They were called traitors, communists and, in a common Vietnamese insult, dogs.
Such was the reaction in some quarters of the internet when material about Vietnamese Americans for Biden hit social media last month. Big, red X’s covered the faces of those pictured, including Democratic Washington state Rep. My-Linh Thai.
“Joe Biden is a man who worshipped China,” claimed one Facebook poster in Vietnamese. Another objection, with enormous resonance in a community that leans heavily for President Donald Trump: Biden, the Facebook poster said, opposed taking in refugees after the Vietnam War.
Those claims are contested by a website started by progressives, VietFactCheck. The website asserts it is Trump who has strengthened China and that Biden has had complicated but ultimately critical positions on that communist country. Biden expressed wariness of additional military aid at the end of the Vietnam War, VietFactCheck says, but welcomed refugees into the U.S.
Such are the battles among Vietnamese Americans in the run-up to the November election, immersed in historical wounds relating to war, a repressive communist regime, and an age-old enmity toward China, which once occupied Vietnam. The trauma is still palpable, with some vividly recalling their harrowing boat escape from Vietnam.
“This election seems like it’s become a rehash of fighting the war again,” said Jefferey Vu, 30, a Boeing engineer and Northwest regional director of Vietnamese Americans for Biden.
To be sure, Trump and Biden supporters alike adorned separate Oct. 10 rallies with either the old South Vietnamese flag, now known as a “heritage and freedom flag,” or its yellow and red colors.
But there is an intense rancor between friends and family, often generational, that reminds Bellevue real estate broker Michelle Le of when her homeland was split in two, the north versus the south.
While Vietnamese Americans are not expected to have a decisive impact on the election, the antagonism amongst them is a piece of the country’s larger political divide.
“Literally, right now, I cannot even have any kind of Trump-supporting or any kind of political stuff in my own house — because there’s so much tension,” said Le, 50, who helped form a group to support the president and local Republican candidates, called Washingtonians for Change. Her children, 15 and 16, vehemently oppose Trump.
The Trump faction of Vietnamese Americans is winning, according to a September survey of roughly 1,600 registered voters by the nonprofits AAPI Data, APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. It showed 48% backed the president while 36% favored Biden.
Just as anti-communist Cuban refugees lean more conservative than Latinos as a whole, Vietnamese Americans were the only group of Asian Americans surveyed to show more support for Trump.
Washington has one of the largest Vietnamese American populations in the country, with 67,000 people as of the 2010 census. Only two states, California and Texas, had more.
As Vietnamese refugees began streaming into the U.S. after the North Vietnamese took Saigon in 1975, California’s Democratic governor at the time, Jerry Brown, objected that the state couldn’t handle them. But Washington Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican, invited them to come here, leaving a local legacy of goodwill toward Republicans.
Partisan politics over today’s refugees couldn’t be more different, and Evans has said he will not vote for Trump. But that hasn’t dissuaded the president’s supporters.
Do Nguyen, a 52-year-old Medicare broker in Tacoma, said his top two reasons are Trump’s opposition to Planned Parenthood and abortion — “I’m very, very Catholic,” he said, as are many Vietnamese Americans — and the president’s tough talk about China. Trump has blamed the communist country for the U.S. trade deficit and the pandemic, though he initially praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“Only President Trump has said enough is enough,” Nguyen said.
This year’s protests over police brutality and systemic racism are also a factor, said Nguyen, who voted for former President Barack Obama. “I know there’s injustice,” he said. As an Asian American, he said he’s been pulled over while driving only slightly above the speed limit. He called police shootings of unarmed people “just ridiculous.”
“But that’s not how you do it,” he said of the protests. He said he has aunts and uncles who came here with nothing, worked hard to open small businesses and then saw them torched or vandalized amid the unrest.
“We escaped communism and we found freedom,” Nguyen said, describing his family’s flight from Vietnam when he was about 12. They traveled for six days on a tiny wooden boat, without adequate food or water, people throwing up.
A Japanese fishing boat rescued them, but not before a scene of chaos as the little boat collided with the big one, causing a leak, and water seeped around the refugees. Men started throwing kids up to the fishermen and some dropped into the ocean. To the best of Nguyen’s recollection, they all survived.
