By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 08:34AM
While I've been out in the field on research, it has been very hard to post on the blog; many apologies for those hoping for more updates. I hope to add a few things this week to make up for lost time.
I, like so many of my countrymen (including the majority of those who voted), was surprised and perhaps even mildly disappointed about the unexpected win by Donald Trump in the American presidential elections. International commentary has largely focused on related trends in Europe. Many folks have connected the triumph of populism in the US to the triumph of nativism in the UK’s recent EU membership referendum. Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi has happily welcomed comparisons between his political profile and Donald Trump.
Of course while living in Southeast Asia, I have been thinking about leaders in this region who might be seen as analogous to Donald Trump. Here I put forward three possible points of comparison (in inverse order to their leap to national elections).
Over the last year, many commentators have looked at the occasionally foul-mouthed President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, as analogous to Trump’s insult-filled campaign. Duterte (somewhat like the American president-elect) enjoys insulting incumbent American president Barack Obama, American diplomatic staff, American foreign policy, and lots of other things. Both Trump and Duterte have had troubles staying on the Pope’s good side. Both men are fairly populist; both have encouraged violence in society to tackle perceived problems; and both have said problematic things about women. Recently, Duterte had a calling from God to tone down his language; it is as yet unclear if president-elect Trump will undergo a similar transformation. Another key difference: Duterte had decades of experience in government, by being the mayor of his hometown, Davao City. (Fun fact: Duterte has been open to the comparison, even while he feels he is just a “small molecule” compared to Trump.)
In the lead-up to election day, as Trump was threatening to reject the election results as rigged (if he lost), I was thinking quite a bit about Indonesian former general, party leader, and losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Both Prabowo and Trump have authoritarian tendencies, of course, and I think the term “Oligarchic Populism” could be applied to both. But Prabowo’s intransigent denial of the election results that saw him lose the presidency in 2014 looked to me like a model for the kind of court case and contentious public conflict that could have appeared if Trump followed through on threats to reject any losing outcome. There are also some interesting arguments to be made here about their tortured relationship with the press: certainly both know how to work the media, but Prabowo was supported in the end only by TVOne (owned by another Indonesian oligarch to whom he was politically allied) and called all other media horrendously biased, while Trump seemed to reject the whole media establishment except his personal buddies (most notably Sean Hannity). The comparison really ended on election day, though; Indonesia chose (by a narrower than expected margin) to embrace a different kind of populism in President Joko Widodo, while the American electoral college fell to Trump. There were other differences, too, though. Prabowo was famously good at controlling him temper on the political stage (although not behind the scenes, apparently)—I remember how he had even encouraged Megawati Soekarnoputri to play nice on TV when he was her running mate in 2009. Prabowo’s background in public life and military service, also, was markedly different from Trump’s media and business profile. (Another fun connection: two of Prabowo’s close political allies, Fadli Zon and Setya Novanto, claimed at a political rally in the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 that the Indonesian people like Trump “very much.”)
The most surprising connection, for me, was made by a friend in Thailand several weeks ago, who compared Donald Trump to former prime minister and now famed persona-non-grata Thaksin Shinawatra. (Apparently colleagues at New Mandala had already made this comparison – and more in Thai politics.) In terms of personal résumé, I was struck by the similarities: big-city billionaires who appealed to rural, working-class constituencies to the consternation of other national elites and liberal urban centers. Thaksin was involved in politics longer, certainly, and was unrivalled within his popular Thai Rak Thai Party, but their rise to power was still a bit of a surprise. As many people are fearing from a Trump presidency, when in power he was accused of playing favorites, being capricious, and most dangerously using the state apparatus to benefit his own business empire. His political movement has been so strong and so controversial in Thailand that it has prompted two army coups: both the one against him in 2006 (since which time he has not come back to the country to face pending charges) and the second against his sister (and political heir) in 2014. Let us hope that a Trump presidency in America does not become so very polarizing.
So, is Donald Trump the Thaksin of America? The Prabowo of the United States? Or New York’s own Duterte? I look forward to input from others, either here or on Facebook.