Swing State Armenian-Americans Still “Up for Grabs”

A protest against Azeri aggression in Philadelphia (Photo: Raffi Berberian)

With just days to go until the November 3 election, there are tens of thousands of votes in play across the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Tampa. One question will determine which candidate secures them: will President Trump take steps to enforce the ceasefire his administration brokered between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

Several hundred thousand Armenian-Americans live in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida. The war facing Armenia means that many of their votes are still “up for grabs,” according to Dr. Anna Ohanyan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Stonehill College. 

Armenian-Americans usually aren’t single-issue voters. They’re a diverse bunch with interests ranging from the football field (think legendary Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian) to Broadway (think Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Saroyan). In normal times, “they’re sophisticated voters with high rates of participation, spanning the entire political spectrum and prioritizing a variety of issues,” says Harry Kezelian, a journalist and leader in Michigan’s Armenian-American community. But on September 27, that all changed.

That’s the day Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan launched an all-out invasion of the Republic of Artsakh, a de-facto state that has historically been part of Armenia and remains populated by Armenians. Azerbaijan’s stated goal is to completely conquer Artsakh, which it insists should be part of its territory in accordance with USSR-era borders. Should this conquest be completed, Armenians fear they would be fully cleansed from land they have occupied since antiquity. 

Their fears appear to have credence—especially since Azerbaijan, which enjoys strong Turkish backing, wields massive oil wealth and has deployed thousands of Syrian mercenaries, tries to capture Armenian-populated centers. International observers have declared a genocide emergency, warning that Azerbaijan is already at the “extermination” stage of its campaign. Thousands of Armenians have been killed in barely one month. 

Paying close attention to an unresolved issue

“Many of us have close friends and family in direct danger from these attacks,” says Fr. Hovnan Demerjian of St. Hagop Armenian Church outside of Tampa, Florida. “Regardless of whether we’re fifth-generation Americans or immigrants ourselves, Armenia’s fight for survival has upended our lives and our priorities,” he continued. Armenian-Americans are doing what they can to help. “Our parishes have rallied to raise more humanitarian assistance, and in a shorter time, than we thought possible—and we are just getting started,” says Fr. Demerjian. But self-help alone isn’t enough. “We recognize that Turkey and Azerbaijan will continue their invasion until they face meaningful pressure from international powers such as the United States.”

To date, this pressure has been largely absent, though President Trump has mentioned Armenia a few times on the campaign trail. His administration also helped broker a short-lived ceasefire. But the United States has yet to support its diplomatic efforts with concrete steps such as halting military aid to Azerbaijan. 

“I am angry with our current administration for its continued military support of Azerbaijan and saddened with Trump’s lack of leadership to enforce the ceasefire,” says Caroline Melkonian-Ylitalo, PhD, a Minnesota scientist, who says she now plans not to vote for either candidate.

Losing Republicans

Trump’s lukewarm response to the attacks on Armenia may cost him votes across the Midwest, including among those who had committed to voting for him in November. Rev. Fr. Hratch Sargsyan of Cleveland’s St. Gregory of Narek says the president’s response to Azerbaijan’s aggression has “completely changed this decision.” 

Armenian-Americans were particularly incredulous when, on October 15, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed “hope” that Armenia could defend itself. The statement struck Fr. Sargsyan and his parishioners as “spineless.” “This comes from the most powerful nation in the world?,” posed Fr. Sargsyan. “We don’t hope here, we always do something about it.”

The response has been similar among the large Armenian community outside Detroit. “People who are normally strong Republicans are not happy,” says Kezelian. “They know that US support for Turkey and military aid to Azerbaijan is contributing to the destruction of Armenia. There are quite a few votes that Trump stands to lose.”

This includes groups who normally pay little attention to Armenian political issues. “What’s happening now is so different,” Kezelian says. “It’s a life or death situation for Armenia. So people who would not have been politicized on Armenian issues are now coming to rallies and waving flags and shouting slogans. I’ve seen people come out that I would have never seen before, including many Republicans.” 

If nothing changes between now and election day, Kezelian concludes, “They’re going to find it hard to vote for Donald Trump.” 

Not over yet

But Armenian-Americans aren’t giving up hope. In the words of Zohrab Khaligian, an Armenian-American activist from Kenosha, Wisconsin, “We are excited that [President Trump] has actually said the word ‘Armenian.’ We continue to hope that the more he sees our flag and presence, the more he might take an additional step.”

Far from losing Republicans, Khaligian believes President Trump would win over undecided voters if he intervened directly with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “If Trump were to get on the phone,and call Erdogan, and convince Erdogan to stand down, that would get him votes.” 

