The idiosyncratic appeal of the megalomaniacs
'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 colourful cast of characters, coups and counter-coups, offers an unusually rich range of things to talk about, and is 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 affecting 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: Trump.
Thais of all political stripes seemed amazed and dispirited in equal measure that such a man, a showman, a showman who is all show and no substance, 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 Shinawatra were quick to see parallels with the populist Donald Trump, only Mr Trump is worse.
Has Mr 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 goes way beyond influence peddling and the promise of spoils.
It is not unusual for ordinary folk to look up to billionaires as self-made men, their financial success suggests 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. They have the aura of leaders in the sense that they appear to listen to no one and make snap judgments on impulse.
When unusually egotistical people run for top office it raises the question of judgement.
People like Thaksin and Mr Trump are not normal. They are driven by egos so large that they wow, woo and alternately alienate ordinary folk who are taught from a young age not to be greedy, self-centred and conceited. They are outrageous; they do everything to attain a stature larger than life.
Yet as ridiculous as the posing and preening might be, publicity-hungry narcissists such as Mr Trump and Thaksin are shrewd masters at media manipulation. They know what buttons to press to arouse the rank-and-file. They 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 fires and change the topic when serious criticism seeps in, they know how to outrage and cajole, to provoke, paralyse 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 that outlasts the particulars of any particular media encounter. In a way it's all about finessing fame and money, using one to augment the other. For most of the super rich, that's enough. But then there are those cavalier souls who see a seat on the top of the political system as a way of cementing interests, protecting interests and furthering the brand.
Both Mr 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 to their core supporters 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 they break them.
There's a key difference in power projection, however. Whereas a wayward, over-the-top, populist Thai prime minister could merely lead a nation astray, an opportunistic populist in the White House could very well ruin the world.
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.
Philip J Cunningham
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon.