The siren song of totalitarianism in US and Philippines
From the Philippines to the United States, presidential candidates have emerged who represent the classic man-on-horseback – a totalitarian temptation for people tired of the failings and turbulence of modern democracy.
The man on horseback really began with Francisco Franco, the general backed by Adolf Hitler who won the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
In American life, that role was taken up to a certain degree by Douglas MacArthur, whose visions of grandeur and glory for himself were tamed and used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s after the Great Depression nearly wrecked America’s economy.
In the Philippines, this role seems to have been taken by Rody Duterte who makes no bones about killing criminals and drug dealers. That is the image of the strongman he and his team are selling to win the top job of President in the May national elections.
Across the Pacific, Donald Trump labels Mexicans flowing into the United States "drug dealers" and "rapists" and wants to ban all Moslems from immigrating to the country. He proudly proclaims his desire “to make America great again.”
Both seem to capitalize on the deep frustrations of Filipinos and Americans with the failings of their respective countries’ democratic systems.
Jean Francois Revel, the French philosopher who authored the book “The Totalitarian Temptation” presciently noted the enormous appeal of politicians with simplistic visions of a well-run society.
“The totalitarian temptation is not to be understood without making an allowance for the thesis that some important part of every society consists of people who actively want tyranny, either to exercise it themselves or – much more mysteriously – to submit it,” he said.
For Filipinos, the restoration of formal democratic institutions a generation ago has restored oligarch rule and a business-as-usual atmosphere among the nations’ venal politicians.
There seems a Sisyphean struggle to stamp out corruption in the Philippine government.
Thus, the idea for strongman rule.
Duterte, the mayor of the southern city of Davao, is a swaggering politician who touts his law and order credentials and is proud of all the women he is romantically linked to.
He is one of the leading candidates for the presidential elections and has as good a shot as any among the array of candidates to win it all.
One of the main reasons for his allure is the yearning among Filipinos for a “strong” leader who would rid the country of drugs, crime and corruption. Duterte has promised to do precisely that six months into his term as president.
Never mind if he can really do it or not, given all the power centers working in Philippine society.
Trump is pretty much cast in the same way, having several wives among others in his history which is supposed to be a no-no for Evangelical Christians in the U.S.
The businessman has called women pigs and has a long history of denigrating women.
He has threatened to “open up” libel laws to shut down criticism of what he calls the “disgusting” talking heads in the media.
Trump’s campaign slogan is “to make America great again” or as one TV comic would put it, the real meaning is “to make America white again.”
At his rallies, people who are not white who protest against Trump are in real danger of being beaten up or worst. One was sucker punched and a teen-aged girl was allegedly groped.
He is unapologetic about what many in the mainstream consider his vulgarity.
Blaming the 'other'
Trump is loud and brash and his American supporters love the way he can “tell it like it is” – calling those who oppose him as wimps or something else in a woman’s anatomy.
For Americans who despair of globalization and Filipinos who bridle at the chaos of democracy, the temptation offered by Trump and Duterte is very strong.
You can probably call it the Utopia of Order.
They easily blame the “other” for all of their problems.
In Trumps’ case, this would be Mexicans, the Chinese, and what he calls free loaders on defense like the Japanese. Ban Moslems from entering the country, he adds stridently, after the attacks in Brussels and Paris.
For Duterte, it would be drugs and criminals, never mind if he would have the guts to run after big-time crooks in the political elite bleeding the system dry.
Revel said the job of defeating totalitarianism is a very difficult grind.
“Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them. It awakens only when the danger becomes deadly, imminent and evident. By then, (there) is too little time left for it to save itself, or the price of survival has become crushingly high,” said Revel. – Rappler.com
Rene Pastor is a journalist in the New York metropolitan area who writes about agriculture, politics and regional security. He was, for many years, a senior commodities journalist for Reuters. He founded the Southeast Asia Commodity Digest, which is an affiliate of Informa Economics research and consulting. He is known for his extensive knowledge of the El Niño phenomenon and his views have been quoted in news reports. He is currently an Online Editor of the international edition of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.