The refusal of United States President Donald Trump to concede the election to Joe Biden, his challenging of the result through baseless allegations of fraud, and his bluster on social media are all drawing comparisons with authoritarian power grabs around the world.
“His chances of succeeding appear low, but it is important to state that the president of the United States is attempting to carry out a coup,” the New Yorker wrote last week. A shake-up at the Pentagon days after the election prompted one official to tell CNN, "these are dictator moves." And a New York Times analysis this week said Trump’s attempts to overturn the election are unparalleled in U.S. history.
But will Trump really refuse to leave and try to hold onto power through other means? Or is he putting on a show in a presidency that thrives on drama and inflammatory statements?
Thailand might have the answer. The Southeast Asian country knows a thing or two about dictators, faulty elections, and dangerous rhetoric. Since 1932, it has seen 13 successful coups, one of the highest rates in the world. The latest was only six years ago, in 2014, when General Prayut Chan-O-Cha seized power from a democratically elected government after violent street protests. Last year, he took part in elections that observers say were tilted towards the military. Two opposition parties were dissolved, one before the vote and one after. Prayut is now prime minister.
We asked Thais from different backgrounds, including academics, an opposition figure and a student activist involved in ongoing pro-democracy protests, to offer advice to Americans attempting to make sense of what is unfolding in their country. They responded with generally reassuring observations, plus several caveats. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Chris Potranandana, politician with the Move Forward Party, a spin-off from the opposition Future Forward Party, which was dissolved by court order earlier this year
I don’t think what Trump is doing is an attempted coup, but more so the first steps to an attempted coup. It’s the same everywhere. For a coup to be successful, the first step is to keep spreading false information and make people trust in the coup, that the coup is necessary. And that’s what Trump has been doing, like tweeting that the election is rigged, or that he won the election. But for a coup to actually happen, Trump would first need to have the bureaucracy and military on his side. And that’s the difference between Thailand and the U.S. In Thailand, coups keep happening because the majority of the military is controlled by the person staging the coup. It’s like putting the citizen at gunpoint. That’s why we all have to follow it. But for America, the military and the bureaucracy still swear they will protect democracy.
Surachanee Sriyai, lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University
Thailand could not even hold proper elections, but Trump’s attempt to incite further division by trying to delegitimize the results does resonate. However, I don’t think what Trump is doing is an “attempted coup.” I have more trust in the U.S. formal institutions for it to resolve the problem before it gets to the breaking point. If “coup” implies an involvement of the military, it’s not going to happen. The U.S. military is very against the concept of a coup as it sees that as a violation of democratic principles. The U.S. military does not have a track record of habitually being involved in politics.
He [Trump] has a hint of ruling with authoritarianism. Especially after last year’s midterm elections when the Republican Party lost control of the United States House of Representatives and Trump signed so many executive orders after that, signaling that he wasn’t shy to bypass the Congress, hence the will of the people. But to be fair, this is usually the case when a president doesn’t hold a majority in both Houses. Moreover, this may have a lot to do with his personality and policy stance too.
One thing to keep in mind is that democracy is a system where parties win and lose in the elections. The main thing that keeps this system alive is the trust in the system; so, both sides should accept the results. If you don’t like the performance of the government, exercise your rights to vote—at least you have that privilege.
Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong, prominent pro-democracy activist who is facing serious charges for involvement in a peaceful rally
Trump has shown a tendency towards authoritarianism, but I don’t think he is a dictator to some extent. What happens in the U.S. and Thailand are completely different things. The judicial system in Thailand is not dependable to some extent. In the U.S., even though there is some messiness, there's at least something for people to believe in. But for Thailand, the fundamental stage is already broken. The Americans are conscious enough to protect their own democracy, and they really do respect the democracy and constitution that you can’t even break it or change it. But in Thailand, we create the constitution and it gets torn apart. We are still quite far off from creating a super strong democracy and constitution, and to have people protect it like in America.
I don’t think what Trump is doing is a joke, we all considered him a joke before and then he won the presidency. He has done something that has never been seen before. I would say that yes, we should be cautious of him, but I don’t think Trump is a threat to America. Someone like Trump is going to come up in politics every now and then, but if you really believe in the system, and if the system is really strong, I wouldn’t count on him to destroy democracy.
Wasana Wongsurawat, assistant professor in the Department of History, Faculty of Arts at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. She is also the author of “The Crown and the Capitalists: The Ethnic Chinese and the Founding of the Thai Nation.”
Trump has his votes from the fact that he is a celebrity and a populist. And he wants to show his power and not to accept that he has lost, to impress his supporters. Even though he lost, we have to remember that he has over 70 million votes – that is a lot, that is more than the population in Thailand. And whatever he’s doing right now, it’s to serve those people. To please his people. Which is different to Thailand, because Prayut doesn’t have this kind of popularity.
If Trump doesn’t get the support from the Republican Party, I don’t think it will lead to the change of the election result, because at the end of the day, their system still works. Trump is a showman and we have seen him performing in the past four years, so he is not going to go quietly. But I don’t think it will change anything.
I don’t think there will be a coup in the U.S., 500 percent sure. Because the military doesn’t really agree with him. Personally, I think America is not in a worrying situation. I’m in a country without a real democracy right now. I think they should be giving us more advice. Even with the past four years that Trump was in office, their situation was still better than ours, because they had a legitimate election and democracy.
Rahat Alikhan, consultant advising companies doing business in Southeast Asia
There are certain similarities in Trump and Prayut’s character: they speak without filters and are unapologetic about it. They are absolutely out of touch with reality because they are surrounded by yes-men and cronies so they live in a bubble/echo chamber.
Not just Trump but how his base has reacted reminds me of what I've been seeing in Thailand, not limited to only post-election but also the period leading up to it: the use of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and paranoia to discredit opponents; stoking of nationalist sentiments and trying to claim the corner on defining what are American and Thai values, respectively.
It’s hard to compare election reactions though since transparency and accountability unfortunately are not tenets of present-day Thai politics. As 'strongman' as Trump thinks he is, the U.S. can still claim to have independent institutions and pillars of their democracy that will balance out the will of the people, not to mention the independence of each State to govern. The U.S. has a system in place to ensure a transparent and fair election, which unfortunately is not the case in Thailand.
In the context of having the military taking control of the government, no I do not see the U.S. following in Thailand's path. As a nation they have institutions that are independent and strong and will function regardless of who is president. The way things are structured in the U.S. are also for the military to be under a civilian government's control, not the other way round. Another key aspect that does not get expanded on enough is the fact that accountability does not exist as a norm in Thai politics.