With wannabe monarchs like Donald Trump that show far less deference to democracy than the current occupants of Buckingham Palace and Kyoto’s Chrysanthemum Throne, who needs actual kings and queens?
I was surprised to learn that Dagmar Havlova had become a monarchist. In 1990, when I first met the sister-in-law of Czech playwright and later president Václav Havel, she was a spokesperson for Civic Forum, the movement that would guide Czechoslovakia from communism to democracy. Virtually everyone in the country at the time was excited about this transformation — about voting, about the new politicians coming to the fore, about drawing a democratic line between the new age beginning and a rapidly retreating authoritarian past.
By 2013, however, Havlova had become disenchanted with how democracy had devolved in her country, how Czechoslovakia had split in two, how corruption had proliferated, how an opportunist like economist Václav Klaus had steered the Czech Republic in the wrong direction.
“I’m a monarchist,” she told me in February 2013. “I believe that some symbol of morality at a different level is important even if the symbol is just a vision of what we would like to achieve. When you have a king or a queen, who is a human being, you can understand that the symbol and the human being can differ, but you are more attached to the symbol than to the person. So I believe that monarchy is the right system. It continues over generations. It is also an issue of responsibility. Individual politicians are elected just for a few years, while a royal family lasts ages. Monarchs are responsible to the country, to history somehow.”
This is not a shared enthusiasm in the Czech Republic where, when election season rolls around, the monarchist party receives only a handful of votes.
Elsewhere in East-Central Europe, monarchists periodically rally in the streets of Serbia and Romania for the return of their crowned heads, but there’s not much likelihood of that happening. Only King Simeon of Bulgaria had come close to regaining any significant power. Between 2001 and 2005, he served as prime minister of Bulgaria — only the second monarch to become the head of state through democratic elections. It was not a particularly distinguished term of office.
But royals continue to hold important positions in a dozen other European countries, as well as throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa and Asia. Globally, 43 countries have some form of monarchy. Meanwhile, royalty has colonized a much larger swath of popular culture, judging from the popularity of The Crown or the imaginary kings and queens of Game of Thrones. Just this past week, royalty was in the news as the Japanese emperor abdicated, a new king took the throne in Thailand, and one more child joined the British royal family. At a time of declining faith in democracy, royalty now looks “more durable than it once did” at the end of last century, opines The Economist.
On the other hand, with wannabe monarchs like Donald Trump that show far less deference to democracy than the current occupants of Buckingham Palace and Kyoto’s Chrysanthemum Throne, who needs actual kings and queens?
Making Royals Look Good
Emperor Akihito ruled for 30 years in Japan, but largely as a figurehead. The throne lost its substantive power as part of the deal that Japan negotiated with the United States at the end of World War II.
Despite being more a symbol than a leader, Akihito made some important contributions to Japanese politics and culture. He was the first truly postwar emperor — his father Hirohito ruled from 1926 all the way until 1989 — and did much to subvert the far right’s conception of emperor as militarist-in-chief. As Jeff Kingston writes in the South China Morning Post, Akihito
“connected with the people in ways that his aloof father never could have and has done more than all of Japan’s political leaders combined to heal lingering post-war wounds. He has managed to work within the constitutional constraints that bar him from politics to intervene subtly in the politics of the past. While those constraints preclude forthright remarks, he has effectively conveyed the nation’s regret for the misdeeds Japan committed under the guise of pan-Asian liberation. In serving as the conscience of Japan, defying the denialists, and showing compassion to those victimised by the war waged in his father’s name, Akihito gained unquestioned moral authority.”
Such a role as the conscience of the nation has been particularly important during the era of Shinzo Abe, who has sought to “normalize” Japan’s military by overturning the country’s peace constitution.
Because the role of the emperor is defined by that constitution, Akihito had come to seem quaint for many Japanese conservatives. His son, the new emperor Naruhito, who studied at Oxford and is generally considered to be liberal in his perspective, will have a tough job of somehow preserving some version of Japan at peace with its neighbors when the constitution that demarcates that status also prevents the emperor from making any significant interventions to save the intent of the document.
