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 uncontroversial. Millions of Americans were taking to the streets to protest police brutality. And as an elected official, she had to take a stand against systemic racism and express her commitment to “fight for equality for all.”
The video, however, enraged a vocal group of conservative Vietnamese Americans outside her district who flocked to Nguyen’s page, accusing her of having communist sympathies and aligning with “domestic terrorists.” The comments on her video branded her as a traitor, a dishonor to her family.
“I respect the right for people to disagree with me,” she told me in July in an interview for the Interpreter, a volunteer-run site that translates English-language news into Vietnamese. “I represent a purple district … but I’ve never had this sort of attack thrown against me before.”
Nguyen was not the only victim of an online Vietnamese American mob this summer. Lê Hoàng Nguyên, an insurance agent in Houston, used his savings to fund a “Black Lives Matter” billboard with the phrase “Stop Racism” in Vietnamese and English. He intended for it to be a statement of solidarity, but ended up receiving messages that called for his lynching and boycotts of his business from the pro-Trump Vietnamese community in Houston.
In the months after my conversation with Nguyen (no relation), I began lurking around the online spaces that directed personal attacks against her, scouring Vietnamese-language local Facebook groups, political news pages, and YouTube channels. I kept coming across a disturbing trend: Many Vietnamese Americans — particularly first-generation, older immigrants with low English proficiency — had become more radically conservative, or were exposed to and sympathetic with these pro-Trump views.
From my reporting on immigrant Asian communities, I found that some Vietnamese immigrants who might not understand the nuances of racism in America felt threatened by the social unrest and looting in cities. A few even became counterprotesters at local Black Lives Matter rallies. This occurred in tandem with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes spurred on by Covid-19, which was branded as the “China virus” by President Trump.
All of this might feel counterintuitive for a minority group. But out of the six ethnic groups in the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey conducted this summer, Vietnamese Americans were the only enclave to express more support for Trump (48 percent) than Biden (36 percent). They were also more likely to vote Republican for House and Senate candidates, while overall support among Asian Americans trends more Democratic. (The phrase “Asian American” is itself a vague descriptor; it cobbles together a wide variety of ethnic groups who happen to hail from the same region but hold varying economic and political histories.)
But many first-generation Vietnamese were already conservative to begin with. Having left behind a communist-led country, they may be averse to liberal politics, deeply religious, and invested in the idea of the American dream. Guided by a tide of Vietnamese- and English-language misinformation, however, these radical right-wing views are now quietly held by a not-so-insignificant minority — and are 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 exit polling by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. This was a sharp drop, compared to support for Romney (54 percent) and McCain (67 percent) in years past, but even in 2016, more Vietnamese American voters favored Trump than any other Asian ethnic group — and it has only risen since.
Vietnamese support for Donald Trump and the Republican Party has taken on a zealous, nearly fanatical edge in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Vietnamese Americans have staged events in states like Virginia, Texas, California, and Florida, where there are already established cultural hubs.
For example, a Houston-based choir published a YouTube video dedicating a song for Trump’s reelection, featuring middle-aged Vietnamese singers dressed in MAGA gear. During Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, “Vietnamese for Trump” organizers from different cities came together for a rally outside the Supreme Court, where attendees donned áo dài (traditional Vietnamese garb) with sewed-on patterns of the American and South Vietnamese flags. In early October, hundreds of Vietnamese Republicans in Orange County — some wearing South Vietnamese military outfits — participated in a drive-by demonstration, flying Trump 2020 flags.
This Trump mania is certainly not reflective of every Vietnamese voter. Some longtime Republicans who dislike Trump are siding with Biden for the election, and young liberals are ramping up Democratic efforts through the Vietnamese Americans for Biden campaign. But the jump in support from 2016 is notable.
For Democrats perplexed by Vietnamese loyalty to the GOP, it’s easy to infantilize them or to think they’ve been led astray solely by online misinformation. One could even consider Vietnamese Americans as simply a political aberration from other Asian American voters and discount them entirely from national electoral politics since they only number about 2 million.
But while the Vietnamese diaspora’s working-class, immigrant background might seem on paper to be at odds with Trump’s nationalist messaging, to anyone familiar with the strain of cultural and historical conservatism rooted in the refugee Vietnamese identity, it makes sense.
Some Vietnamese Americans don’t align themselves entirely with other immigrants. Many are wartime refugees who fought against the communist North Vietnamese army alongside American soldiers, my mom explained. They had no choice but to leave their home country.
The way she sees it, Vietnamese people 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 inside your home.”
But this line of thinking — that they are “good” or “special” immigrants — fails to recognize how Trump’s immigration policy actually hurts some Vietnamese families, especially newer arrivals who are navigating the green card process.
Those who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon tend to remain strongly opposed to big government policies, are suspicious of any socialist-sympathizing politicians, and are blatantly anti-China, haunted by China’s imperialist agenda in Vietnam and the South China Sea. Many are religious, and hail from patriarchal households where the male breadwinner makes all the important family decisions.
“The issue of anti-communism or anti-China weighs heavily on the minds of the first generation,” said Linda Vo, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine. “Many became politically engaged when there were Republican presidents, which is what interested them in politics. They see the GOP as socially conservative and anti-communist, which aligns more with their values. But still, for a lot of foreign-born Vietnamese, it’s taken time for them to become engaged in the political process.”
Long before I became politically conscious, I was aware that political beliefs were central to the Vietnamese community I grew up in. I was raised by staunchly Republican Catholic parents close to the heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon, a California suburb where the first members of the Viet diaspora settled in the 1970s. At the dinner table, my father spoke admirably of George W. Bush, his post-9/11 policies, and his militaristic stance against China when it came to Taiwan.
