As Donald Trump goes full authoritarian, the globe is searching for parallels to discern where its biggest economy is headed.
Vladimir Putin’s name comes up quite a bit. So does that of Belarusian strongmen Aleksandr Lukashenko and others who refused to concede defeat: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro; Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. It’s also hard not to see a Ferdinand Marcos dynamic at play in President Trump’s White House.
But the best Asia-region corollary may be Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, the man whose long shadow has stretched across his nation—and economy— for much of the 14 years since he left the premiership.
The conditions of the exits are mirror images. In 2006, Thaksin was ousted in a coup; in 2020, Trump seems to be laying the groundwork for one after voters elected Joe Biden on Nov. 3. But the post-leadership chaos in Washington could be eerily similar to what Thaksin wrought in Bangkok.
The easiest way to think of Thaksin is as the Silvio Berlusconi of Southeast Asia. The telecom billionaire harnessed his wealth, national profile and raw charisma to excel in politics. While in office, he enlisted government institutions to enrich his business empire.
This will sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the rise and fall of former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. And now, Trump, as his four-year reign of chaos and institutional vandalism comes to an end.
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Sure, there are Marcos parallels to consider here. The late Filipino dictator also commandeered government agencies, flouted the rule of law, meddled in elections, turned soldiers on protesters, enriched his personal businesses and made his family part of the grift. Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, even worked for Marcos in the 1980s for a time.
But like Thaksin, Trump makes it clear he has no intention of receding from the national scene, perhaps even running for president again in 2024. And to rile his base—and more than 100 million-plus social-media followers—to make life as difficult as possible for the Biden White House.
It’s the Thaksin playbook. After fleeing Bangkok in 2006 to London and elsewhere, Thaksin held any number of televised political rallies from afar. He riled up angry supporters with claims the fraud and corruption cases against him were trumped-up. He complained that all governments that succeeded him were failing and were to blame for per capita income that’s just $7,800.
It was a routine that worked all too well. Over the next several years, Thailand saw a revolving door of leaders spin through unable to escape Thaksin’s shadow. That chaotic cycle culminated in yet another coup in 2014, when soldiers led by general-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha grabbed power. Between Thaksin and Prayuth, no fewer than eight Thai governments came and went.
All the while, one of Asia’s most promising economies lost ground. Leaders spent so much time trying to hold their jobs, as Thaksin and surrogates trolled them from the sidelines, they could achieve little else. By the wayside fell efforts to wean the economy off exports, increase innovation, competition and productivity and invest in education and healthcare. In other words, to build economic muscle in a region limbering up to compete against China.
Thailand is now more susceptible to the dreaded “middle-income trap,” when per capita income stalls below $10,000, than in 2001 when Thaksin first took power. In 2020, Thailand relies on exports and tourism for 70% of gross domestic product. Both engines are sputtering amid Covid-19 disruptions.
Could this be America’s plight? Biden’s White House will have to act fast to creatively to dig out from under the wreckage Trump leaves behind. First it must contain the world’s worst coronavirus epidemic. As the U.S. careens toward 11 million Covid-19 cases, Trump is completely AWOL.
Second, Team Biden must decipher what a uniquely opaque and capricious administration did to America’s economy: neutering institutions; flouting legislative and judicial branches of government; using the Federal Reserve like an ATM; rolling back virtually every regulation in sight. Third, repair an economy Trump left reeling amid second Covid-19 waves around the globe.
All while, it seems, fending off a steady barrage of Trumpian jabs from the sidelines. And dealing with Republican lawmakers petrified about crossing Trump and his supporters, ensuring legislative gridlock. Trump was an avid Twitter troll during his time in office. Imagine an unshackled and aggrieved former president lashing out 24/7 from the golf course or Fox New makeup chair. Rumor has it, Trump’s family may open its own right-wing news site, Thaksin-style.
Perhaps a Biden White House can avoid the Trumpian onslaught to come. It’s entirely possible that Biden can rise above it as he undoes Trump’s messes and restores America’s standing around the globe.
It won’t be easy, though, should Trump continue to hold cult-like sway over tens of millions of Americans—people he may have convinced Biden is an illegitimate leader. Biden isn’t, of course. His victory was far more impressive than Trump’s in 2016. But Trump is trying to keep the grift alive, not unlike a larger-than-life force holding sway over Thailand. Way too much.