Walking in Cleveland: What Happens Outside the Republican National Convention, and Why Some Indian Americans Are Voting Trump

23 July 2016
A woman watches as delegates from Texas walk past a public MSNBC television broadcast outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. For a few blocks around the arena, many restaurants and cafés had been converted to makeshift newsrooms.
Terray Sylvester
A woman watches as delegates from Texas walk past a public MSNBC television broadcast outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. For a few blocks around the arena, many restaurants and cafés had been converted to makeshift newsrooms.
Terray Sylvester

On 17 July 2016, a father and a daughter sat across the dining table in their 1920s-built American home in a quiet neighbourhood in Cleveland, and discussed the United States’ Republican Party’s presidential nominee Donald Trump. “I just don’t understand how you can vote for a man who has this kind of outlook on humans,” Radhika Balasubramaniam, an Indian American, said to her 80-year-old father, Balu. “I had a drunk girl come up to me last week and say, ‘I hope you are not here to bomb us. I can’t wait for Trump!’” she recollected. “I have never heard this kind of speech. What he is bringing out in people really scares me.” “It’s not like I don’t care,” Balu responded. “But I know nothing will happen.”

About 15 kilometres from their house, at the Quicken Loans arena in downtown Cleveland, the Republican National Convention (RNC) would begin the next day. Delegates of the Republican party from each state in America would gather inside this sports arena to choose the party’s official nominee for the upcoming presidential election in November.

I had reached Cleveland early that morning and directed by my Indian-immigrant network, landed at Balu’s doorstep, looking for a place to stay. Balu and his wife Gomathi are prominent members of the Indian American community in the city. Their home is a hub for Indian immigrants—even strangers like me—and artists travelling through the state. I was in the city to cover the convention, or rather, the outside of the convention, by walking the beat. Over the next four days, presidential hopeful Donald Trump would be formally named the Republican candidate for president, winning the votes of at least 1,237 of the 2,472 delegates—the minimum requirement to secure the nomination—at the RNC. Meanwhile, I’d notice outside that anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and anti-women sentiments were reaching disquieting crescendos.

Balu’s politics piqued my interest when he stopped by the basement, where I was staying, to help work the television. “Fox News is on 202 and CNN is a couple of channels over. The rest is garbage,” he said. I spent the rest of that day sitting near his rocking chair to understand how the Indian-born Balu became a card-carrying Republican.

Balu and Gomathi were among the first Indians to settle in the Cleveland area. He had reluctantly moved to the United States in 1969, on his family’s insistence, to pursue a PhD in Economics. One day, he found a crumpled flyer in the student centre, advertising a vacant position with the City of Cleveland and urging anyone with an economics background to apply. As a student in his mid-thirties in an America rocked by anti-Vietnam war protests and worried that they would stall his education, Balu, who had earlier worked with the Planning Commission in India, applied. He was offered the job soon after, and accepted it.

Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in New York. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. She was a political reporter with The Hindu and has also reported for Mint.

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