Trump supporters say they see what they suffered so much for now under attack. Like the president, Le casts political opponents as socialists demanding “free college, free medical, free social programs.”
Vietnamese refugees have been suspicious of possible radical leftists in their midst long before Trump. Thai, the state representative, recalled editing a Vietnamese-language journal as a student at the University of Washington in the 1980s. She published a short story, by an anonymous author, about a young man who dreams of returning to Vietnam despite its communist government.
In a packed meeting at the university’s Kane Hall, community members demanded the author’s name. “They were angry. And I was scared,” Thai said. She nonetheless refused.
More recently, as hardened partisanship gripped the nation under Trump, state Sen. Joe Nguyen got called a communist when he ran for office in 2018 as a Democrat. The 37-year-old Seattleite and Microsoft program manager recalls a community meeting where he was pressured to come up front and was berated, in front of his mother.
“Vicious, vicious stuff,” he said.
He said he tries to be empathetic to the painful experiences giving rise to their views, but disavows what he considers a vein of anti-Black racism among Vietnamese Americans that is fueling Trumpism.
Charges of racism, though, reinforce Dung Nguyen’s support for Trump and his belief that a corrosive repression is afoot. The 62-year-old retired Boeing engineer said he’s been afraid to express his views.
“I feel that my freedom is taken away.”
He worked up to outing himself by attending pro-police rallies and now flies a Trump flag on his car. His wife, Huong Nguyen, said because of her backing of the president she lost her one true friend and no longer talks to a sister.
“Can you start seeing the parallels?”
Thai, the legislator and national co-chair of Vietnamese Americans for Biden, also draws upon history but locates the threat of repression differently. A child when her father was sent to re-education camp in Vietnam, the now-52-year-old talks about what happened when a new political regime came in after the war.
“Instead of using that opportunity to calm people’s minds, to give people a chance to live in peace, the new regime chose to create fear, to stoke uncertainty and to create an environment where the opposition is viewed as the enemy of the people.”
“Can you start seeing the parallels?” she asked, alluding to Trump, who has called the media “the enemy of the people.”
Thai did not pick a political side until recently, voting in presidential races both for Republicans (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) and Democrats (Obama and Hillary Clinton).
A turning point was the debate during the Obama administration over DACA recipients, who came to the U.S. illegally as children and were given temporary, quasi-legal status by the then-president. Before that, Republican opposition led to the defeat of a congressional bill offering these so-called “Dreamers” a path to permanent residency.
“That pulled me back to the 15-year-old me when I first came to this country,” she said. “I had my dream,” said the Bellevue pharmacist, who struggled to learn English so she could get a college education.
Thai said her concern about such young people made her run, initially, for the Bellevue School Board and then the Legislature. She is now seeking a second term, and says she sees Democrats, currently, as more in tune with her values.
Like Thai, Uyen Nguyen, the 45-year-old co-owner of the Seattle restaurant, Nue, views immigration in personal terms.
“My mom actually passed away at sea, so did my siblings, just to make sure we got here,” said Uyen Nguyen. Then 10, she saw them die after food ran out and dehydration set in. She lost two siblings, 8 and 1½, and arrived parentless in the U.S. with an older brother.
“This country embodies so much hope and opportunities,” said the restaurant owner. “And suddenly seeing that being shut down actively by our president was devastating.”
Last October, she pointed out, the Trump administration accepted literally zero refugees into the U.S. The president’s efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration have been a defining aspect of his time in office.
Uyen Nguyen became politically active by supporting Hillary Clinton in the last presidential campaign. After Trump won, she said, Dr. Tung Nguyen — brother of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen — asked her to join an organization he was forming to give voice to progressive Vietnamese Americans. She serves on the board of PIVOT, which in turn spawned VietFactCheck.
Trump’s Vietnamese-American supporters tend to see a distinction between themselves and immigrants who come here illegally. That the president is also limiting legally admitted refugees, well, “it’s unfair,” said Do Nguyen, but that’s something he said he couldn’t control.
“Maybe selfishly, I don’t have my mom, dad, brother, sister, anybody I need to have on that list,” he added. But he said he feels a hurting U.S. needs to focus on people “right here, right now.”