I still can’t get over the surprise or should I say shock—of hearing a Sikh woman implore other Sikhs to vote for Donald Trump. This was at the gurudwara in San Jose, California. The woman was a Caucasian who had converted to Sikhism, and she wore ultra-traditional garb: a turban, robe, and kirpan (a ceremonial sword). She was selling bangles and religious objects outside the prayer hall.
“Donald Trump is the only person who can defend America from the Muslims. Let’s all vote for him and save America,” she said to passersby.
I know I should have ignored her, but I couldn’t help walking up to her and saying: Don’t you realize that to the people Trump is appealing to, we are all Muslims, that the turban on your head looks very much like what Osama bin Laden wore, and that the dark skin of the people you are preaching to is what really offends these racists?
She responded by yelling at the top of her lungs: “Trump is going to make America great again. He tells it like it is—look at what crooked Hillary did in Benghazi.” I walked away, because I realized that I was speaking to a segment of America that is not well educated and won’t listen to logic.
But it isn’t just the uneducated, it seems. Silicon Valley, where I live, is one of the most ethnically diverse and educated places in the world. Immigrants like me fit right in and we welcome others—of all nationalities and religions. No Silicon Valley executive, with the exception of Peter Thiel, has expressed support for Donald Trump—because his values are antithetical to what the Valley stands for.
So I was even more shaken up when one of my Indian-American friends, a successful venture capitalist, told me that he planned to vote for Trump because he will “put the Muslims in their place.” He uttered the same anti-Muslim sentiments that we hear in Trump’s tirades. I was dumbfounded that there are more people in the technology world who would vote for a person who built a platform based on racism, bigotry, and xenophobia, who couldn’t look beyond their religious biases.
Perhaps all of this shook me up because I still vividly recall the days after 9/11, when anti-Muslim hysteria was at its peak. Dark-skinned or Arab-looking people with beards (like me) became targets of angry mobs. I had refused to heed the advice of my friends to shave my beard and had angry insults hurled at me when I ventured into a small town on my way to the North Carolina coast. Two of my Sikh friends’ children were so fearful that they cut their hair and removed their turbans. Indian women who wore ceremonial “bindis” on their foreheads were disparaged and labeled as “dotheads.”
Since 9/11, there have been dozens of hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. This is what happens when you stoke the flames of racism and bigotry.
Sadly, these are demons that Donald Trump has already unleashed on America—until recently one of the most open, inclusive, and tolerant countries in the world. Yes, all human beings have biases, and there has always been some racism beneath the surface. But America has been making great strides from its days of slavery and segregation. For the last five decades, to express racist views had become increasingly unacceptable.
Now, a presidential candidate is retweeting members of the Ku Klux Klan—and his party is standing behind him. Politicians who decreed immigration and free trade are rallying against it. Respected political leaders remain silent when Trump spews racist venom, makes sexist rants against Latino beauty queens, and we see videotapes dignifying sexual abuse and misogyny.
It is very likely that the majority of the United States will take a stand and vote against Trump. Despite America’s flaws, it does have a collective conscience and does do the right ethical and moral things.
But damage has already been done. Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia have again risen to the surface and become acceptable. The world has seen a side of America that has shocked it, and the country has lost moral ground. How will the United States now stand up to tyrants who perform ethnic cleansing, leaders of corrupt banana republics who turn their countries into cash registers for their businesses, and despots who ignore the constitutions of their countries, when the same sentiments are openly being expressed by a potential president of America?
Let’s not forget that once the bigots have finished demonizing Mexicans and Muslims, gays and lesbians, the Jews, Hindus, Mormons, and Sikhs will be their next targets. The demagoguery will never stop.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter @wadhwa