Understanding why Turkish-Americans are voting for Trump
Written by: Dr. Aybil Goker, Dr. Şölen Şanlı Vasquez, Kerem İnal, M.A.
The Turkish-American community is not large in the U.S. and will not make a drastic change in the outcomes of the 2020 presidential race, however, thousands of Turkish-Americans are voting this year. To answer the question of who they will vote for, we began doing in-depth interviews and sent out a survey to the Turkish-American community. Of the 91 Turkish-Americans in our sample, 21 (23.3%) chose Donald J. Trump as the candidate they will be voting for, 64 (70%) chose Joe Biden.
While we may have not reached a representative cross-section of Turkish-Americans, there seems to be some support for Trump as well, which presents a puzzle, as we’ve learned that not only did the Trump supporters we interviewed hailed from Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, they were also well-educated people, and supported the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Turkey, as opposed to Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has a closer affinity to Trump for many.
Peeking beyond our immediate social media, news, and friendship bubbles allowed us to see how these seemingly inconsistent positions had an internal logic. We had to look beyond labels and preconceived notions about international politics to unpack these positions.
“White Turks” become American Patriots
While maintaining allegiance to Turkey, our interviewees love the USA and are grateful to it for giving them many opportunities. These immigrants from Turkey are in a unique position to “blend in.” They pass as white, are well-educated, speak decent English, have immigrated to this country through legal channels, and have been able to become citizens. They harbor negative feelings against immigrants who are trying to enter this country through illegal means and invoke strong support for the idea of impenetrable borders. Perhaps one of the causes for this staunch belief in the legitimacy of borders lies in the fact that the citizens of Turkey have to apply for a visa to enter many countries of the world and the process of obtaining a visa is often long, expensive, and arduous.
One respondent posed the question: “Can I just enter Greece from Turkey without any papers? No. Would they shoot me if I just walked across the border? Yes. So, how can immigrants from Latin America expect to cross the border without any consequences?” Another accused Biden of having been in the second most powerful position in the American government for eight years and not have solved this problem: “You want to legalize people’s statuses? Then you should have legalized it. You’ve been in power for eight years. If you can’t fix it, then you’re incompetent.”
Home is where you live your lifestyle
The insight that immigrants can maintain their emotional connections to their home countries while developing patriotism towards their adoptive country problematizes taken-for-granted concepts such as immigrant, home, border, identity, race, etc. Not all immigrants view immigration policies in the same way, a national border is a socially constructed concept that’s real to many, home can be multiple places, and racial, ethnic, and religious identifications can be porous and complicated.
Turkish-Americans are identified by others as “white”, which lowers the barriers to their acceptance into American society. Many are Muslims, sure, as long as they practice a secular version of Islam (hence, no hijab for women and no other publicly visible identification with Islam), their lifestyle is conducive to American ways.
Many of our respondents are small business owners and identify with the free laissez-faire entrepreneurial spirit, thus, the ideas of big government, protectionism, and interventionism are anathema to them. This positionality is of course in line with the Republican Party’s small government, low tax, no regulations line. However, we have also found that our interviewees are not staunch Republicans. Similarly, in the survey, of the 21 Trump supporters in our sample, five identified themselves as Democrats. Many of the Trump supporters we’ve interviewed had voted for Obama in 2008 (and some, in 2012 as well). However, they turned against him when the “mandate” built into the Affordable Care Act (A.C.A., a.k.a. Obamacare) hurt their bottom line.
In the interviews, we’ve also heard that Obama got their vote in protest of George W. Bush’s warmongering in Iraq, which has destabilized the region. Our respondents also supported Trump for his perceived “anti-imperialism” and “economic nationalism.” The Trump supporters we have talked with are impressed with Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA, withdrawal from the WHO, and scrutiny of the money paid to international organizations like the United Nations.
Trump’s efforts at curbing the U.S.’s economic dependency on China and unfair spending on international organizations also appeal to these voters. More importantly, Trump’s promise of withdrawing the U.S. from international conflicts receives high marks from our respondents who also see things from a Turkish, Middle Eastern point-of-view, a region that has borne the brunt of the instability and civilian deaths associated with American interventionism.
It would be wrong to assume that our Turkish-American respondents no longer felt any affinity with Turkey at all. On the contrary, when asked about their political affiliations in Turkey, almost all named a political party active in Turkish politics, and that party was the CHP, not the AKP, the leader of which, according to some of our survey respondents and many pundits, Trump models himself after.
Erdogan and Trump: Corollaries or Opposites?
First, our interviewees did not believe Trump and Erdogan were the same kind of politician at all. One argued: “Erdogan sells our country, he’s destroying the very foundations of our country, secularism, Ataturk, all of that. Trump is a true patriot, his way is the true American way. Since his presidency, the Middle East cooled off, he is focusing on the US, we see many impossible agreements between Arab nations and Israel. It is parallel with Atatürk’s ‘peace at home and peace in the world’ principle.”
In another indication of their continued allegiance to Turkey, many of the Trump supporters we’ve interviewed pointed out a specific moment as the moment they knew they couldn’t vote for Biden: when Biden said he believes opposition parties in Turkey need to be supported, to bring down “autocrat” Erdogan. If our interviewees are against Erdogan, why wouldn’t they support efforts to bring him down? The answer, once again, lies in their belief in anti-imperialism and anti-interventionism mentioned above. Here, Trump’s “anti-globalist” rhetoric wins him the votes of this particular group of Turkish-Americans.
Regardless of which political party they support in Turkey, our interviewees are against American imperialism and they associate Trump with that position, as opposed to Biden, whose policies represent more of the same of American mingling in internal affairs of foreign countries.
Nowadays, we live in impenetrable social media, news, and friendship echo chambers, which further blinds us to social truths, and leaves out uncomfortable issues, opposite views, and diversity. During these polarized times, empathizing with your fellow compatriot can be hard, if not impossible. Our echo chambers create decisive labels for “others”, yet labeling identities such as immigrant, Muslim, Middle Eastern obscure complexities of voting behavior in the second country and motivations for political preferences.
We aimed to shed light on political positions that would be missed if one pays close attention to Turkish-Americans’ positions regarding Turkish or American politics only. We believe that our study peeled the taken for granted labels and peeked through the bubbles.