Making Royals Look Bad
I once saw a film at a Bangkok movie theater. Before the feature began, a picture of the king appeared on the screen. Everyone in the audience stood at attention. So, I did too. That was my first time in the “presence” of royalty. I was struck by how similar the process was to North Korea, where outside observers routinely ridiculed the personality cult associated with the Kim Il-sung and his family. Here was the same difference between the respect accorded an established religion and the contempt reserved for a mere cult, even if both share the same outlandish rituals and origin myths. Such is the power of history and convention.
That king, Bhumibol, was at his death the world’s longest serving monarch. Unlike Akihito, he did intervene directly in the fractious disputes of Thai politics, siding with the military early on but also restraining the generals in 1992 to ease a return to civilian rule. As he grew older, however, the king’s earlier instincts prevailed, and he supported both the 2006 military coup and the most recent one in 2014. He allowed Thailand to slip back into military dictatorship, the last true one in the world, preferring to devote his energies to encouraging development projects throughout the country.
Don’t expect much from his son, who officially took the crown this week. Writes The Economist: “The contrast between King Bhumibol and his successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn … is sharp. The new monarch, who lives in Germany, barely spends any time in his realm, let alone inspecting rural projects. He has a string of abandoned children and dumped consorts around the world. He made a poodle an Air Chief Marshal. His escapades inspire disdain; his rule, fear. Strict lèse majesté laws promise three to 15 years in prison for those critical of the royals.”
Now, thanks to the coronation rituals, Vajiralongkorn is not just king, but a “living god.” He is also sitting on top of a hefty fortune — $30 billion — which, given his history of extravagance and unpredictability, does not inspire confidence. Leaked US diplomatic cables revealed several years back that many among the Thai elite held the then-crown prince in low regard, some even hoping that the king would break with tradition and tap his daughter, Sirindhorn, to be queen.
In Japan, over the last few decades, the emperor has represented a certain restraint on the militarist ambitions of the political elite. In Thailand, the new emperor takes over just after voters supported the anti-militarist party in national elections in March.
The new king’s older sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya, actually threw her hat in the ring in the elections on the side of this anti-militarist party in a bid to become prime minister. Her brother denounced the move, and the election commission blocked her candidacy. Too bad: Either this sister, who gave up her title to marry a commoner and earned a master’s in public health at UCLA, or Sirindhorn, who serves as the zero hunger ambassador for the UN, might better guide Thailand out of its current political divisions. But that’s the thing with kings and queens: It’s a monarchy, not a meritocracy.
Donald Trump has a thing for royalty. Back in the 1980s, he actively tried to rub up against royalty by courting Princess Diana after her separation from Prince Charles. “He gives me the creeps,” Diana confessed, ignoring all the flowers the American businessman sent her way. Next month, Queen Elizabeth will host Trump at Buckingham Palace. This has been one of Trump’s dreams (now that having sex with Princess Diana is no longer on his bucket list).
Trump loves the fact that kings don’t have to run for office. He loves their wealth, their bling, and the adulation that so many of them enjoy. He has cultivated warm relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. He has met with the king and queen of Jordan, the Spanish royals, the king of Belgium, and Emperor Akihito.
He has boasted of calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping “king.” According to CNN, Trump gave this report on the exchange: “[Xi] said, ‘But I am not king, I am president.’ I said, ‘No, you are president for life, and therefore you are king.’ He said, ‘Huh…huh.’ He liked that. I call him ‘king.’ I get along with him great.” Trump believes that he stands above the law, just like royalty. He believes that he should be president for life. He thinks that he shouldn’t have to release his tax returns to the commoners. He thinks that the news media and anyone else who has the temerity to criticize him should be punished for lèse majesté.
Over 200 years ago, this country rid itself of a king’s control. Today, Americans are fascinated by the British crown and the vanished Russian imperial family and the royal intrigue of Game of Thrones. But America doesn’t need another king. The next presidential election had better double as a deposition.