The Surmaitis family’s dog has become a pawn in a genuinely civil war. “She’s Trumpy Dog,” insists Judy, the matriarch.
“Mom, she’s depressed when she’s Trumpy Dog,” her daughter Allison Chan replies. “She’s a Cubs’ fan, which means she’s Obama Dog.”
Why not “Hilldog”, à la South Park?
“All of my friends are Bernie supporters,” says Chan, 22, a psychology major and American chair of the Taiwan America Student Conference. “People always say that millennials don’t care about anything, but we really believed he would have been a great candidate.”
Having emigrated to the US in 1992, Taiwan-born Judy, 48, lived in Illinois before moving to the Bay Area of California five years ago. An assistant at her husband’s law firm, she voted for Donald Trump and says her support for him stems partly from disillusionment with politicians in Chicago, who she felt frequently reneged on campaign pledges once elected.
WATCH: Trump talks to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen
“I support Donald Trump because my experiences lead me to believe that America needs significant change,” she says. “Sometimes that means going against the grain, taking risks. My reaction to Trump’s phone call with [Taiwan’s] President Tsai [Ing-wen] relates to this idea. America provides military support and shares trade, but politically Taiwan is kept at arm’s length. It’s the ‘elephant in the room’. Trump’s actions signal to China that the United States intends to be more assertive in its interactions.”
With statistics indicating that almost 80 per cent of Asian-Americans voted for Clinton, Judy’s husband George, also 48, is impressed by her stance. “She didn’t jump on a bandwagon, but rooted for Trump from the very beginning of his campaign,” he says. “I was surprised, but she explained how disappointed she had been in politicians. It’s surprising, not only for an Asian women to openly support Trump, but also for someone in San Francisco, which is so liberal. Whatever someone’s views, I’m proud that she sticks to her ideals, and isn’t afraid of change.”
It hasn’t been easy being openly supportive of Trump, says Judy.
“Most of my friends voted for Clinton, and there were comments on social media. With five votes in our household, three were for Trump and two for Clinton. My daughter was upset, but we openly discussed our opinions and we still love each other!”
Allison agrees. “Over time, you learn to respect your family members who have different beliefs,” she says. “You listen to understand, instead of listening to argue. Of course, it takes practise and you find ways to talk about sensitive topics, like this presidential election. In the end, you cannot change your family, but you can change the way you react and converse with one another.”
Not all Taiwanese-American Trump voters have encountered such tolerance. “It definitely felt like I couldn’t openly support him,” said one American-born Taiwanese business analyst from New York.
“One of my long-time friends decided to stop talking to me because, in her mind, supporting Trump is supporting rape culture.” His Facebook, he says, was flooded with invective. “It suddenly became acceptable to be as insulting as possible.”
He believes Trump’s stance towards China has demonstrated the hypocrisy of US diplomacy and raised awareness of Taiwan’s plight. Mainstream media has reacted negatively, he says, accusing Trump of damaging the “careful diplomacy” cultivated between the US and China over decades.
“But this is a hard sell, even to liberals, because in this story, Taiwan has all the liberal feel-good motifs, while China has one of the worst reputations in the world. Once people learn about Taiwan and China’s history, most will come to the same conclusions as Trump and the radical pro-Taiwan community.”
Joanna Chen Bryant, an emergency physician from Chicago, agrees. “We Taiwanese have wanted to be recognised by the international community as a sovereign entity for a very long time now,” says Chen, who emigrated from Taiwan as an 8-year-old in 1971. “I feel I backed the right candidate, especially since he called [Tsai] the Taiwanese president. I don’t believe Hillary or Bernie would have received her call.”
Even those who backed Clinton are taking a wait-and-see line on Trump. Daniel Wu, a Taipei-based education consultant, labels Trump “extreme”. However, California-raised Wu believes it’s too early to assess the impact for Taiwan. “Let’s give him time to see what he can do.”
WATCH: Trump questions continuing one-China policy
While most of his family and friends voted Clinton, Wu suspects there were quite a few closet Trump voters among Taiwanese Americans. “Some who voted for him just wanted change,” he says. “But they were worried people might categorise them as sexist, bigoted or racist.”
In the wake of the Trump-Tsai phone call and Trump’s hints at a break with the one-China policy, these people might now feel vindicated, says Wu. Trump’s tough stance might even have won him new fans. “I do think that Taiwanese Americans might just support him a bit more than before,” says Wu. “But enough to vote for him in 2020? Probably not.”
Trump likely to strengthen military ties with Taiwan to neutralise Beijing’s regional influence, think tank warns
Some are even more ambivalent. Eddie Chun Hsu, another Californian repatriate, says he backed Clinton, but didn’t vote, partly because he doesn’t think the result affects Taiwan. “I don’t think Trump will do a bad job. He just has a different take on things,” says Hsu, a teacher in Taipei. “But Taiwan isn’t affected by the USA. It’s getting killed inside by Tsai. In my opinion, China is good for Taiwan. Taiwan and China is not an international issue. It’s a greater China issue.” ■