Understanding a Muslim immigrant’s vote for Trump

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Two years ago, Polash Chowdhury stood outside a northern Virginia elementary school, waving a Donald Trump sign and handing out sample Republican ballots.

He was confident – despite poll predictions – about his candidate’s chances at victory.

“Absolutely, positively,” he told me then, “Donald Trump is winning big time.”

I hadn’t met Chowdhury before that moment and, until I reached out to him this week, I hadn’t talked to him since. But if ever there was a time to check on how Chowdhury – a Muslim immigrant – was feeling about Trump, it was now, during a week when people were showing their support and rejection of the current administration through their midterm votes.

Polash Chowdhury stands outside a Northern Virginia elementary school in 2016. (Washington Post photo by Theresa Vargas)

Had the reality of a Trump presidency lived up to Chowdhury’s hopes or destroyed them? I wondered whether his loyalty had shifted or grown in the face of what many consider divisive government actions.

A lot can change in two years. Two years ago, we didn’t have in our collective vocabulary the phrases “Muslim travel ban” and “separated families.” Two years ago, it was still unthinkable that white supremacists would feel empowered enough to march in the nation’s capital, about seven miles from where Chowdhury lives in Arlington, Virginia.

When I spoke to Chowdhury, he was just as polite as I remembered, and he explained that his support for Trump hadn’t diminished. In fact, he said it intensified.

“Much more stronger than it was before,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of President Trump.”

There are people who fit perfectly into the expected molds of their political parties. And then are those who make us stop, tilt our heads and ask, “But why?”

Chowdhury knows he is among the latter.

The 64-year-old native of Bangladesh has seen the confusion slip across people’s faces when they see him waving signs for the Republican Party in his majority Democratic neighborhood. More than one stranger has also directly asked him “but why?”

His answer to that question – whether you share his beliefs or not – matters now more than ever because of the stakes moving forward from the midterms. In two years, both political parties will want a firm understanding of who is with them and who, with the right influence, could be. Painting groups with broad strokes and dismissing those who don’t fit the easy narrative as outliers is not the way to get there.

Take Latino voters. Every time I hear people express shock that not all of them hate Trump based on his anti-immigrant policies, I want to fling open my laptop and pull up my Facebook page to show them the regular political sparring among relatives and high school classmates of mine with last names such as Acosta, Garcia and Ochoa. I want to remind them that many Latinos have such deep roots in this country that expecting them to empathize with new immigrants is no different from expecting a fourth-generation Irish American to do so.

Now, sympathize – that is something I believe everyone, regardless of their background, should be able to do. I also believe that everyone, not just people of color, should be outraged and embarrassed by a leader who describes Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers” and refers to places that people call home as “shithole countries.” I believe Trump has made life not just more difficult, but more dangerous, for many Americans.

When I spoke to Chowdhury, I was honest and told him that he and I had some very different political beliefs but that I wanted to understand what led to his.

He is not just a Republican voter. He is an ardent supporter of the party. On Tuesday, before Corey Stewart was forced to concede to Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, Chowdhury stood at a polling station, handing out pamphlets for the campaign. An official with the Stewart campaign said that leading up to the election, even when Chowdhury wasn’t given a task, he would find one.

Which makes it all the more surprising that Chowdhury wasn’t always a Republican. When he first came to the United States, on a visa in 1980, he supported the Democratic Party for about two years. Then, he said, he began to see it as “anti-American.” He viewed the party as soft on crime, against religion and wasteful of money. He was also raised with conservative beliefs that fell more in line with the Republican Party’s.

Now, he said, he tries to volunteer with the party whenever he is not working or taking care of his roommate, a military veteran he has known for about three decades and who in recent years began suffering from dementia.

“I love this country,” Chowdhury said. “I sacrifice tremendously for the Republican Party because I believe that’s going to help America.”

Chowdhury said he came to the country with a master’s degree from Bangladesh and obtained one in political science from Howard University. In the Washington area, he said, he has worked as a cashier at 7-Eleven, a bank employee and a tax preparer for H&R Block. He views Trump as good for the economy and job growth.

“I also vote with my pocketbook,” he said. “When I came to this country, I had very little money. Now, I have plenty, and I worked hard for it.”

In 1985, Chowdhury obtained his citizenship. Twelve years later, going through the proper channels of the country’s immigration system, he finally arranged for his brother to join him. Chowdhury said he agrees with Trump’s border crackdown and saw his travel ban as not against Muslims but against countries associated with “a preponderance of terrorism.”

As I spoke to Chowdhury, it was clear that he was quick to dismiss any criticism of Trump as media-generated, explaining it away as “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” and to defend with unlimited devotion Trump’s actions, even those that hadn’t yet occurred.

“Whenever I see the news media give him bad publicity, we just go double mileage to make it up for him,” he said.

Democrats may have seized the House on Tuesday, but they also learned that America is far from united in its rejection of Trump. Chowdhury already knew that. People may see him as an outlier, but he doesn’t see himself that way.

In the two years since he stood outside that elementary school, predicting what the polls didn’t, he said he has watched support for the president grow among Asians who live in his apartment building. He has seen his nephews, one who currently works at 7-Eleven, vote Republican. And when he stands on the street now, waving his political allegiance on a sign, he said, he feels less hostility and hears plenty of horn honks.

That should worry anyone who wants to see Trump out of office.

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