Many men like my father — some of whom are former South Vietnamese veterans — supported these hawkish policies against China. And no one talks as tough on China as Trump (without delivering results). My uncle, who I call Bác Huy, believes that Trump will stand toe-to-toe with China.
“I would say over 50 percent of my decision to vote for him is related to China,” he said over a phone call last week. “We like Trump because he connects with us over the issue of China.”
While most American-born Asians have been horrified by Trump’s racist coronavirus rhetoric, some older Vietnamese Americans are enthused by it. Online, they parrot the phrase “Chinese virus” or “kung flu” uncritically, despite how Trump’s attitude seemingly foments anti-Asian sentiments. Many view the president as their only hope against China’s territorial encroachment toward Vietnam, in light of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. It doesn’t matter that both Trump and Biden are similarly vulnerable when it comes to negotiating with China; Vietnamese supporters point to Trump’s tough talk and business acumen as evidence that he’s fit for the job.
“There is a big myth that Trump is very anti-China and that he’s the only hope for Vietnam to have protection from China territorially,” said Anh Thu Bui, a member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT). “There’s a belief that Biden is soft on China by comparison, and that the Democratic Party is susceptible to communist ideas because of certain stances on socialized medicine.”
It’s challenging to explain Vietnam’s geopolitical complexities, Bui added, even to second- and third-generation Vietnamese Americans. It’s a unique sort of identity politics, since “part of the Vietnamese identity is to be anti-China,” she told me. “China is an existential threat to the Vietnamese. It’s historical and woven into our culture after 1,000 years of Chinese domination. And the 1979 border conflict was not so long ago, when China tried to invade Vietnam.”
The language barrier has made immigrants especially susceptible to misinformation or news that feeds into their confirmation bias. Meanwhile, the concept of news literacy is only vaguely understood. “Many heritage speakers get their news through radio, TV, or social media,” Vo, the UC Irvine professor, told me. “There’s a lot of potential for misinformation to occur in these ethnic enclaves, just like how it affects regular Americans.”
On Facebook, it was surprisingly common for some Vietnamese users to echo talking points from Fox and Breitbart News: that the mainstream media perpetuates “fake news,” that the Democrats are weak or in cahoots with China, that American universities (with money from China) are brainwashing their children.
In progressive online forums, young Vietnamese Americans have commiserated over their parents’ viewership of Fox News, conservative Vietnamese YouTube personalities, and biased Vietnamese-language news programs. While PIVOT and the news aggregator site the Interpreter (where I volunteer as a translator) have sought to provide factual and accurate information, it’s uncertain whether that can radically alter the community’s perception of Trump — or if they’re even capable of comprehending criticisms of the president.
My uncle is a consistent listener of 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, to get her news.
My mother believes that Trump is a patriot. She used the phrase “yêu nước” to describe the president, which translates to “love for country,” and said she worried over the Biden family’s business ties in China. (Biden has not earned any income from his son’s business ventures, which are not illegal, and Trump also has pursued business deals with China.)
But when I asked my mom if she could tell me what Trump and the Republican Party stood for, she briefly hesitated, uncertain whether she and my father were registered Republicans or Democrats. Exasperated, I clarified for her that they always vote Republican.
This scenario, Bui told me, is familiar among Vietnamese immigrants who struggle to grasp how politics is different in the US than it is back home. “I’ve heard stories from community organizers who help people register, who say they don’t know who the Republicans or Democrats are,” she said. “They’ve only heard of Trump and since they recognize his name, they want to sign up for his party. There aren’t any linguistic or cultural explanations for the two-party system.”
There also might be some linguistic similarities between the Republic of Vietnam (Việt Nam Cộng Hòa, or South Vietnam) and the Republican Party, which translates to Đảng Cộng Hòa, Bui theorized.
I’ve always known that my parents were moderate conservatives who appear publicly apolitical to avoid conflict or, in their words, hard conversations. Many children, though, are actively feuding with their parents over the stakes of the 2020 election; some have tried to sway their parents toward the Democratic Party by delving into the platform, explaining how it benefits working-class voters.
For others, it’s a breaking point in family relations, in light of the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. I’ve heard anecdotally, online, and from my own family members that they are worried about “anarchy” and wish for “law and order” to be restored. Misinformation on social media fuels these fears, often playing into anti-Black tropes. Some children have moved out or stopped talking to their parents entirely.
“My frustration toward the older generation of Vietnamese Americans being entitled, hypocritical, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, and every other kind of bigotry under the sun, has more or less boiled over into nothing short of pure disdain,” one user wrote in the Facebook group Asian Americans with Republican Parents Support Group. “It’s gotten to the point where I flat out don’t care about what they think of me or say to me.”
Comments responding to the post agreed, with another user writing, “I’ve given up trying to educate them on the matters. … They’re so far up Trump’s ass, it feels impossible to take them out.”
A common joke among young Viet progressives is that you’re bound to be called a communist, or cộng sản, once you openly express any left-leaning political views. And yet, I find that there is something uniquely cruel about this political divide among a war-torn generation and their children, that beyond the language and cultural barriers that already alienate older Vietnamese Americans, there is now a stark political wedge rooted in hate, misunderstanding, and trauma.
During a recent phone call, my mom said, unprompted, that people have the freedom to vote for whoever they want in America. I told her I agreed, and that I hoped whoever she supports preserves rather than encroaches upon our freedom. Perhaps that’s all we can do now. Agree to disagree, and hope it doesn’t tear us apart.