Prachi Gupta on the Rise of Indian American Presidential Candidates
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
As Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy vie for the Republican presidential nomination, Indian American reporter and memoirist Prachi Gupta joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan put these politicians into historical perspective. She discusses how the myth of Indian American exceptionalism has been used to further white supremacy and suppress other minority groups, and also analyzes how Haley and Ramaswamy perpetuate the misguided notion of the U.S. as a meritocracy. Gupta discusses the role that class and caste has played in immigration from India; how gender affects diaspora politics; the appeal of assimilation and hierarchy; and the performance of authenticity. She reads from her debut memoir, They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies that Raised Us.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: As of yesterday, according to 538, the Republican presidential candidates polling most strongly are, of course, Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and entrepreneur and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. That means two out of the top four candidates are South Asian. In August, some polls even had Ramaswamy ahead of DeSantis. More recently, public opinions judged Haley the winner of the third Republican debate. I just got a fundraising text from her on my phone this morning. And she’s just a little bit behind DeSantis. So I’d like to start with her. Can you talk about how she’s reached this point? And how her image plays out on or against the American ideas of who Indian Americans are?
Prachi Gupta: Yeah. So she has a much longer and more traditional career in politics than Vivek Ramaswamy does. For example, as governor, as working in the Trump administration, and now it’s sort of a logical next step for her to be running in this presidential campaign. So if we just look at her trajectory, I think that part makes a lot of sense. But it is interesting, as you said, that two of the major candidates running are South Asian. And it’s exactly because of this myth that I’m talking about that has enabled them — both of them — even though they have very different campaigns and very different strategies, to get this far.
If you look at them — and again, they’re fairly different as candidates — but their message essentially comes down to this idea of America as a meritocracy. And their success, their ability to make it, they use that as proof that the American dream is real and accessible to everybody, which we know is not true. If we look at income inequality, if we look at the racial wealth gap, we have so much evidence that there are systemic barriers to access this dream, but because they are both children of immigrants and people of color, they are used, and they use themselves, to perpetuate this idea that racial inequality is a thing of the past.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s interesting because when I was preparing for this interview yesterday and looking her up, the first thing I found was that she is in hot water for her comments at a recent town hall, where she was asked about her take on the Civil War. And she gave an answer that did not include slavery and then has been backpedaling furiously ever since sort of saying like, “Of course, that’s the answer. I thought we were all on the same page.” And it’s like, “Oh, Nikki, I don’t know that we were all on the same page.”
So what you point out about her trajectory, this notion of working her way to earn the stature to run for this office… from that point of view, Ramaswamy is maybe a little bit of a parachuter. Much of his campaign is funded by his personal wealth, and he is worth a lot of money. And he spends a lot of time talking about how he has worked really hard to earn that money and he’s done it while being married and raising two children and leading a very traditionally American life. But he also holds these wackadoo positions. Like, earlier this month in the CNN town hall, he alleged that January 6 was an inside job. I kind of have been watching this clip on loop. It’s him versus Abby Phillip, and it’s like an “interrupt off” or something. And she keeps trying to make him make sense, and he just won’t. And, I mean, he was doing really well in August. And then when I looked him up to prepare for this interview, the thing that I found about him was that he’s just yanked all of his TV ad spending, and is saying, “TV ads are for chumps.”
So in different ways, they’re both kind of playing that they are insiders and playing that they are outsiders. So can you talk a little bit more about Ramaswamy and how his self-made man image plays into the model minority myth that you’ve been talking about?
PG: Yeah, so I think Vivek Ramaswamy is an interesting phenomena that I think we should pay attention to. Because even five to 10 years ago a candidate like him would not be viable at all. And I’m not saying that he’s… He’s not super viable in the sense that I don’t think we’re gonna see him make it the whole way. But even to get this far and gain this much momentum, he’s really following a mold that was created by Donald Trump. And I think that Trump’s campaign really did set a precedent for this person who is “self-made.”
