EDISON, N.J.—Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump addressed a gathering of around 2,000 Indians and Indian Americans at the New Jersey Expo Center this weekend—much to the surprise of many at the event, who had come for the Indian film stars.
The majority of the two dozen people I interviewed said they hadn’t realized Trump would be speaking when they bought their tickets, though he’d been on the event’s schedule since it was announced in August.
Several people in the audience told me they’d come to the concert, billed as “Humanity Against Terror,” for a program featuring actor and choreographer Prabhu Dheva, a Telugu film star introduced to the stage as the man who “can portray a million emotions through one smile,” as well as actress Malaika Arora Khan and actor Ram Charan. Telugu movies, even more prolific than the more internationally famous Hindi films of Bollywood, is the largest of India’s film industries.
What the Trump campaign could gain from stopping by an event where it’s unclear how many people in the audience were there to hear him speak or could even vote in the U.S. remains unclear.
“We are here to see the Tollywood people performers, it doesn’t matter whoever comes after,” Radhika Khurana, 40, told me. She said she didn’t know Trump would be speaking when she bought her family tickets.
And while she wanted to hear his views on immigration, specifically whether he has plans to speed up the citizenship process for Indian and Chinese immigrants, she wasn’t sure what to make of his presence at the event. “I was surprised—why is he here? Because this is all Hindu or Indian community.”
The evening was sponsored by the Republican Hindu Coalition, a group whose leader, Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, has been one of Trump’s most generous contributors. Earlier this year he donated $898,800 to Trump’s fundraising organization, Trump Victory, The Hill reported.
Dispersed among the glittering costumes, Telugu songs, and flashy choreography, were some strange moments, including a terrorism-themed dance number featuring two light saber-wielding “terrorists” who were taken down by dancers in camouflage outfits before they stood to attention for the national anthem and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
People trickled into the expo center’s large exhibition hall through the afternoon, filling about half of the rows of chairs set up in the auditorium before Trump’s arrival that evening. The large screens at the front of hall the played propaganda videos about the disputed state of Kashmir belonging to India in between dance performances.
As Kumar took to the stage to introduce Trump and tell the crowd why he thought Trump would be good for Hindus, it became clearer what the RHC’s definition of Hindu values actually entails: “Free enterprise with limited and smaller government,” he said, going on to talk about “family values,” “economic security,” “firm foreign policy,” and his belief that Pakistan should be declared a terrorist state.
“Think of the values of the conservative movement and you will see that they are all Hindu values as well,” he said.
Manu Bhagavan, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center in New York who’s written about Hindu fundamentalism and modern Indian politics, told me a very small proportion of Indian Americans are Republican-leaning to begin with, and an even smaller group have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump.
According to the PEW Research Center, 65% of Indian Americans are Democrats or lean toward the Democrats. Earlier in the day, a group of around 50, lead by a group called South Asian Democrats for Hillary, gathered outside the expo center to protest Trump’s attendance at the event.
A recent survey of Indian Americans by three Asian-American organizations found that 58% of Indian Americans have unfavorable views about the Republican Party, and 62% had unfavorable views of Trump. A further 16% said they had no opinion or had never heard of him.
“This is not Hindus for Trump, this is a Hindu nationalist framework for organizing and rejecting the diversity of India first of all, the diversity of South Asia more broadly, and in many ways the diversity of the diasporic community here,” said Bhagavan.
The connection between Trump’s rhetoric and the brand of Hindu nationalism promoted by the Hindu Republican Coalition at this event, to Bhagavan, is pretty clear: They share an ideology of outsiders–whether that be Latinxs, Muslims, or any other group–corrupting their nation’s “great” past. The handful of Indian American Trump supporters I found at the event seemed to confirm this.
“I am so excited to be here, I really love Donald Trump. He is a great guy,” said another member of the RHC, Hemant Bhatt. “We have three issues in America: one is the illegal immigration, second is the terrorism, third is the Obamacare.”
I asked him what he thought of Trump’s statements that he would ban Muslims, including Muslim-Americans, from entering the U.S.
“That is a lie, that is a wrong message played by media. He didn’t say that he is going to get out all Muslims, he says people who are not obeying the laws of this country, they will be deported, they will be thrown out from this country,” said Bhatt.
Another member of the RHC, Raju, (who only wanted to give her first name), was handing out these leaflets:
“What have Muslims done in India, everywhere in the world? Every terrorist attack is committed by Muslims. I definitely don’t like Muslims in my country. They are invaders, they are Communists, and they are terrorists,” she told me.
Those comments are congruent with Trump’s own in the past year about Muslims and Latinxs, remarks he’s tried to walk back on multiple occasions. On the face of it, his attendance at this event was an attempt to appeal to a minority group, and another attempt to suggest that he’s not anti-immigrant, just against the “wrong kind” of immigrant.
But his appeal to this very small group rests largely on their shared Islamophobia and fundamentally racist rhetoric, which are in line with the political views of India’s current prime minister and leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi. Since Modi’s rise to power, India’s some 1.2 billion Muslims have been subjected to a rise in violent Islamophobic incidents and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Aside from the fervent Trump supporters and Tollywood fans in the crowd, some of the people I spoke to who were curious about Trump won’t actually be able to vote in this election because they’re not citizens.
“I have not heard until now that Trump has said anything about India. Let’s see what he wants to do for the immigrants in the Indian community,” said Yogesh Tandan, 39, who was in the audience with his wife, Jyoti Tandan.
By the time Trump arrived, about halfway through the event, to say that he “loves Hindu and loves India,” the crowd was warmed up from a hip-thrusting set by Prabu Dheva. People pushed to the front of the room, clapping and straining to take photos.
When Trump spoke, most of the crowd was on its feet; the dozen or so white people in the room, all sporting pro-Trump or anti-Hillary gear, proved to be the loudest. One man at the front of the auditorium wearing a Trump bandana and T-shirt, Al Deraney, hesitated when asked if Trump should reach out to other immigrant groups as well.
“I think he should do more outreach among women,” he said after a pause. But he said he was supportive of Trump being at the event. “Oh it’s very exciting, I hope he can rally the Hindu and Indian, Indo-Eurasian people.”
After a roughly 10 minute speech in which he promised that India and the U.S. would be “best friends” under a Trump presidency, he walked off stage and the event reverted to being mostly about singing and dancing. About half of the audience stayed on for Malaika Arora Khan, who appeared on stage in a golden throne before performing one of her Bollywood hits.
Minutes after he left the stage, Trump’s official Twitter account tweeted this message about his campaign stops for the day, with no mention of the event in New Jersey:
His speech at the event was also never listed on the candidate’s official campaign schedule.
“He should have spoken more about immigration. ‘I love India and I love Hindu’ is a very general statement,” Shruti Jain, 24—who is in the U.S. on a work visa and is unable to vote on Nov. 8—told me as we waited for Khan to come on.
Outside, in the foyer of the expo center, a member of the RHC packed up a blown up poster version of the anti-Hillary flyer they’d been handing out.
“That went well didn’t it!” he said to three women in festive salwar kameez waiting for their ride home, who didn’t respond. “I think it went very well. Now Hindus will finally be heard in Washington.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Professor Manu Bhagavan’s name and to add his affiliation with the Graduate Center in New York.