Grab a plate of good, oily pav bhaji and watch a well-loved Indian movie star perform for thousands of immigrants. He greets the crowd in Tamil, jokes about jet lag, shimmies, and shimmers in the hallucinogenic stage lighting; the crowd squeezes as close as security will allow. Then watch as presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the same stage minutes later, basking in the Bollywood afterglow, and rouses just as much applause. It feels like a warm family function somehow lapsing into a Klan rally, with all your favorite uncles and aunties unmasked as cheery bigots. It left me slack-jawed and numb.
The charity event at which this took place, organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition, billed itself as a fundraiser for “victims of terror in America and around the world,” and somehow set a new standard for surreality in the present election cycle, with a Donald Trump keynote speech bookended by hours of Bollywood song and dance. Performers of varying star power were flown into New Jersey by the RHC’s founder, Chicago electronics magnate and longtime Republican fundraiser Shalabh Kumar, who along with his wife has donated just short of $1 million to Trump’s campaign—the so-called “double max” contribution. “A lot of people think Donald Trump is somewhat of a racist,” said Kumar, accurately, to The Hill, before confidently peeling away from truth. “His partnership with the Republican Hindu Coalition will set that aside.”
Thanks to Kumar’s efforts, I got to watch our country’s most mainstream nativist enchant thousands of recent immigrants this weekend. I watched people who had lived in America for a handful of years wriggle and maneuver their small children to make sure they had a clear line of sight on the man who has done more than anyone in recent memory to make brown people feel unwelcome in this country. I got to watch the putrefying pumpkin who would be president walk on stage, light a ceremonial diya lamp, and proclaim, “I’m a big fan of Hindu, and I’m a big fan of India.”
My mind knows that only 7 percent of Indian-Americans are voting for Trump, but my eyes and ears told me that the event in Edison, New Jersey, was well-attended and passionate, packing more melanin than probably any of Trump’s campaign events to date. To reconcile these facts, you have to understand how the event was packaged. Its organizers exploited, savvily and shamelessly, two of the tacit assumptions in our political life: that politics itself is a blustery spectacle indistinguishable from entertainment, and that Muslims are scary and bad and it’s politically useful to say so. Both those themes, it turns out, sell tickets.
The most comforting explanation for all of this would be that many or most attendees barely knew they’d ordered a side of politics with their concert ticket, and dozens of people I talked to over the six-hour event at the New Jersey Expo Center confirmed this to be true. Even this, though—and it is far from the entire story—left me with a gut-churning feeling that unsuspecting music lovers had been duped into filling the ranks of a Trump rally.
When asked what brought him there that evening, Sailesh Kumar, 36, said, “It’s been a while since I saw a cultural event.” It was only when he got to pulled into the parking lot and saw a small gaggle of protesters that he realized the political element, he explained, pulling his ticket out of his pocket bemusedly, as if to double-check for any clues he might have missed. His experience was echoed by lots of other fans who came solely for the music, and in some cases openly admitted their ignorance about the election. This made sense; after all, if you looked at the flyer and were blinded by the stars, you could be forgiven for not noticing the pinkish rictus in the top right corner.
A Donald Trump speech would be a strange thing to slip into the center of a night of Bollywood programming held anywhere, but especially in a part of New Jersey that regularly attracts apolitical entertainment from the subcontinent. Edison, home to as many Asians as whites, is a town where you can find imported produce and spices and catch current Bollywood flicks at all the movie theaters—a town so thoroughly Indian that a former resident took a whole column to half-complain about it.
