As I said in part one, most folks who meet me these days think of me as a liberal or progressive. But it used to be the opposite.
It was an Asian invasion of the Republican kind.
Several dozen of us, representing seemingly every Asian ethnicity, filled a Houston banquet room for an early evening reception organized by the Asian American Republicans of Texas. We were all dressed to the nines, and some of us literally wore our cultural pride, with two Desi women attiring themselves in sarongs and one gentleman wearing his turban according to his Sikh religious devotion.
Just hours before, I had finished my volunteer shift as an “usher” at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Later that night, I would join thousands in the Astrodome to hear my hero Jack Kemp address both the delegates in the stadium and Americans watching at home. But at the moment, looking around the banquet room, I was struck by how much we Asian Americans had improved our standing in the GOP.
This reception was really much more than a dinner; it was a celebration of Asian America’s growing strength within the Republican Party. In fact, 55 percent of voting Asian Americans would cast their ballots that year for President George H. W. Bush against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and independent Texas billionaire Ross Perot.
55 percent. To say things have changed is actually an understatement. If polls for the 2016 general election hold, the percentage of Asian Americans casting votes for Donald Trump will measure a dramatically lower 25 percent. I can’t help but wonder how many of the folks at that reception have, like me, left the party over the years.
But the mood among us Asian American Republicans at the 1992 convention was bullish. We were growing both in numbers and in confidence that we had a major role to play in the GOP of the future. This seemed all the more true to me after the reception, when I met up with the other special pass holders for that night’s convention session. As I gathered with the other several dozen of them in the halls of the Astrodome, I saw that many of them were Chinese American high schoolers, enthusiastic about President Bush’s re-election campaign and the GOP. More Asian teens getting involved with the Republican Party seemed to bode well for the future of Asian American influence within it.
We were actually following in the Republican footsteps of Hiram Fong of Hawai’i. He’s not often celebrated today, sadly, but he was the first Asian American to serve in the U.S. Senate (1959-1977).
It’s no secret that modern political conventions are highly scripted. Just about every word of every speech for every speaker is vetted by party officials before it goes out from the podium to the millions of voters watching on TV and the internet. (One notable exception, of course, was Melania Trump’s partially plagiarized speech at this year’s Republican National Convention. Reportedly, only she and one aide read it before she went on stage.)
These conventions are also highly choreographed. As in a musical or play, who comes on stage, when they appear, where they stand, and how they interact with each other is largely pre-programmed. (One possible exception to this was Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s get-a-room lip lock with wife Tipper at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.)
At the 1992 Republican National Convention, those of us holding specially designated “RALLY!” passes were about to play our own choreographed role. (I had received my pass courtesy of “Susan from New Jersey,” my fellow morning session volunteer.) We were the convention’s seat fillers!
Seat fillers, if that’s a new term for you, are folks whose role at the annual Academy Awards (a.k.a. the Oscars) is to occupy a seat when a celebrity gets up for a few minutes. Said celebrity may be getting ready to present an award or perhaps simply sit on the loo. But whatever the reason, the producers of the Oscars really like it when the crowd looks full, so when a celebrity gets up, a seat filler occupies that person’s seat until they return. It’s a bit of fakery, all for the audience at home.
Those of us holding the special passes at the convention were to serve a similar function. At a designated time just before the major networks interrupted their programming to cover the most prominent speakers, we were to flood the aisles in between state delegation seating areas. Our aim was to create the appearance of a huge crowd enthusiastically supporting the party and its nominees. It was our bit of fakery, all for the audience at home.
Most of the TV audience doesn’t ever realize, of course, that that’s how it’s done. But just watch C-Span during its daytime coverage of either the Democratic or Republican conventions, and you’ll see how empty the floor is, and how unengaged and literally “out to lunch” some of the delegates are. There just aren’t normally massive throngs of people on the floor during most of the convention.
But on my night at the 1992 Republican National Convention, when the time came, my fellow RALLY! volunteers and I spilled onto the Astrodome floor and took our places, turning the area closest to the daïs into a standing-room-only space. At that exact moment, the legendary former quarterback of the NFL Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach, was introducing Jack Kemp. Holding aloft our Bush-Quayle ‘92 and Jack Kemp signs, we erupted in loud cheers as the old Bills quarterback, former Buffalo congressman, current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and believer in the Party of Lincoln came to the mic.
His words are astounding to hear today, in light of what that party has become:
Our goals for this nation must be nothing less than to double the size of our economy and bring prosperity and jobs, ownership and equality of opportunity to all Americans, especially those living in our nation’s pockets of poverty.
[Let’s get] America moving again and finally wage a winning war against poverty and despair.
The purpose of a great party is not to defeat its opponents. The purpose of a great party is to provide superior leadership and cause. It’s not to denounce the past. It’s to inspire our nation to a better future.
Reflecting on the Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the police officers accused in the Rodney King case: This is the message of every … pocket of poverty in America. We must be the party that gives all people a stake in the system and a stake in each other. … We must bring alive the promise of the Declaration of Independence to all people everywhere.
His words capped off a special night on what had been a fantastically memorable day for me.
But all I have these days are just memories of the Republican Party I was once a part of. From my conversations with other Asian Americans who were active in the GOP back then, I know I’m not alone.
The Republican Party I knew, one that broadened its tent for more Asian Americans, is long gone. Yes, there are still Asian American Republicans out there, and the party has tried to reach out to Asian voters. But as I’ve listened to the rhetoric of national GOP figures through the years, hearing their irrational fear of immigrants and Muslims (many of whom are Asian), it’s clear to me that the Republican Party no longer even pretends to create opportunity for all. Instead, it aims to restore the pre-1960s era of white male Protestant political and social dominance. This objective is barely masked by the unoriginal Reaganish slogan “Making America Great Again.”
Tonight my seven year old was singing a lyric from her school music class, “What’s more American than corn flakes, the Fourth of July, and Uncle Sam?” Then she turned to me and said, “I’m not fully American because I’m Chinese and not white.”
This is the kind of thinking that so many people of color, myself included, have had to overcome over the last century and a half. As early as preschool and elementary school, we have wondered to ourselves whether we were fully American because we weren’t white. Often, we received messages from others, both overt and subtle, that we weren’t as American as white folk.
The 2016 incarnation of the GOP continues to send that message, loud and clear. Despite the GOP’s token attempts to show it still welcomes people of color, the party has come to stand for something quite Orwellian à la Animal Farm: all are equal, but some are more equal than others.
This Republican Party is one that Jack Kemp, Hiram Fong, and Abraham Lincoln would disavow. This GOP will only reinforce my daughter’s struggle to see herself as fully American because she’s not white.
This same daughter of mine did a report in her class on the Statue of Liberty earlier this year. She became familiar with the words of Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet “The New Colossus,” inscribed on a plaque at Lady Liberty’s feet. That’s the poem with the famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” My daughter even dressed up as the Statue of Liberty for her presentation – torch, tiara, and all.
I have no doubt my daughter knows more of what it means to be an American than the Republican leadership these days.
Eugene Hung is a feminist Asian dad who writes this blog, Raising Asian Daughters. He has been a declared political independent for many years now, but if he lived in the U.K., he would enthusiastically support the new Women’s Equality Party. Connect with him on Twitter at @eughung.