You know, in America, we idolize people with wealth. And there’s this idea that if you are financially successful then you have this ability to be a good world leader, which is not true. There’s a whole lot of assumptions that go into the idea that you can make a lot of money and then that gives you the ability to be a good leader. But in America, under I think our hyper-capitalist ideals, we often see that relationship. And Vivek Ramaswamy is, again, exploiting that idea and taking it to the nth degree, and is using that as a way to almost cover what are really fringe ideas that are really not so fringe anymore, thanks to Donald Trump and the dialogue on the far right and the Republican Party. But he also, like Nikki Haley, has used this idea of meritocracy, and this idea of meritocracy is really what sets the stage for so much of this inequality to exist and perpetuate. Because when you have a child of immigrants, a person of color, a person who’s been able to succeed through all of these immigration laws… like his ancestors, my ancestors, the generation before, we wouldn’t have even been allowed in the country.
So there’s a lot of hidden benefits that both of them aren’t really talking about or addressing that make it seem like their success was completely self made. And there’s no acknowledgement that that reality is not accessible for most Americans, and the conversation about what it means to lead a country with that much inequality… Basically, Vivek Ramaswamy is using his success to argue, “Well if I’m successful, anyone can be successful,” rather than saying, “I was successful despite the odds, let’s examine why that is the case. And how can we make that more true and equal for everybody?”
WT: We’re going to talk a little bit about class later on in this interview. But your book is explicit about the people who are coming to America from India are the upper class, right? Who already have advantages that many other people in the country do not. And so, yes, it’s hard to be an immigrant, but it’s easier if you’re coming from an extremely privileged position in the country that you’re leaving, would that be fair to say?
PG: That would be fair to say, I do want to add that there’s some nuance here that I think is also important to acknowledge. So with the immigration law in 1965 that I was referring to that created this model minority myth, that’s where the myth emerges from, and that essentially did create a new professional class of Asian Americans. But that was definitely not—
WT: Just to interrupt — That’s a law that we’ve talked about on the show before that the Republicans don’t like. They would love to change that because they have recognized that it sort of reshaped the demographics of America. But please go on.
PG: Sure, yeah. That was a groundbreaking monumental shift in our immigration policy, and Republicans would love to change that. But things have also changed, [there are] multiple generations that have come in since then. And not all the generations, not all the countries, and not everybody looks the same. And so there’s a lot more diversity now than there was [with] the first wave that came in through that rule. And I do want to add that if we look at undocumented immigrants – actually, Indian Americans – Indians, make up I think the third largest population of undocumented immigrants. So I think it’s important to acknowledge this because the model minority myth actually obscures all of this, it creates the stereotype based on just the majority for this one group of Asians and uses that story to flatten everybody and say that everyone has this. So I do think it’s important to acknowledge that. And of course, that’s the kind of nuance that somebody like Vivek Ramaswamy is not going to really acknowledge.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Madelyn Valento.
They Called Us Exceptional • AOC: Fighter, Phenom, Changemaker •“Vivek Ramaswamy and the lie of the ‘model minority’” | Vox • “Kamala Harris and the Complicated, Burdened Joy of Representation” | Jezebel
Latest political polls from 538 • “The mystery of Vivek Ramaswamy’s rapid rise in the polls” by Steven Shepard, August 12, 2023 | Politico • “Who won the third Republican debate? Winners and losers after things got nasty in Miami” by Karissa Waddick |USA Today • “Despite Nikki Haley’s back and forth, the Civil War was about slavery” by Ben Brasch | The Washington Post • “Nikki Haley’s latest campaign ad focuses on her husband Michael’s service with the National Guard. Meet their family.” by Talia Lakritz | Business Insider • “Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as ‘shithole’ countries” by Ali Vitali, Kasie Hunt and Frank Thorp V, January 11, 2018 | NBC News • “Vivek Ramaswamy takes questions about his Hinduism — one Bible verse at a time” by Alex Tabet, Katherine Koretski and Emma Barnett | NBC News • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 5 Episode 6, “Nadifa Mohamed on Writing the Convoluted Terrains of Immigration” • South Asian Digital Archive • Desi Wall of Shame • “Ramaswamy Pushes Fringe Idea About Jan. 6 at Town Hall in Iowa” by Anjali Huynh | The New York Times • Rupi Kaur