Sunday, May 29, 2016




“What do you think of Donald Trump?”
“Is it really possible for him to be President?”

During a recent series of interviews and informal conversations conducted with retired Thai statesmen in Bangkok, I frequently found the tables turned on me. Suddenly I was the one being put on the spot and being asked questions. “What’s happening to America?”

Thai politics, with its colorful cast of characters, coups and counter-coups offers an unusually rich range of things to talk about, and is usually a full plate for discussion in itself. And yet even during this intolerably hot season, with Thai political tensions running high and fears about the future impacting life on all levels, I found my distinguished interlocutors drifting off topic due to an unusual political phenomenon that can be summed up in a single word.


Thais of all political stripes seemed amazed and dispirited in equal measure that such a man, a showman, a showman all show and no substance, a populist who doesn't even make an effort to be nice to people, could dominate American political discourse to the point of becoming a viable candidate for President.

Former foreign ministers, prime ministers, police, generals and scholars alike expressed dismay with the course America seems to be taking. Off-course is more like it.  

Critics of Thaksin were quick to see parallels with the populist Trump, only Trump was worse.

Has Trump trumped Thaksin?

When unusually rich individuals run for top office it raises the question of money. Can influence be bought? Is the political system being gamed? The corrosive power of big money in the supposedly level playing field of democratic politics is legend, and it goes way beyond influence peddling and the promise of spoils.

But at the same time, it is not unusual for ordinary folk look up to billionaires, rich by hook or by crook, as rugged self-made men, the financial success of whom suggests that they possess the magic touch when it comes to money. And if they are good at money, which speaks for itself in a materialistic society, then who knows --they might be good at politics, too. The super rich are different, they have money to back them up. While the traditional wisdom of the moneyed class is to avoid the limelight, or to engage in philanthropy for show, there are political mavericks among the billionaire class who possess the aura of leaders in the sense that they appear to beholden to no one but could change the lives of millions should they so choose.

When unusually wealthy people run for top office it raises serious questions about conflict of interest; when unusually egotistical people do the same, it raises serious questions of judgement.

People like Thaksin and Trump seem to have blind faith in their rightness for office, but they lack the character of public servants and spirit of public service. They are driven by egos so large that they woo, wow and alternately alienate ordinary folk who are taught from a young age not to be greedy, self-centered and conceited. They are outrageous and they know it; their big bobble heads may look comical and be the butt of jokes, but in the process they attain a stature larger than life. 

Yet as ridiculous as the posing and preening might be, publicity-hungry narcissists such as Trump and Thaksin have proven themselves to be shrewd masters at media manipulation. They know what buttons to press to arouse the rank-and-file. They know how to pretend to be outsiders, combating the very system that has made them unusually rich. They get plenty of press, and much of it for free.

Both men know how to ride the news cycles, they know how to stoke the media fires and change the topic when serious criticism seeps in, they know how to outrage and cajole, to provoke, paralyze and pull back.

It’s a show best seen on television, of course, because they are in essence, stars in a non-stop reality show of their own making.

As businessmen, the trumpeting of a name, the constant courting of fame, be it Trump or Thaksin, is a game that contributes to making a brand designed to outlast the particulars of any particular media encounter. In a way politics is all about finessing fame and money, using one to augment the other. For most of the super rich, the cold hard cash is enough. But then there are those cavalier souls who see snagging a seat on the top of the political system as a way of cementing interests, outdoing rivals, protecting interests and furthering the brand.

Both Trump and Thaksin are careless in their public pronouncements, clumsy and inarticulate in intellectual terms, yet each has a way with words in the sense that they can seemingly talk themselves out of anything. 

There’s a Teflon-like quality that accrues to plain-speaking populists, and in the eyes of their core supporters at least, they can do no wrong. If they suggest something outrageous one day, it’s the new normal the next. Subject to no one’s sense of propriety but their own, they make the rules as the break them.

There are consequences of allowing such egos to quench their desires in the public realm, though the damage done depends on the power of the platform.  Whereas a divisive, over-the-top, Pied Piper of a populist Thai prime minister could merely lead a nation astray, an opportunistic populist in the White House could very well ruin the world.