BANGKOK — We’ve been exposed to a demagogue for an entire election season. How can we avoid falling numb to his corrupt politics?
Activists in Bangkok have an answer.
Two years ago, generals staged a coup in Thailand. This isn’t unusual; the country has suffered a dozen coups in more than 80 years. My family and I lived through two. Each time, the response looked the same. Enraged citizens would march through downtown Bangkok, then gradually retreat back to their personal lives when schools and businesses reopened. Given the country’s exposure to authoritarianism, military rule had become the new normal.
So a group of activists invented new tactics to keep people engaged. Challenging the ban on political assembly, students from Thammasat University handed out free “Sandwiches for Democracy” for a picnic in Bangkok’s shopping district. Activists later disrupted the city’s commute with silent readings of George Orwell’s “1984.” On certain days, they encouraged the nation to wear black to signify their collective dissent, which I saw in large numbers at restaurants and shopping malls in downtown Bangkok.
These tactics didn’t spark a mass revolt, but, I realized, they weren’t supposed to. They were intended as symbolic reminders of military rule, in the hope that the country would not sleepwalk through its own political transformation. And they gave people easy ways to get involved.
There’s a lesson for America here.
Donald Trump has demonized Mexicans and Muslims, called women “pigs,” and objectified African-Americans (“my African-American over there”). He has threatened freedom of the press and sparked a resurgence of white supremacy. And some Republican leaders have endorsed his candidacy, helping transform him into the mainstream authority of the Republican Party as presidential nominee.
Even if he loses, I worry that Americans may normalize Trump’s worldview. Just as Thais began to think of coups as normal, Americans may well begin to see his hateful rhetoric as business as usual. Trump’s belittling of Khizr and Ghazala Khan may have shocked us this weekend, but how many of us still notice his slighter acts of prejudice in every rally or tweet? At some point, the shock effect will wear off. And when it does, his moral bankruptcy will become our own.
What are we to do?
The Thai activists remind me of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who had warned about how radical behaviors can turn into societal habits when repeated for long enough. Bordieu’s remedy is “countertraining.” He rejects the Leninist idea that true ideas can defeat bad habits, contending that habits are too entrenched to be dislodged by good thinking alone. Instead, he calls for small acts of defiance, similar to those taken by the Thai protesters. Like getting over an addictive habit, we must pioneer new actions in our daily lives to disrupt the normalization of Donald Trump.
This begins with how we refer to him.
Among the biggest failures by the Thai press was to use only the formal title of “prime minister” to describe the Thai coup-maker after he won a sham vote from a parliament he appointed, coating him in a veneer of legitimacy. To avoid the same mistake, we must go beyond our conventional identification of candidates by party. Trump’s title as Republican nominee does not capture the fact that he is not a normal Republican candidate. In every article, speech or dinner conversation, we should also refer to Trump as one of the most xenophobic and authoritarian-leaning populists in modern American political history.
Comedy can sometimes help tell that story. When the Thai dictator spouts his conspiracy theories, a few resourceful netizens cobble together humorous music videos. Unlike direct statements, that humor disarms, forcing me to react and engage with the content. Humor from authority figures is even more effective, like Hillary Clinton’s joke in June we should “leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants.”
Creative fact-checking helps, too. CNN’s innovative real-time fact-check of Trump’s record on nuclear proliferation helped its viewers. (The caption read: “Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (He did.)”). Most recently, the New York Times pushed a news alert solely dedicated to a fact-check of Trump’s RNC keynote speech.
The ultimate blow, however, must come from the Republican Party itself. Just as defections can cripple a military junta, a mass Congressional Republican revolt would debilitate Trump with swing voters. Rebellions have a symbolic power: they disrupt traditional rules and norms, and in doing so, shock the electorate into reflection. Sen. Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement should serve as an example for other Republicans in Congress.
As the general election campaign officially begins, we must defeat the normalization of Trump in addition to the candidate himself. When left unchecked, societal habits can harden into our culture. And just as it is true in our personal lives, the behaviors we accept ultimately determines the people we become.