Pushing the Manila envelope

A wake-up call from the Philippines about the American election

The presidential election in the Philippines earlier this year provides an interesting and sobering parallel with the American campaigns currently churning their way toward the second Tuesday in November. If you have convinced yourself that there is simply no way Trump can win the presidency, then please do read the story of how the man who recently called President Obama the “son of a whore” won the election in the Philippines.

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A foul-mouthed braggart walks into an election that no one ever thought he would have even a remote chance of winning, and ends up running against a well-known candidate from an established political family with years of experience in the public sector. It sounds like the set-up to a good (or bad) joke, and of course you’re no doubt thinking that this is all about the presidential election in the United States.

Well, it isn’t. It’s about the presidential election in the Philippines, the one that took place in May 2016, just a few months ago. Oh, and the punchline? The foul-mouthed braggart won.

If ever there were a more cautionary tale to tell for America, it’s this one. Millions of Filipinos woke up the day after the election with that “wait, what just happened?” look on their face. I actually spent a good part of that day talking with friends in and from the Philippines, many of whom were struggling to talk through their tears. The outcome that wasn’t ever supposed to happen had happened. Rodrigo Duterte was now the president of the Philippines.

In the aftermath of Duterte’s election, those who never thought he would ever be elected were left with the lingering question of how it happened. I’ll go into the details in a moment, but the short answer goes like this: to everyone involved with Hillary’s campaign and to all her supporters, if you want to make sure that Trump wins the presidency, then just keep doing what you’re doing.

Meet Duterte

When supporters of Rodrigo Duterte began to drop hints and suggestions in late 2014 that Duterte, who was mayor of the southern city of Davao at the time, run for the presidency, he himself declined the invitations on the grounds that he was not qualified for higher office. And yes, you heard that right: the first response of the current president of the Philippines to the suggestion that he consider running for the presidency was to admit that he was not qualified for the office. So to all of those in America who keep citing Trump’s lack of qualifications to be president, if the Philippines is any indicator — and I think it is — this will have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election. It might even make Trump a more attractive candidate.

Eventually Duterte reversed his position and decided to run for the presidency, entering the race much later than the other candidates, which would seem to put him at a disadvantage. His campaign was marred by a number of controversial remarks and comments, many of which may sounds alarmingly familiar to an American audience. He referred to Mexico, for instance, as a place full of kidnappers, killers, and drug addicts, a no-go zone for tourists. He made an off-the-cuff remark that persons with disabilities should seriously consider suicide as a better alternative. He circulated a false endorsement of his presidential campaign by the prime minister of Singapore, and when Singapore requested that the false endorsement be withdrawn from circulation, he joked about burning a Singapore flag in protest. A report was circulated about his marriage annulment that cited among other things his womanizing attitude, his violent tendencies, and his anti-social behavior as the grounds for the annulment. When called upon to release his financial information, amid allegations of hidden wealth and secret accounts, Duterte first responded by denying these allegations as a political ploy by his opponents and then stated that there was no need to release his financial documents as evidence because there was no evidence he needed to show. He even quipped that he would consider abolishing Congress in the Philippines if it ever tried to impeach him.

But perhaps the most outrageous moment of Duterte’s camapign — and I single this out because currently in the US Hillary supporters think they have unearthed the great smoking gun of presidential victory with the tape of Trump’s remarks about women — was when Duterte made a breathtakingly offensive joke about an Australian missionary who had been brutally raped and murdered after being taken hostage by inmates in a Davao City jail. The incident took place in 1989, and the tape with his remarks surfaced in April 2016, just one month before the presidential election (this is the equivalent of “October surprise” month in the United States, when candidates release what they think is the most damning evidence against their rivals). When asked if he were upset about what happened to the Australian missionary, whose name was Jacqueline Hamill, he replied by saying: “I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.” And just so it’s clear, Duterte was the mayor at the time, so what he was really saying is that he wished he would have been first in line when the Australian missionary was gang-raped by the prisoners.