Some attendees pointedly said that they came only for music, and a few were surprised to discover vocal supporters of Donald Trump in their midst. Anjan Bhart, 25, said that he had come to see stars Ram Charan and Akhil, and seemed mildly confused that anyone would want anything else on display here. “Seeing his past history, his comments on immigrants, I was surprised,” he said, as nearby concertgoers posed with signs that read “TRUMP For Hindu Americans,” “TRUMP Great For India,” “TRUMP Against Terror,” and, most confoundingly, “TRUMP For Faster Green Cards.” Bhart expressed support for Hillary Clinton, but—like so many of the people I spoke to—was not actually eligible to vote in this election, having only lived here for three years. (If you’d recently left your birthplace, and someone had paid millions to ship singers and movie stars to your doorstep, you would perhaps be less likely to disavow that event just for featuring an unsavory candidate running in an election you couldn’t even vote in.)
People got up close to the stage to cheer movie star Prabhu Deva, perhaps best known to Western readers as Benny Lava, who is 43 years old and only slightly washed up, moonwalking and headbobbing with giraffe-necked swagger; then they stayed put and cheered for Trump, perhaps because the excitement had just been funneled from one performer to the next, from the dancer-choreographer to the reality TV personality.
There were plenty of people, distanced from events by age or by language, who couldn’t have realized what was going on at all, or have had the faintest clue about the loud man who started talking halfway through their concert. People roll deep to these sorts of gatherings; you see the full intergenerational sprawl, from sari-clad grandparents to American-born toddlers. This was the most nauseating aspect of the whole event, the idea that someone just like my grandmother might’ve unknowingly filled the seats at a bigot’s campaign event just because she wanted a good samosa and some music sung in her mother tongue. (That said: watching an elderly woman in a saffron sari sit down next to a flag-laden blonde twenty-something in digital camo sweatpants, I felt like I’d wandered into some Bizarro World multicultural fantasy—more a fever dream, once you realize what they both showed up for.)
It could of course be that all the grandmas and grandpas speaking Gujarati and Telegu had in fact showed up to eagerly offer full-throated support of Donald Trump. There was at least one elderly man who was fully aware of the event’s political valences—the bespectacled one who trotted out to the parking lot to visit the fault-line between anti-Trump protestors and Trump supporters. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go” chanted the protesters, which inspired his retort: “Why does he have to go? He didn’t rape anyone like Bill Clinton.” When his side broke into the familiar anti-Hillary refrain, “Lock her up, lock her up,” he added to the din his own heavily accented spin-off: “Knock her up, knock her up,” more likely referring to physical violence than pregnancy, if you were wondering.
Whatever else was going on, it would be totally naïve to claim that all of these people came for no political reasons at all. Note that the event was organized by and aimed at Hindu-Americans, as opposed to Indian-Americans in general. Hindus comprise only half of Indian-Americans. This elision—the equation of Hinduism with Indianness itself—was not accidental, because this was an unabashedly Hindu-nationalist event, and nothing yokes together the Hindu right and American right more than their overt Islamophobia, a fear that translates easily across cultural contexts. To someone who had only recently left India for America, suspicion of Muslims might emerge as a familiar, perhaps even welcome, landmark in this new political terrain. This is what everyone at the event could bond over.
(This is not, incidentally, a hypothetical. Event organizer Shalabh Kumar delivered a discursive, ethnically proud speech that traced the genius of Hindus all the way back to the discoveries of the number zero, to decimal points, to astronomy. At one point, though, he vilified Barack Obama for celebrating Diwali and still trying to peddle F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, and within seconds “Fuck Pakistan!” erupted from a sheepish white man in a gray hoodie. During a speech that mostly burrowed into the specifics of the Hindu experience, this was a poignant moment of true cross-cultural resonance.)
India is governed by a secular democracy, but is populated largely by Hindus, with the remaining fifth consisting mostly of Muslims, plus smaller populations of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. As a nation it suffers festering border disputes and with its Muslim neighbor Pakistan, and occasional convulsions of religious violence within its own borders. Its current prime minister, Narendra Modi, rose to power on an upswell of Hindu nationalism, which isolates that faith as the core pillar of Indian identity to the necessary exclusion of all others. The strongest case against Modi focuses on his term as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat: there, in 2002, after a train attack by a Muslim mob left 59 dead, Hindus retributed with unchecked slaughter and rape of at least a thousand Muslims. There is good reason to believe that he hesitated to stanch the violence, that he sat conspicuously silent, or even complicit, while pogroms roiled. Later he would liken his sadness about the riots to the sadness of being a passenger in a car that ran over a puppy. Unsurprisingly, the man who arranged for Trump to speak, Shalabh Kumar, is one of Modi’s most vocal and deep-pocketed supporters in the the U.S.