To actually move the needle, however, Armenian-Americans would need to see “something real—not a ceasefire that can be broken, but an actual resolution, a stop to the fighting.” 

Dr. Ara Chalian, a Philadelphia surgeon and political organizer, concurs. He says that Trump still has a chance to win over “tens of thousands” of Armenian-Americans in Pennsylvania alone, including among large populations of relatively assimilated second- or third-generation voters. Halting military aid to Azerbaijan, supporting a no-fly zone or recognizing the independence of the Republic of Artsakh would “bring home” voters who are traditionally sympathetic to conservative candidates and values, but currently find Trump’s inaction “unexplainable and inexcusable.”

With more Armenian-American voters than Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in states such as Michigan, the administration’s willingness to take concrete action to stop the fighting might determine the President’s fate on Tuesday. 

Hagop Toghramadjian

Hagop Toghramadjian

Hagop Toghramadjian studies at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Hagop Toghramadjian

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  1. Your depiction of what Trump would stand to gain from the Armenian-American community through real action against this invasion and genocide rings precisely true. Sad that people are just coming to realize the depth of Trump’s ties to his Azeri friends and partners and to Erdogan. We have to recognize that this invasion is happening now because Trump is in the White House, and might not be for much longer. You brilliantly described Armenian-American Republicans’ wishful thinking, but it is time to recognize that Trump and his party have moved into irredeemable corruption and alliance with the oligarch mafias ruling Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia — leaving Armenia with no one to counterbalance their global cartel. When this cartel loses its grip on America and the President who covers for them, our government will become more responsive to the people, and Armenia’s enemies will have to think twice before they commit genocide. This is why we urgently need to vote for Democracy now, before it is too late.

    • You really think sleepy Joe gives a hoot about Armenians and the future of their homeland? He , his son and his brother are so much tied to the oligarchs of Russia,Ukraine,Kazakestan ,and of course grand daddy of them all China, that we will not hear even a whisper from him regarding Armenia and Artsakh!Our best chance is to reelect Trump,because he is a known peace maker.

  2. He’s not a peacemaker, he’s a coward. Out to get whatever he can for his own private interests, now and in the future. And the rest you have cited is disproven even by the Republican Senate’s intelligence investigation report – we know these theories are foreign disinformation campaigns, and I’m tired of seeing Americans tricked. We need to come together to work on the U.S. foreign policy machine,and not blame individuals as if they are responsible for it. Recalling Obama’s words when he was elected: If you want me to do more, demand it. One man cannot satisfy all the forces at work, but if we can come together strategically, with leaders who are not corrupt Turko-Azeri-Russian gangster-lovers like Trump, we can accomplish far more than changing a few words on April 24. We have our nations and Artsakh to save.

  3. Sophia has got it entirely right. Trump would have us believe that he is “Honest Abe”, but who got Michael Flynn completely off the hook for his breathtakingly corrupt dealings with Turkey and putting out volumes of pro-Turkish lies to make Erdogan look good? Trump. Armenians should know that he will offer them the moon at this moment—if they vote for him. Will Armenians be fooled again by the same old trick? Ask him about the Armenians on Wednesday morning and he will say “What Armenians?”

  4. “Sad that people are just coming to realize the depth of Trump’s ties to his Azeri friends and partners and to Erdogan.”

    Well, the Obama/Biden administration also had equally strong ties with both Aliyev and Erdogan.

    “We have to recognize that this invasion is happening now because Trump is in the White House”. . .

    One must be very foolish to believe that Biden (or any other morally bankrupt American president, as they’ve all been up to now) would go out of his way to stop the attempted genocide of Artsakh’s Armenians. Fat chance of that!

    “This is why we urgently need to vote for Democracy now, before it is too late.” Yeah, sure! And exactly what sort of extra “American democracy” is Biden planning to deliver to the American people, if he gets elected? Whether it ends up being Trump or Biden, as usual, it’ll end up being another four years of American hypocrisy.

    And why is Joe Biden less of a coward than Donald Trump? In eight years as Obama’s vice-president, he never once had the slightest bit of courage to publicly say “Armenian Genocide.” Therefore, he’s equally as much a coward as Donald Trump is.

    “We have our nations and Artsakh to save.”

    And exactly how do you plan to save our nations, along with Artsakh?

    When did Trump ever say that he’s a “lover” of Turkish, Azeri and Russian gangsters? He never said anything like that. On the other hand, if he happens to have a fondness for gangsters, it would make a lot more sense (since he’s a native New Yorker) that he would be fond of those slick, colorful New York gangsters from the 1960’s and 1970’s era. A perfect example, would be the character, Benny Blanco (from The Bronx), from the movie, Carlito’s Way.

    Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of gangster that President Trump would love.

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