Inside Trump's Strategy To Appear At "Howdy, Modi!": Foreign Media

Trump and PM Modi are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth - right-wing populist leaders that stir huge crowds with big personalities, who have faced been criticized for polarizing their country's electorates.

Inside Trump's Strategy To Appear At 'Howdy, Modi!': Foreign Media

The rally for PM Modi provides Trump with access to a potential pool of Indian American voters


  • PM Modi is set to address the Indian American community at the event
  • Indian Americans may turn out to be critical voters in US 2020 elections
  • Polls show Trump losing to a Democratic presidential candidate in Texas

US President Donald Trump heads to Harris County, Texas, this weekend to a major rally ahead of next week's United Nations General Assembly - for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The website for the "Howdy, Modi" rally boasts that the "live audience will be the largest gathering for an invited foreign leader visiting the United States other than the Pope": Some 50,000 people, many from Houston's large Indian community, are expected to turn out.

It's eye-popping that leaders of the world's two biggest democracies are appearing together at such an event - let alone that this particular American president will be holding court in the epicenter of Texas's blue wave and the most diverse city in America.

You're not wrong if you think that doesn't sound like friendly territory for Trump. But that's a strong political reason for him to go: Democrats are making a big play for Texas in 2020 and Republicans are growing concerned. The rally for PM Modi provides Trump with access to a potential pool of Indian American voters that could turn out to be critical in next year's presidential elections.

- "Texas is a battleground," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor last week. "The far left is pissed off. They hate the president and that's a powerful motivator."

- There's perhaps no place that hates the president more in Texas than Harris County, which "completely inverted in 2016" from red to blue. Trump lost the county by 12 percentage points in 2016 - and former Congressman Beto O'Rourke followed up with a 17 point win over Cruz in their 2018 Senate race.

- And it's an important county, Republicans acknowledge: "Well, they say if you lose Harris County, you lose Texas . . . That's the deal," Charlotte Lampe, a Cypress precinct chairwoman involved in the county's Republican Party for decades told the Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston. "If this turns, so follows Texas because we're a big concentration of conservative voters."

Not-so-strange bedfellows: Trump and PM Modi are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth - right-wing populist leaders that stir huge crowds with big personalities, who have faced been criticized for polarizing their country's electorates. But it's a big gamble for Trump to bet PM Modi's popularity at home - and among diaspora communities abroad - will translate to support for Trump.

- "Part of what makes it complicated for Indian-Americans is that they don't like Trump for the most part and yet they like PM Modi," Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and the director of, a policy research and data firm that focused on Asians and Pacific Islanders, told the Washington Post. "They bristle against the kind of nationalism that Trump represents here in America, but then they still support Modi regardless of what he is doing in India. So, there is some ideological inconsistency there, but that is the kind of complicated world that we live in."

- Ramakrishnan predicts the joint appearance "probably helps blunts some of the narrative that Trump is a racist president" held among many Indian Americans: "I don't know how successful he will be in changing that narrative, but it at least changes the picture a little bit."

But Texas Democrats are not optimistic that Trump's message will resonate. "I don't think the crowd will be very receptive to what he has to say," Abhi Rahman, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, told The Post.

- Key quote: "The Indian-American community thoroughly rejected Trump in 2016 and will do so again in 2020," added Rahman, who is of Indian descent, "as the Indian community values inclusion and diversity and the ability to make something of yourself in this country, whereas Trump has incited hate and racial division."

- Challenge for Trump: Asian Americans - the fastest growing major racial or ethnic group in the U.S.-- since the 1990s have usually voted Democratic. And Indian-Americans tend to be some of the most progressive. "A majority of Indian Americans are Democrats: 77 per cent of the diaspora, which has a median income of more than $100,000, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016," per Foreign Policy.

- Yikes: In the most recent poll to have a large enough Indian-American sample, conducted before the midterms, only 28% approved of the job Trump was doing.

Trump's campaign, however, is undeterred. A campaign spokesperson said Trump's visit falls squarely into the campaign's Texas strategy: "The Indian American community has a great entrepreneurial business spirit, which falls in line with President Trump's job-growth agenda."

- Richard Rossow, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that the Indian diaspora audience is actually an ideal target for Trump: "For Trump, it's a growing, affluent demographic - they rank at or near the top of the list in terms of wealthiest groups in the U.S. and Indian companies are investing more and more in the U.S. ... There are lots of reasons it's not a bad crowd for the president to go get in front of."

- Trump, who loves big crowds, can also hitch to the crowd's support for PM Modi: "We have to acknowledge what a spectacle this is," Milan Vaishnav, who heads the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told our colleague Joanna Slater.

More on the political picture in Texas: The last Democrat to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976 but the Democratic Party of Texas, bullish on their prospects after a spate of recent statewide victories, released its plan to turn the state blue in 2020 at the beginning of the month.

Trump's appearance this weekend comes after a number of consecutive polls have shown him losing to a Democratic presidential candidate in the state. Per a Quinnipiac Poll released last week, 50 per cent of voters in the Lone Star state disapprove of Trump and 48 per cent of Texans surveyed say "they would definitely not vote for Trump if he was the Republican nominee."

In terms of global politics: Trump's appearance alongside PM Modi nods to the importance to the US-India relationship.

- "The US relationship with India has sort of been on a broad upward trajectory for about 15 years now," Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center. "Really, President Trump's first year and a half in office and really most Prime Minister Modi's first term were remarkably productive for US-India relations. Trade has grown significantly and a number of moves have been made to cement the strategic and defense partnership."

There's also the personal rapport between the world leaders who have similarly fashioned themselves as outsiders to politics: "They feel they have better connections with large disaffected groups of people," CSIS's Rossow told us. "And they don't feel attached to policymaking. That's exhibited itself in unique and different ways ... but the base, and who they think they are speaking to, is similar."

But for all the love between the two leaders, there have been tensions over the past year. The US failed to reach a trade deal with India earlier this year and imposed tariffs on Indian steel and aluminium imports. The Trump administration also weighed the possibility of imposing sanctions for India's use of Iranian oil and additional penalties for purchasing Russian military equipment. Smith says it is a sign of "how far the relationship has matured" that the countries have avoided a breaking point despite all these "friction points." India has since effectively cut off Iranian oil.

The joint appearance also suggests that the two sides are nearing a trade deal: "I don't believe they have a final package sewed up yet but there's a reasonable chance they will have some deliverables in Houston or maybe when the two meet in New York," Rossow told us.

- "People briefed on trade talks between the United States and India said negotiations were fluid," the New York Times's Ana Swanson, Ben Dooley, and Vindu Goel report. "But India had previously appeared willing to remove some restrictions on American farm products and limit its 20 per cent tariff on imported electronic goods to a maximum of 5,000 rupees, or about $70. That would help American companies like Apple, whose iPhone XR now sells for about $600 in the United States, but more than $800 in India.

- "In return, India is seeking to restore a special trade status for developing countries that Mr Trump revoked at the end of May. That program had allowed billions of dollars of Indian products, including apparel and auto parts, to come into the United States duty free."