Trump and Hindu Nationalism: A Match Made in Bollywood

In a moment ironically reminiscent of Pat Robertson’s Hinduphobic warning that practicing yoga would have you speaking “Hindu,” GOP candidate Donald Trump expressed admiration for the Hindu religion by telling an audience at a “Humanity United Against Terror” event, on Saturday night, that he is “a big fan of Hindu.”

The candidate then boasted “I’m involved in two massive developments in India, you probably know.”

The event, hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) in Edison, New Jersey, provided an egregious example of the kind of public expression of Islamophobia that has succeeded thanks to the mutually beneficial relationship between nationalist politics and multinational corporate interests.

Trump’s seal of approval for “Hindu” also applied to the Indian state: “I am a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India.” Mirroring Modi’s Hindutva government in which the Hindu is the Indian state—along with disgust for Muslims—has earned Trump the support of a niche constituency of American Hindus.

And Trump’s reach into the Hindu world extends beyond the RHC. In fact, there have been several rallies supporting Trump hosted by Hindu nationalists who admire him in India. The RHC and its “Humanity United Against Terror Charity Event” represent the Hindu nationalist mindset as a full-blown, transnational political project that paints a diverse religious tradition as a unified religious and political voice, openly reducing non-Hindus, and especially Muslims, to the status of second-class citizens at best—and, more commonly, to members of a terrorist religion.

Trump’s speech at the RHC event was situated within a context rife with Islamophobic and Hindu nationalist symbolism. There were fliers portraying President of the current opposition party in India, the Indian National Congress party, Sonia Gandhi and Hillary Clinton as horned demons on a “witch hunt” to “get Modi” and his party for alleged involvement in the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Modi governed the state during the violence that took the lives of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

In stark contrast, there were large posters displaying Trump in what appeared to be a state of samadhi, seated in a meditative posture on a lotus, the BJP’s official party symbol, embellished with red, white, and blue and the om symbol superimposed onto the U.S. flag [see above].

Shockingly, given Trump’s anti-immigrant posturing, there were signs adorning the arena stating, “Trump For Faster Green Cards.” But the event’s most outstandingly awful moment came with a dance performance in which two sets of Indian actors, each consisting of a man and a woman engaged in a romantic dance, were suddenly attacked by terrorists adorned in stereotypical “Islamic terrorist” garb bearing lightsaber-like guns.

The U.S. military then swept in and saved the dancers. Following the heroic rescue, the dancers and military men stood for the U.S. national anthem and then danced together to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

The RHC recently endorsed Trump, citing shared principles. Founding Chairman of the RHC Shalabh Kumar, who recently shared his own account of becoming “perhaps, maybe the First Indian American Republican” following a private meeting with Ronald Reagan in 1979, explained the endorsement: “Trump is a businessman and is aligned with our ‘4Fs,’ [Free Enterprise, Fiscal Discipline, Family Values, and Firm Stand Against Terrorism (or “Firm Foreign Policy” as listed on the RHC website)].”

Confronted with the reality that most Hindu Americans vote Democrat, Kumar suggested the trend can be reduced to the Democratic Party’s savvy methods through which they have formed “relationships” with Hindu Americans, insisting, “All Hindu American values are consistent with the Republican values.”

In his speech, Trump praised Indian Americans for having the highest rate of entrepreneurship and college education in the U.S. and then promised that a Trump administration would support such “impressive” citizens by lowering taxes for businesses and eliminating “job-killing” regulations and Obamacare.

Trump also expressed an allegiance to Modi: “I look forward to working with Prime Minister Modi who has been very energetic in reforming India’s bureaucracy. Great man. I applaud him for doing so.” As Michael Schulson and I argued in RD earlier this month, Modi is a neoliberal Hindu nationalist politician keen on accelerating India’s entry into the capitalist global economy. His rhetoric is a traditionalist one that thrives on nostalgia about the rural world and fear of lost cultural products and norms—but he betrays a modern flavor of neoliberalism that feeds into nationalist sentiments, representing a global shift that ties in to the success of Trump and the Brexit vote, for example, in favor of various forms of xenophobia, nationalism, and even patriarchy.

The RHC strongly supports Modi’s government, which assumes the Hindu religion is the national ethos that all Indians must appropriate and live under. Together, the RHC and Modi promote a narrow vision of Hinduism in the guise of Indian culture locally and abroad. Modi’s government has increasingly used the country’s broad and vague laws restricting free speech to stifle many forms of dissent, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

In addition to providing vague “values” Trump allegedly shares with Hindu Americans—“hard work, education, and enterprise”—he was also careful to identify specific issues close to the heart of Modi supporters. He insisted, for example, that “we can’t have prosperity without security,” and ominously repeated that he is committed to working with India to defeat “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”

Trump promised, “When I’m president, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with India in sharing intelligence and keeping our people safe, mutually. This is so important in the age of ISIS, the barbaric threat Hillary Clinton has unleashed onto the entire world.” He alluded to other issues close to the heart of Modi supporters, for example, recent attempts by the Modi government to claim yoga as the intellectual property of India, which have gone hand-in-hand with attempts to disenfranchise Indian Muslims. Trump insisted, “We must fix our terrible trade deals and protect America’s intellectual property, something you know a lot about.” While Modi and his fellow Hindutva neoliberals want the state out of the way of private enterprise, they want the state to use public resources to actively promote a form of Hindu yoga.

United by anxiety about immigration—and especially Muslims—as well as perceived threats to capitalist and patriarchal forms of domination, Trump and his allies among Hindus in the U.S. and India propagate militant forms of nationalism all while marketing themselves as protectors of social values.

Trump and his allies espouse xenophobic, anti-queer, misogynist agendas, alongside a militaristic embrace of market-as-king. Recognizing the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in American and Indian societies, they advise their constituencies to turn their hostile gaze toward Muslims, Mexicans, queer people, and women instead of examining the structural causes—political, social, and economic—of their own distress.