The similarities and differences of two very divisive politicians — and what the future might hold for both of them
With their self-promotion and showmanship, the political personas of Thaksin Shinawatra and Donald Trump more closely resemble legendary circus impresario PT Barnum than they do most politicians.
Now that the US national electorate is poised to hand Trump a major loss, and with Thai royal succession potentially giving an indirect boost to Thaksin Shinawatra’s rehabilitation campaign, it is timely to examine the similarities and differences of these outlier political figures, and the disparate roles they could assume in 2017 and beyond.
Both men are billionaires who have avoided financial transparency and have marketed false narratives of themselves as self-made. Another trait common to their political rise was a level of media savvy hitherto unseen in their respective national campaigns. Trump’s ascent, in particular, reflects the growing influence of social media. His facile use of the provocative soundbite is demonstrative of a culture in which attention spans last only as long as the time it takes to text a 140-character insult.
Yet, Trump’s undisciplined Twitter rants and inability to refrain from taking the rhetorical bait Hillary Clinton skillfully dangled before him in debates made him appear increasingly unhinged to voters. In contrast, Thaksin’s series of infrequent, carefully-timed print interviews throughout the long prelude to royal transition allows him to continue to strategically influence the show from off-stage.
A key difference which has contributed to Trump’s imminent defeat and to Thaksin’s potential re-emergence is their inverse campaign organisational skills. Lambasted as vote-buying by the elites who shunned him, Thaksin’s political machine was clearly capable of turning out support needed to win an election.
In contrast, Trump demonstrated an almost total absence of campaign organisation. From his first loss in the Iowa caucuses, a contest which can only be won by a meticulous, precinct-by-precinct ground game, it became apparent that his campaign was fueled by superficial dynamism and the freakish enthusiasm it engendered in some quarters. This is a deficiency he would have to remedy were he to re-enter the political fray, as his initial cachet will have dulled — the same way a Star Wars action figure loses value when it is taken out of the box.
Another difference is that, corruption aside, Thaksin enhanced his stature with voters through populist policies that actually benefitted low-income workers, such as the 30-baht health scheme. Trump has offered few specifics on domestic social policy throughout the campaign, other than a childcare tax relief program that would have primarily helped upper-income parents.
The US and Thailand are separated by thousands of miles, but base voters for Thaksin and Trump share some notable characteristics. The Bangkok taxi driver transplanted from Isaan might seem to have little in common with the gun-toting, Christian fundamentalist in Oklahoma. Yet, both have felt overlooked by successive administrations, and have not identified with the campaign rhetoric spun by most candidates.
Both groups have had their votes vilified as not merely helping a disfavoured candidate, but actually undermining democracy. Pundits on either side of the Pacific wondered how anyone could support a demagogue like Thaksin or Trump. “What is wrong with those people?,” was a familiar, shocked refrain.
The more instructive question from a political viewpoint is, “What is wrong with democratic institutions for failing to craft policies and messages more inclusive of society’s marginalised factions to prevent them from becoming targets of megalomaniacal candidates?” A democratic nation which ignores large blocks of voters for long will be made to pay in one way or another. But in the US, those voters are swiftly losing demographic ground. Already, more voting power is concentrated in cities, and by 2020, half of all children in the nation will be from racial or ethnic minorities. By contrast, most Thai voters still reside in rural areas, so reaching them will continue to be a key to victory.
What might the future hold for either man?
Trump’s exile will not feature the exotic locales of Montenegro and Dubai like Thaksin’s, but it will be just as profound, in the political, if not geographic, sense. He has managed to isolate himself from the Republican Party establishment whose support would be essential to a future presidential run. Unlike Thailand, where anyone with a billion dollars and a dream can found his own political party, the US political system’s two-party domination limits the viability of third-party candidates. Trump has not simply burned his bridges with his party’s leaders, he has incinerated them.
Thaksin, however, still has a potential majority to mobilise, if not for his pesky visa problem, and the fact that the generals amended the constitution to thwart his re-emergence. Ironically, his years in exile may have allowed him to facilitate a rapport with the Crown Prince more readily than had he remained in Thailand. He may make it back to the PM’s office yet, if he can ever make it past security at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
At the intersection of show business and national politics, anything is possible. Donald Trump might even have a political second act. After all, when his days of touring with oddities and hoaxes were done, Barnum was elected as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and to the state legislature there. The show must go on.
Sally Tyler is an attorney and policy analyst, based in Washington, DC. She holds degrees from Emory University, and from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her paper, “Of Temples and Territory: The ICJ’s Preah Vihear Decision and Implications for Regional Dispute Resolution”