began organizing Tea Party rallies in San Bernardino County, a region of Southern California with a strong conservative presence, and whose residents are majority people of color (mostly Latinx). He was galvanized by seeing Tea Party-backed candidates win elections across the state and the country. He took a few years off from political organizing to pursue his MBA at Columbia but returned home just as the campaigns for the 2016 presidential election were starting. He quickly got back to work registering Republican voters.
According to the most recent wave of data from the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), most Filipino Americans lean Democrat (48 percent) and plan to vote for Joe Biden (52 percent).
Ang’s interest in electoral politics seems an unlikely one. His father discouraged him from getting into politics. “It’s divisive,” he warned. Ang’s father, a fiscal conservative, voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, respectively, but wasn’t enthused about Trump. His mother, whom Ang describes as socially conservative, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016; besides the prospect of the first woman president, she appreciated the role Clinton played as the “good wife” when her husband was commander in chief. “My parents aren’t partisan, but they are ideological,” Ang said.
Like his father, Ang admitted he “wasn’t crazy” about Trump at first, but quickly warmed up when “The Apprentice” star clinched the Republican nomination. He was drawn to Trump’s stances on a variety of issues, including the border wall and tax cuts for business owners. Trump’s eventual election felt like a “shot in the arm,” and he’s been a diehard supporter ever since. The president’s rhetoric doesn’t bother him one bit.
“Trump is kind of a troll. He says sarcastic stuff a lot of times, which is taken out of context, and he cherishes that because it’s free media for him. … I really don’t care if he calls something the ‘China virus.’ I don’t see him as a racist at all. … One must learn to take him seriously, but not literally. Democrats do.”
I thought about sharing findings from studies showing how Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric fosters violence against people of color, including Asian Americans like us. One psychology study found that anti-Asian bias increased sharply in the months after Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”
Ultimately, I didn’t. After hearing Ang’s defense of Trump as nonracist, in spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, it was clear we had very different working definitions of the word “racism.”
When we hung up, I admit, I felt disarmed. Ang was charming, personable, pious about his beliefs but never heavy-handed, even when talking about the issues that divided this country most. Ang came off open, authentic, like someone who just wanted to share his story.
This was someone who, I could tell, would resonate among Filipino Americans—a group generally ignored by political campaigns every election cycle. He was savvy and had the political organizing skills to mobilize their voting potential.
I was genuinely curious—and anxious—to see him in action on Sunday.
In the days leading up to the rally, the number of RSVPs for the march ballooned to nearly 800. Ang texted me to let me know the rally would be moved to a public park in nearby Walnut, a predominantly Asian upper-class neighborhood.
By the time I arrived, just before 9 a.m., the park’s parking lot was full of vehicles cloaked in “Trump 2020” banners, with the logo “Keep America Great.” Within a half-hour, parking on the park’s perimeter was packed. Stationed by the vehicles were Filipinos of all ages—many sporting red shirts—holding handmade posterboard signs and a mishmash of flags: American, Philippine, Trump 2020. I don’t notice it then, but when scrolling through the pictures later, I caught a few Filipinos holding the Philippine flag upside down, with the red stripe on top; in the Filipino symbolic lexicon, that signals a state of war. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was deliberate.
The crowd was mostly Filipino; based on the bilingual chatter and accented English, I could tell it was a largely immigrant crowd. But beyond Filipinos, there was a small, but visible number of Latinx and white Trump supporters in attendance as well.
Before the rally began, I spoke with a number of attendees. An elderly Filipino man who said he admires Trump’s business acumen. A Latina woman who supports Trump because she’s an advocate for school choice and believes ethnic studies in school is “divisive.” A daughter of a Filipino immigrant and U.S. navy veteran who takes pride that her family came “the legal way.” A white woman collecting signatures to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. Several Filipina Catholic women concerned most about abolishing abortion rights.
What struck me was how different the conversations about Trump were from the ones I encountered on my social media feeds, in my group texts and among my colleagues. Seven days before the rally, the New York Times had reported that Trump had only paid $750 in taxes in 2017 (and none for more than a decade before). Five days before that, Trump turned in his unhinged debate performance. Three days before that, Trump, members of his family and his inner circle tested positive for the coronavirus. The “immorality” and “indecency” of Trump was all anyone in my circles could talk about. Yet, none of these subjects came up in conversation among the attendees, nor among speakers at the rally. (Gay Deperio, one of the event organizers, opened the rally praying for the recovery of the president and First Lady, but never mentioned the virus).
Ang, donning a bright red “Make America Great Again” T-shirt and baseball cap, opened the rally with a declarative: “I don’t see any white supremacists here. I am a proud nonracist,” a stark contrast to Trump’s dangerously wishy-washy response at the first presidential debate the Tuesday before.
He and the other speakers argued that the election of Donald Trump and support for Republican-backed initiatives will uplift the Filipino American community. Ang spoke about how Proposition 16 was “the most racist proposition” he had ever seen on the ballot, arguing that it would hurt hard-working Filipino and Asian-American students from being accepted to college. The speaker who followed Ang, former California Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff declared, “You cannot end racism by introducing racism. It does not make sense.” As my friend OiYan has found in her research, framing affirmative action as “racist” and “anti-Asian,” albeit misleading, has been an effective strategy for garnering Asian-American support against race-based admissions policies.
For many attendees, their support for Trump came down to ‘conservative values.’
One of Ang’s fellow organizers Noel Omega, co-founder of the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, actually appreciated Trump’s antagonism toward China. He reads it as an implicit sign of support for the Philippines, his birth country, which has been embroiled in a land dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea.
For many attendees, their support for Trump came down to “conservative values.”
“Your values are conservative,” Deperio said of MAGA supporters in a post-rally interview. “They are aligned to the right with the Republican Party. They are not aligned for abortions, late-term abortions, abortions at birth. That is not who the Catholic faith is for. That is not what the Filipino is for. They value conservative values. They value the family. They want a job. They don’t want handouts. Filipinos who immigrate here never ask for a handout. We never ask for government handouts. They believe in hard work. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. … And getting what you deserve through your merit. That’s the Filipino heart. … Conservative values are aligned with Filipino values.”
Deperio’s remarks echoed a trope embraced by many of the attendees: Filipinos are good immigrants dutifully assimilating to their adopted country.
When the rally closed, a caravan of more than 100 vehicles made its way along the planned route—first to nearby St. Lorenzo Catholic Church, then to the Filipino shopping plaza where the rally was originally planned, and finally to St. John the Baptist, another Catholic Church.
I took a different route and arrived at each stop before the caravan arrived so I could gauge the reaction of Filipino churchgoers leaving Mass and Sunday shoppers. Despite the incessant honking from the caravan, most Filipinos paid no mind, but a few looked intrigued.
While standing in front of the Seafood City, a Filipino grocery chain, I saw one elderly Filipino man watching the caravan snake its way through an already crowded parking lot.
“Sir, what do you think of Donald Trump?”
“Everything he says, it’s contradicting. He’s a pathological liar.”
“Why do you think there are some Filipinos who support Trump?”
“They think he’s pro-life. How many people did he kill with all this COVID? He knows [about] it since January. For me, it’s all BS.”