As the US stares down the barrel of a Trump presidency, there is a lot that Thailand can learn.
I hope Donald Trump is the next President of the United States. For Thailand’s sake.
Trump is a manipulative orator who wants Americans to feel angry. He doesn’t want them to think.
Trump wants to win power by persuading Americans that America’s complex problems are easy to fix.
Donald Trump is America’s Thaksin Shinawatra. Donald Trump is America’s Suthep Thaugsuban. If Trump is the next President of the United States, Americans will have won Thaksin and Suthep in a single package. Buy one, get one free.
Like his six Thai brothers, Donald Trump believes he has all the answers. But he can’t harm the United States as much as his Thai brothers have already harmed Thailand, or as much as they could harm Thailand in the future if Thais don’t protect themselves.
The United States is far from perfect. Think of renditions, water-boarding and Abu Ghraib, and of America’s own political cronyism. But Americans are better protected against their Trump. Thais have little protection against their Trumps.
What will happen when President Trump tries to censor the Internet, deport American-born children of illegal immigrants, close mosques, bar the entry of Muslims, impose the death penalty on murderers of police officers, or order the military to use torture?
President Trump will be challenged in the courts, especially the Supreme Court, the American equivalent of Thailand’s Constitutional Court. Americans will ask Supreme Court judges whether Trump’s actions breach the US Constitution.
Americans respect their constitution because it protects them from people like Trump. And they feel they own their constitution. They own it because their forefathers consulted widely and debated passionately before they put pen to paper.
Thailand’s first constitution was a gift from unhappy bureaucrats. Most of Thailand’s subsequent constitutions have been gifts from grumpy generals.
When Supreme Court judges are considering whether Trump’s actions are constitutional, they won’t have to force their way past mobs of pro-Trump or anti-Trump protesters screaming that they will cripple the judges, their families and the whole nation if the court doesn’t deliver a verdict they like. Most pro-Trump and anti-Trump Americans respect the law and the independence of the judiciary.
If fanatics among them try to seize Washington’s airport or to sabotage an international summit, the government will tell the police to enforce the law. And the police will enforce the law and stop them. The law is supreme, not the mob or the police.
The Supreme Court judges will not care that President Trump has just won an election and that a majority of Americans believed him when he said he would make them happy and rich. The law is supreme, not the voters.
Nor will the judges find eminent figures cajoling them, twisting their arms or offering them rewards. The law is supreme, not the elite.
The judges will explain clearly why they have reached their verdict. They won’t say that they want to restore harmony. They will say why the law supports their findings. The law is supreme, not the judges.
Americans will accept the Supreme Court decisions because American judges are judges; they don’t want to be politicians or administrators. They want to be independent referees and, critically, they want to be perceived as independent referees. So, from the day they become a judge, they scrupulously avoid commenting publicly on politics. They are proud to be judges and stoutly defend the independence of the judiciary.
The courts are likely to find that President Trump’s enthusiasms breach the US Constitution. The Constitution and the courts will protect Americans from the worst of Trump.
Congress will also put a brake on President Trump. The US President can’t pass laws or secure his budget unless he respects the elected representatives of the people and the legislature as an institution.
When Congress and President Trump reach a deadlock, members of Congress won’t resign in a huff, or boycott an election, or be bullied into whistling for another Trump, or call for a military coup. Congress – not the street – is the venue for political debate. Elected MPs – not mobsters, mobs or soldiers – represent the people.
The states will also thwart some of President Trump’s enthusiasms. The United States has a federal system; power isn’t centralised.
And the American media will draw attention to Trump’s deceptions and give Trump’s opponents opportunities to challenge his ideas. If Trump tries to adjust their attitudes, all of America will laugh at him.
President Trump may adapt to these checks and balances that lie at the heart of American democracy. If he doesn’t, the checks and balances will chew him up and spit him out.
The United States will suffer under Trump. But the rule of law will limit the damage and protect ordinary Americans.
The United States doesn’t have the answers to all Thailand’s governance problems. Nor does any other country. But Thailand can learn a lot from the presidency of Donald Trump. Vote One Trump.
Tom Winson is a pen name. The author is a long-time observer of Thailand.