Against this backdrop, pro-Trump sentiment among Hindus becomes that much more legible. Here, just like most Trump speeches, the words “radical Islamic terror” galvanize the audience, serving up a simple verbal pleasure withheld by so many other politicians. Of the active Trump supporters I spoke to, a handful cited concerns about the economy—not that Hindu-Americans, one of the country’s wealthiest religious demographics, have faced the brunt of economic malaise—but every single one of them fell back on national security, and praised Trump for his bold stance in this domain. Recall that the nominal theme of this whole event was “humanity united against terror.”
Knowing all this, I should have seen what was coming. I knew that during the brief span of this election cycle, Islamophobia had gone from something you had to dog-whistle about, to something you could proclaim overtly, to something you could explicitly construct a rally around. That a skit like this could surface at such a rally is thus simply one more logical step, but it still managed to surprise me:
There’s plenty to parse here, but you should first note how faithfully this performance channels the aesthetics of old-school Bollywood. The inexplicable lightsaber-assault rifles, probably improvised from Party City-grade props; the comically limp fight choreography, reminding me of all the the dishoom-dishoom stuff that gifted me all the deepest belly laughs of my childhood; even the audio was ripped right from the 2009 video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, perfectly emblematic of Indian media’s nonchalance about intellectual property. (I fondly remember an old Tamil movie whose plot was stolen wholesale from the 1991 Bill Murray vehicle What About Bob?) As the U.S. military beat the bad Muslim terrorists, and the freed Indian hostages broke into a dance routine set to “Born In The USA”—a descriptor applying to very few people in the audience—I felt my grasp on reality slackening.
No one I spoke to seemed fazed by this sideshow at all, though. If anything, it may have just scratched a certain itch. I would describe their attitudes towards Islam as ranging from “frustration that political correctness keeps our politicians from naming the beast” to “open disregard for Muslims,” with plenty of gradations in between.
When asked if Trump’s comments about Islam bothered him, Sailesh Kumar—a guy who didn’t expect to see Trump here at all—said “obviously,” denouncing the “stupid agenda he’s been using to bring himself up.” Others were perfectly aware of how Trump made their Muslim neighbors feel, but were less inclined to factor that into their their own political judgments. I polished off my dinner plate next to Jagdish, 40, a pro-Trump Australian citizen who, when asked if Trump’s rhetoric made immigrants like him feel uncomfortable, assured me, “Trump is against not all immigrants, just Islam specifically.” He warned of ISIS “spreading like wildfire.” I kept prodding, and after learning that he had close Muslim friends, asked how Trump made them feel.
“They feel insecure,” he responded, candidly. And does that make him want to re-evaluate a potential Trump presidency? “No,” he clucked, a little guiltily, his face rounding into the warmest grin I got all night.
I was surprised, also, by how these people felt immune to the threats of white nationalism that Trump has validated and emboldened. I was struck by how little they worried about the uptick in hate crimes perpetrated against people who resemble them, committed by bigots who could not plausibly be expected to tell the difference. Kamal Singh, a self-employed 40-year-old, responded to my question about white nationalism with concerns about national security: “Terrorism, like what’s happening in Paris, Benghazi, so many innocent people are getting killed.” I pressed on: Did it worry him that white nationalists all lined up behind Trump? “It’s not for him only. There are supporters for Hillary too.” I disagreed with that factual claim, and he appeased me by adding, “There is always conflict, there is always blame game going on. But he is a clean guy. He is clean.” “Clean,” “clarity,” “strength,” “straight-shooter”—these were the main lines of praise I heard heaped on the Republican nominee. They liked that he was unafraid to describe the world as he saw it, in unsparing, unsentimental terms.
