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Opinion

Vietnam's unlikely love affair with Donald Trump

Huge support is the culmination of centuries of national identity development

| Vietnam
A souvenir seller who is a supporter of Donald Trump shows images of the President at his shop in Hanoi on Nov. 5, 2020: Trump's anti-China rhetoric resonated with Vietnamese sensibilities.   © Reuters

Binh Le is an aspiring food and beverage entrepreneur based in Ho Chi Minh City.

My father, a 65-year-old retiree who lives in Danang, is a huge supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump.

At first, I was mildly amused by this since I never thought he would be that interested in U.S. politics. But as election day drew closer, however, he became increasingly passionate about every piece of Trump news, good or bad. Intrigued, I looked a bit deeper, and it turns out that my Dad's political interest was not what it appeared to be.

I believe that Dad's fervent support for President Trump was less about the president himself than a burning desire to engage in proper political discourse. Like millions of his compatriots, both supporters and detractors of the president, my father has never been able to openly discuss Vietnamese politics with anyone.

Politicians' credentials, achievements, failures and legacies are whatever the local TV and newspapers say they are. The most exciting discussions are often whispered gossips about who does what to whom. A lifetime of emotions were thus suppressed, like a heavily compressed spring, waiting for the right trigger to be released. That moment was the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

The year 2020 brought with it a trinity of modern technologies that enabled the average Vietnamese citizen to follow the U.S. election in real-time: smartphones having a 45% penetration rate, high-speed internet accessed via free Wi-Fi literally everywhere and social media with more than 60 million Facebook users.

What the candidates said and did were instantly transmitted to Vietnam and thoroughly analyzed not only by traditional news outlets, but by friends, relatives, colleagues and especially social media influencers. People flocked to livestreaming sessions the way their parents and grandparents were once glued to BBC radio broadcasts during the Vietnam War, now with the added benefit of being able to communicate directly with the host.

For the first time ever, the Vietnamese people found themselves among hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of like-minded individuals from around the world who could share their interests and curiosity, and with whom they could freely discuss issues and share opinions. Questions were quickly answered, concerns addressed, suspicions confirmed, and pressures relieved. But technology cannot fully explain Vietnam's tremendous support for President Trump. The real reason he was preferred had to more do with nationalism.

Now I must caution readers that I take the liberty of using the word "nationalism" in a slightly different context to its traditional Western connotation. While we can all agree that technically nationalism means "placing the interests of the nation above all else," in the West it has come to be seen in a negative light since it evokes the devastating wars and ethnic conflicts in Europe from the 17th to 20th centuries.

In Vietnam, however, nationalism is the absolute belief in a national identity forged by thousands of years defending the motherland from ruthless invaders. How can you not be proud when all your history lessons have taught you is that your tiny country has always vanquished every single invader, often from the most powerful army on earth at the time including China, Mongolia, France and the U.S.

Female students wave North and South Vietnamese flags at a victory celebration ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City in May 1975: nationalism in Vietnam is the belief in a national identity forged by thousands of years defending the motherland from ruthless invaders.   © AP

No matter how many lives were lost, or how many decades or centuries it took, we have come to believe that the nation of Vietnam will always emerge victorious in the end. In the West, nationalism has become ugly because it is seen as a selfish ideology that pits one nation against another. In Vietnam, it is beautiful because it means one is ready to sacrifice everything, including his or her life, to protect the motherland.

Against such a sacrosanct backdrop, anything that is perceived to be serving the interests of one's country automatically becomes the right course of action as far as the Vietnamese public is concerned. With his slogan "Make America Great Again," Donald Trump therefore embodied the kind of ideal leader forever ingrained in our collective psyche: the hero who would appear at the darkest moment of his country and lead his people through the struggle to ultimate triumph.

The fact that Vietnam is among the very few countries in Asia to have directly challenged China's excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, and suffered quite a few painful bruises as a consequence, has meant that President Trump's vocal anti-China rhetoric resonated in perfect harmony with Vietnamese sensibilities.

All in all, the incredible outpouring of support for President Trump by the Vietnamese people was the culmination of centuries of national identity development, coupled with decades of silent yearning for political participation, turbocharged by technology. As such, its significance lies not in which candidate was chosen, but the very fact that people found themselves able to make a choice at all, with all the concomitant fear, anger, hope, joy, pain, elation and disappointment that comes with it. Which is exactly the emotional roller coaster my father has been through over the last few months.

What I also know for a fact is that no matter who is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, Dad will always hold America in high regard. He will continue to visit it, just like he has several times over the last few years, every time awe-struck by its beauty, prosperity, achievements and the opportunities it offers.

He wants the exact same things for his own country and people. For that, I am tremendously proud to be his son.

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