Many things have been said about Donald Trump and his presidential campaign – and not just in the United States where, heading into the New York primary with a huge lead, he remains the Republican Party’s national frontrunner by a ten-point margin. As of now, more than 8 million Americans have gone to the polls and cast a ballot for Donald Trump.
The grassroots support enjoyed by the Trump campaign is viewed with a mix of amusement, fear, and outright disgust by much of the rest of the world. In Europe, Trump’s machismo has drawn direct comparisons to Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and womanising media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. In Mexico City, legislators passed a symbolic proposal last month to ban “the Donald” from Mexican soil. That vote came two months after the U.K. Parliament debated whether to keep Trump out of Britain, a debate prompted by a petition that gathered over 570,000 signatories.
While Trump the candidate is ripe for criticism and mockery, even many of those in his own party have a difficult time contemplating what Trump as President would mean for his country and the world. What happens, however, when leaders who share Trump’s combination of populist demagoguery and contempt for democratic pluralism take power?
In Thailand, junta leader and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has spent the last two years answering that question. Since overthrowing Thailand’s elected government and turning the Thai security services and judiciary into a tool for harassing and jailing opponents, Prayuth has made a habit of issuing the kind of glib responses and childish complaints of media “unfairness” that Donald Trump is famous for. Considering the authoritarian overtones of Trump rallies, there’s good reason to wonder just how different the two politicians are.
Among the more disturbing similarities is the jarring, 21st century brand of misogyny that both Prayuth and Trump are willing to indulge in whenever cameras are rolling. If anything, both men seem to relish the attention and notoriety they gain from denigrating women. Prayuth, a 62-year-old retired general, easily rivals his American counterpart in making cringe worthy comments. In just one widely covered example, the military dictator sought to reassure female visitors to his country by insisting bikini-clad tourists in Thailand are safe so long as they are “ugly.” This callous response to the murder of British backpackers David Miller and Hannah Witheridge on the vacation island of Koh Tao drew the ire of the international community, but it’s not an uncommon stance for Prayuth to take.
Many Americans feel blindsided by the vulgarity of Donald Trump’s attitude toward women – and himself, for that matter. For perhaps the first time in American history, a candidate made his penis size an issue in what was meant to be a substantive debate about leadership credentials for the most powerful elected office on Earth. One has to wonder how American national discourse has devolved to the point where Trump’s most recent remarks on women and abortion can become headline news. Of course, the most blatant sign of the billionaire’s disregard for the entire female gender might still be his crass claims that journalist Megyn Kelly was “bleeding out of her wherever” last year. Little wonder, then, that there’s an entire short video of women reading Donald Trump’s disparaging quotes about them.
The remarks in that anti-Trump ad, however, could just as easily be attributed to Prayuth. The ex-general is on record saying gender equality would degrade Thai society and prefers that women attend to their homes. He has also been outspoken in advising women to stick to modest Thai attire, warning them that they would otherwise be viewed as inedible, unwrapped pieces of candy that no one would want to eat.
Trump, Prayuth and the damage to democracy
Behind their insulting attitudes toward women, the rhetoric used by both men seems to underscore an authoritarian worldview that promises to curtail basic human freedoms. Prayuth, who wields practically unchecked power in Thailand, has silenced his critics with a dictator’s touch. That was the case with Watana Muangsook, a senior member of the Pheu Thai party. His clearly sarcastic Facebook post suggesting Prayuth was sexist in his army’s “stalking” of former Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra because she is pretty was met with baseless detention.
Muangsook now faces a five-year sentence for computer crimes, following “attitude adjustment” sessions with the Thai army and additional police questioning. Journalists working under the Prayuth regime can easily run afoul of Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, and even U.S. ambassador Glyn Davies found himself accused of insulting the monarchy for making remarks about civilian prison sentences at a press dinner.
The strict curtailing of democratic freedoms that has taken shape in Thailand is, according to Donald Trump, exactly what America needs to control its own journalists. His proposal to change libel laws and press protections would fundamentally alter press freedoms in the U.S. and expose journalists and publications to libel suits and judicial pressure, replicating the worst failings of the British approach to freedom of the press. While all this might be in fundamental violation the U.S. Constitution, the candidate has made a habit of dismissing constitutional law with a level of ignorance and arrogance that fellow strongmen would be proud of. In Prayuth’s Thailand, criticism of the military’s new draft constitution (that allows for unelected leadership) is, unsurprisingly, banned.
As the Republicans figure out what to do about Donald Trump, his careless encouragement of violence at his own rallies and his promises to build walls and ban Muslims seems to be exciting a growing portion of the American electorate while alarming observers in-country and abroad. Trump’s trademark brand of buffoonery and insulting rhetoric might seem entertaining to some, but they mask an authoritarian streak that can do serious damage to even a stable democracy if allowed to assume power. As the people of Thailand have discovered, a demagogue’s bark can lead to an even worse bite.