Some attendees were somehow willing to paint the line between Islam and evil more broadly still. Though the event was organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition, a very visible cameo was made by a small and seemingly diffuse group called Hindus For Trump, which was happy to make those anti-Islam subcurrents explicit. Its most vocal member was Vincent Bruno, 32, a soft-spoken white man in a red blazer who told me told me he’d recently found Hinduism by way of paganism. He was polite and patient during our brief chat, and, per the Washington Post, was later heard shouting, “If you support Islam, you support rape culture.” Later I took a closer look at the literature he’d handed me: a creative interpretion of the 2002 Gujurat riots and their aftermath, and also just a feat of graphic design. A demonic Hillary Clinton seizes an innocent Modi while cloaked Muslim perpetrators escape and NGOs examine cattle bones.
When the ideology was not openly anti-Muslim, there was a subtler narrative at play, the faint delineation of a hierarchy among the various types of people who try to come to this country. At its most merciless, this kind of thinking goes like this: If you’re an educated immigrant looking for new opportunities, let’s get your green cards processed as fast as possible; if you’re a desperate one escaping a country ravaged by deranged militants, you may be out of luck. Parta Sampeth, an eloquent 45-year-old management consultant with a crimson sash around his neck, said he was a registered Democrat who voted twice for Barack Obama before aligning himself with Trump. Choosing his words carefully, he said that his former party had bungled diplomatic relations with his former country. “By the Democrats, there’s more support for non-Indians, neighboring countries of India—I don’t want to name names here.” I asked him whether America was welcoming to immigrants when he first arrived 25 years ago. After a pause: “It was okay. During the Bush administration things really improved a lot. With the Democrats what I’ve seen is a lot of political asylum, and refugees getting in, without being vetted out. We don’t know who’s getting in.”
Our conversation ended with the revelation that he’d been working at the Marriott in lower Manhattan on 9/11, and that the incident had left him “flabbergasted,” permanently altering his opinion of “who gets into America.” It was a moving image, but the one that endures in my head is one of someone crossing the moat into the gleaming castle they’ve always dreamed of, and then pulling up the drawbridge behind them.
Trump’s words were not the worst part of the evening. A depressing confession: the words that curdle my ears when heard through headphones, or that baffle comprehension when read on paper, coalesce into some kind of sludgy, arresting charisma when you’re standing only 50 feet away from their source. Trump’s syntax tends toward constant self-interruption, the repetition of a few favorite words in new configurations. To listen to him is to peer through the dim glass of a laundry machine, tumbling the same few colorful socks in different patterns; it was not enlightening, but it was not altogether unpleasant, either. He’d clearly been advised to adhere to a specific slate of policy issues, not to go off-script amid this unfamiliar demographic. Yes, he made some buzz-worthy errors, like mangling “Mumbai” as “Mombay” before course-correcting; mislocating the Indian parliament; conflating two terrorist attacks; and referring to “Hindu” as a faith. But these are all superficially stupid more than they are frightening.
The real horror came only after his 12-minute address, after he got off stage and on with the rest of his campaign, as I mingled with the crowd and heard how much people enjoyed the night and how readily they blurred together Trump with the surrounding entertainment. The real horror lies in the awareness that very contingent forces can shape the political loyalties of recent immigrants; that the association of a particular politician with a night of food and fun could crystallize political loyalties for the future; that a savvy organizer could activate a dormant Islamophobia in its residents; that white nationalism could be wedded to Hindu nationalism against a common enemy. This election, Hindus will not vote for Trump in any large number, and in any case are barely populous enough to sway a single electoral vote; while I can take a perverse comfort in those facts, the night still provided a blueprint of sorts, for a cannier politician who might know how to read it.