In a recent post at New Mandala, a supposedly populist Donald Trump – now U.S. president-elect – was compared with another said to be a populist, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra. The comparison was a little silly, with the differences seemingly to far outweigh the similarities.
Such comparisons might include bad hair and the wide public acceptance of comb-overs. Trump has heinous hair, but so too do many leaders in Thailand. Think of the failed and corrupt General Udomdej Sitabutr.
Trump can learn that one should never allow that comb-over to get out of control. One must maintain the orderliness of one’s appearance, for appearance can be considered to overcome a dark heart, ignorance or boorishness.
This kind of comparison is no less silly than the one mentioned above. However, we can take this further and consider the characteristics of quite different political leaders.
General Udomdej’s carefully sculpted comb-over and his inability to allow any greying to appear has a lot to do with conceit and arrogance, and the forever orange-tanned and “blonde” Trump certainly displays such characteristics by the truckload.
In a list of characteristics of Thailand’s military regime, and of The Dictator himself, one that ranks high is arrogance.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha has demonstrated remarkable arrogance, dominating the media, as all dictators do, and establishing his “values” as those for the nation. He even “pens” songs that Thais are forced to hear, again and again. The Dictator demands that Thailand be more like him. Narrow, loyalist and conservative.
Trump can learn a bit more about narrow nationalism and enforcing conservatism from the draconian actions of the military dictatorship. Of course, Trump is well known for his arrogance and remarkable hubris. This derives from privilege, wealth and the loyalty of jellyback servants in a hierarchical and dictatorial business organization. For the military dictatorship, loyalty and subservience also rank high. However, The Dictator’s arrogance derives not so much from wealth as from a surplus of power at the head of a murderous and hierarchical organization. The Dictator has shown how to enforce that jellyback subservience by weeding out “opponents” in the state’s organizations. Trump may seek to do similar things in the U.S.
Related, as we emphasize through our labeling of General Prayuth as The Dictator, narcissism and egoism drive him. These characteristics are most certainly defining of Trump. Some argued that he has shown the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Yet narcissism is not just a “disorder.” It is a political style that emphasizes authoritarianism and a personality cult.
One characteristic that The Dictator has taken to a remarkable level is disingenuousness. Just lie. Whenever anything mildly disturbing to The Dictator personally or is considered “threatening” to the regime, just lie. We are sure that Trump will have no difficulty following this example. Making stuff up is the essence of an authoritarian regime.
The Dictator and his regime also show the way on double standards. Under this military dictatorship, there are no standards that are not double standards. Again, we have no trouble believing that Trump can quickly adapt this when he becomes president.
Authoritarianism defines the military dictatorship. Liberal values and liberal patience for dissent are expunged. They are expunged from law, practice in the bureaucracy, in the media and educational institutions. In Thailand, this was made easy by the “tradition” of military authoritarianism and interventionist feudalism in the form of the monarchy. In the U.S., Trump will surely build on an illiberalism that has been built in civil society, much of it fostered by religious fundamentalism and conservative nationalism or “patriotism.” We can see him moving against institutions identified with U.S. liberalism.
Anti-liberalism and authoritarianism in Thailand has long been associated with a deeply conservative emphasis on orderliness. This fetish has been fostered by the hierarchy of military and monarchy. Trump is unlikely to rely on the military, although many in the military will be ideologically drawn to him. He may seek to make his family more monarchical, just as The Dictator has adopted characteristics of the dead king.
Misogyny and boorishness have been defining elements of The Dictator’s personality and regime. As we know, Trump has little to learn from The Dictator on these scores. Yet we might understand that these characteristics are a part of a conservatism that allocates privilege to selected groups in society.
Ignorance is another central characteristic of the military dictatorship. The Dictator and his closest colleagues have little knowledge of the world.This group gained its leadership position based on royal posterior polishing and adherence to hierarchy. They have no experience of a real world, even in the military. Trump, for all of his investments, is essentially a New York property developer. He can learn from the military dictatorship that such narrowness simply doesn’t matter when your constituency is boorish and narrow too.
The final characteristic is an inability to “fail” or “lose.” The military dictatorship is never wrong and never gets anything wrong. The problem is “others” who are undermining the regime, opponents of the regime or duped by nasty politicians. Trump can learn from this. He certainly knows that even defeats must be reworked as “wins.” However, the targeting of opponents will likely become his excuse for all kinds of nastiness.
Thailand has demonstrated that authoritarianism is a slippery slope. The country is now at the bottom of the slope. The U.S. is no liberal heaven but Trump can easily knock away some of the remaining checks and balances and the slope gets steeper and the slide down it accelerates.