eyes on the U.S.

Midterms, Trump And An Anxious World Looking On

In Washington, D.C., on Nov. 4
In Washington, D.C., on Nov. 4
Paul Willmann


BERLIN — Democracies are made of constant ups and downs. Sometimes one party is on top, the next it's another. And what may look like a dramatic election result often is, in reality, nothing more than the natural ebb and flow that characterizes healthy democracies.

Every now and then, however, comes a moment when voters are faced with a clear choice between starkly different directions, a moment when citizens are called upon to define the character of their country and set the course for the future. America has now come to such a fork in the road.

When the American people chose Donald Trump two years ago, their decision could still be seen as an industrial accident. The citizens were fed up with the political class. Many felt attracted by Trump's anti-establishment rhetoric, by what they felt was a refreshingly unconventional nature. Trump's election was an expression of the pain of modernization felt by a large part of U.S. society. And it was a giant middle finger from the voters to the American elites in both business and politics, many of the former feeling patronized by the latter.

But this flirtation with novelty is now over. Trump is the new normal. His name may not be on the ballot, but the midterm elections are nothing more than a giant referendum on Trump's style of government and on the way he's trying to redefine America.

Sure, Trump also has a number of successes to show for himself, especially in economic policy. Tax relief for companies and deregulation have given a further boost to the economy, which was already doing well under Barack Obama, and he's brought unemployment to record lows.

But in many other areas, Trump has left a trail of destruction behind him. With his aggressive rhetoric, he has driven a wedge even deeper into a society that was already showing high levels of polarization. He has brought the public discourse down to a shamefully low level.

Trump has also fueled the far-right and inspired conspiracy theorists. Under him, the delusional right-wing fringe has penetrated much further into the Republican Party than ever before. And since Trump's inauguration, The Washington Post has counted more than 6,400 false or misleading statements made by the U.S. president.

A president who regularly spreads falsehoods destroys confidence in the independence and reliability of state authorities. And he disintegrates all democratic discourse when right and left can no longer even agree on common facts, on the basis of which different political philosophies could be discussed.

America seems like a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

America now consists of two political tribes that move in completely opposite realities. This development, which began long ago and is also encouraged by social media, has been further exacerbated by Trump's entirely self-serving relationship to truth. The sheer scale of rhetorical line-crossings and rule violations that this president and his government have allowed themselves is overwhelming.

In the face of continuous scandals, big and small, the last two years have passed as if drowned under a droning grey noise. Anyone who hasn't been keeping a precise account will have a hard time remember all the unimaginable things the president has said and done, and when. The president and the media criticizing him are revolting against each other and are trapped in an endless feedback loop. America sometimes seems like a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Unlike many other nation states, the U.S. is not based on an ethnic group, but on an idea. And Trump has set about radically changing this idea of America. Nowhere is this as clear as on the issue of immigration. The president wants to remake the country, which has always seen itself as a destination for the rest of the world, into a closed society in order to save white domination.

A Trump supporter in Macon, Georgia, on Nov. 4 — Photo: Miguel Juarez Lugo/ZUMA

Since its birth, the American Republic has also always been a vehement advocate of free trade, another notion with which Trump is at war. Trump doesn't think much of America's leading role in the world either, nor of the world order that generations of U.S. foreign policy-makers have built up over the past 70 years.

Trump's America is no longer a reliable partner for Western allies, and the president has abandoned the claim that American democracy should be a shining example to the world. The traditional moral impulse of the American project to protect and expand the area of freedom and democracy in the world is alien to Donald Trump.

Within the country, Trump is increasingly becoming a threat to democracy and its institutional structure. His attacks on the media, the constant accusation that they are the enemy of the people all bear the characteristics of authoritarian regimes, and could just as well come from the mouths of Vladimir Putin, or a Saudi prince.

Trump's America is no longer a reliable partner for Western allies.

Trump and his accomplices in the Congress and the conservative media have also systematically undermined the credibility of the FBI and of the Justice Department, so as to protect him from Russia investigations. No wonder the independent think-tank Freedom House downgraded the U.S. this year as a consequence of the "erosion" of "democratic institutions' and of the "violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration."

Like any modern democracy, America is based on a carefully crafted system of checks and balances. This limitation of power is unacceptable to someone with such authoritarian instincts as Trump. This is what brings us back to the these midterm elections, which are far more than just symbolic. It's obvious that the vast majority of Republican Congressmen are too afraid of their own base to exercise their control over Trump's government. But if the American people care about their institutions and the fact that the system of checks and balances works, then they must put at least one Congress chamber in the hands of the Democrats.

So this election is a litmus test of how important democratic institutions are to U.S. voters — of what idea of America should prevail: Trump's dark, self-centered and isolated America, or the idea of a society open to the world, one that has inspired so many people around the globe for more than two centuries to seek its shores.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!