California Forum

At first a joke, Trump’s candidacy now bewilders Asians

When Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, he vowed to bring back millions of American jobs lost to China and other foreign competitors. At first, Asians thought his candidacy a joke, now they are concerned.
When Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, he vowed to bring back millions of American jobs lost to China and other foreign competitors. At first, Asians thought his candidacy a joke, now they are concerned. Associated Press file

If non-Americans were voting on Nov. 8, Donald Trump would be no match for Hillary Clinton, especially in Asia. People here see one as a safe bet and the other as a wild card.

As an American abroad, I get a lot of grief from foreigners who think the U.S. election has transmogrified into a farce. At first, it was all fun and games.

A year ago, friends would taunt me, saying, “Look at what your president did yesterday!” They thought it funny to call Trump the president because he’d never get elected in real life. Some admitted they just liked trolling Americans about Trump. They saw his campaign as a joke at first, then as a global laughingstock, and now as something more serious.

But before it became serious: I have to mention one of the craziest things about discussing U.S. politics in Vietnam. Vietnamese know more about U.S. politicians than about their own politicians. More of them can name Clinton and Trump than can identify the top four officials who run Vietnam. And the gap is even wider when it comes to whether Vietnamese want to meet their own leaders or President Barack Obama, whose visit I covered in May. Answer: Obama.

So they’re intently watching the election, along with the rest of Asia. Mostly, they’re bewildered.

People who never thought they’d have to entertain the chance of a Trump administration are now full of questions. Would he renege on military alliances with Manila, Seoul and Tokyo? Would China step in to make up for the reduced U.S. interest here? And what about the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Asia bears the brunt of Trump’s complaints about trade. Singapore’s main newspaper ran a story, headlined “Asia watches rise of Donald Trump with trepidation,” quoting this line from the candidate: “They are taking our jobs. China is taking our jobs. Japan is taking our jobs. India is taking our jobs. It is not going to happen any more, folks!”

On another occasion Trump said the same thing about Vietnam. I talked to Tran Dung, a poet in Ho Chi Minh City who writes about foreign affairs and socioeconomics. He doesn’t believe Trump’s promises to hike tariffs, bring jobs back to the United States and curb immigration.

“He can’t do that because trade relationships are so tight today among countries. You can strengthen ties, but you can’t go backward,” Dung told me at a cafe decorated with trees and ponds. “He just says this to attract support, especially among the unemployed.”

Look around, from the strongmen who govern the Philippines and Malaysia, to the single-party rule of Laos or the military junta in Thailand. Asia wants stability, and Trump defies that.

In this climate it’s unlikely for an American to go overseas without fielding a question about Trump. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say they meet foreign leaders gobsmacked by the U.S. election, using words like “embarrassment,” “wackier” and “rattled.” This past week we learned former Secretary of State Colin Powell dubbed Trump an “international pariah.”

I can’t imagine such criticism diminishes the conviction of Trump voters. In fact, it could have the opposite effect among supporters who resent foreigners for doubting the U.S. electorate.

Of course, Trump does appeal to some foreigners. Recently, a Vietnamese acquaintance who is not politically inclined noticed I had a news video about the campaign playing on my laptop. First, she exclaimed, “Is that still going on?” Then she said Trump is probably the better candidate because he can run a business.

The moment reminded me that a lot of voting is based on impressions and emotions, whether you’re red, blue, green, libertarian, or something else.

I’m still registered to vote in Sacramento, and it takes so much effort to sift through all the information before deciding on a candidate or a referendum. Or, I could invest less time and, instead, cast my ballot based mostly on how I feel.

Cursory feelings also can guide the way foreigners view the United States. Another friend here was not being judgmental, but told me blunt confidence was not just a Trump trait; it’s also what outsiders see in the country writ large.

Lien Hoang is a Sacramento native and journalist living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at twitter.com/lienh.

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