Condemnation of his comments was swift and unequivocal both within the Philippines and around the world. The hashtag #RapeIsNotAJoke was used on Twitter, with several tweets noting that “not even Trump” would say something that offensive. When Duterte’s own daughter joined in to state that rape was never something to joke about and that she herself had been a victim of rape, Duterte called her a “drama queen.” When the Australian ambassador to the Philippines expressed his disgust at the remarks and demanded an apology, Duterte replied by saying that the Philippines should cut diplomatic ties with Australia. All of Duterte’s opponents came together to say in no uncertain terms that Duterte was unfit to be president, and all of them urged voters not to vote for Duterte. Duterte subsequently apologized, not for what he said, but for his poor choice of words in saying it.

Yet in the days that followed, the unthinkable happened. Duterte’s numbers rose in the polls. His followers even used the #RapeIsNotAJoke twitter feed to express their support for him. It seemed that no what he did or said, Duterte could simply do no wrong. The more his opponents tried to show how awful a person and how unfit for the presidency he was, the more voters threw their support behind him. Many looked on in disbelief: How could this possibly be happening?

DC via Manila

There are many reasons why Duterte won the election, but perhaps the most important among them is the fact that voters in the Philippines were simply fed up with establishment politicians, most of whom came from prominent political families who felt they were entitled to power. The most important challenger to Duterte, for example, was Mar Roxas. Sure, he had years of experience in politics, but those years of experience stemmed from the fact that he was well-connected and came from a political family. He was the grandson of Manuel Roxas, the first president of the Philippines. The previous two presidents of the Philippines were Noynoy Aquino, the son of previous president Corazon Aquino (herself the widow of assassinated pro-democracy leader Beningo Aquino), and Gloria Arroyo, the daughter of former Philippine president Diosdado Macapagal. Duterte was seen as the outsider to a system was run by and for insiders. All the other candidates simply underestimated the appeal of someone like Duterte, someone who said he would shake up the corrupt and dysfunctional democratic monolith of Philippine politics.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in looking toward the looming American election, is the way that badmouthing and denouncing Duterte actually made him look like a more attractive candidate. What the other candidates and their supporters thought they were doing by publicly disparaging Duterte was to paint a portrait of a person who simply was unfit to be the president of the Philippines. But that’s not what voters in the Philippines saw. What they saw were establishment politicians genuinely rattled and threatened by the possibility that Duterte might win, which made Duterte look like precisely the candidate they wanted — someone to rattle and threaten the complacent and corrupt establishment.

Similarly, public appeals by other candidates and prominent figures to Philippine voters not to vote for Duterte also backfired, sending even more voters to Duterte. With everyone focused on Duterte, even when the message was negative, it still made it look like Duterte was the most important person in the room, the political center that everyone else revolved around. It didn’t matter if the publicity surrounding Duterte was good or bad — all that mattered was that there was publicity, and there was more of that for Duterte than for any other candidate, thanks ironically to the decision of other candidates to make their campaigns more about Duterte than about themselves.

What to do?

In the past week, as part of the “October surprise” tradition that American voters have come to expect, two pieces of information have been revealed: one was a video of Trump making disparaging and reprehensible comments about women, the other was a bevy of speeches and talks given by Hillary to key players in the Wall Street crowd. Pop quiz time: which of these was most harmful to their respective candidates? If the Philippines is any indicator — and again, I certainly think it is — it would be the Wall Street speeches. What they show is a candidate who stands firmly and comfortably in the center of the establishment, the same establishment that many American voters are so sick of. And besides, the Trump tape is of limited use to Hillary’s campaign. If you are going to bring up the issue of a man in power feeling entitled to women, anyone in Trump’s campaign is going to have an easy field day making parallels to Bill Clinton’s time in the White House.

This drives more voters to Trump than it does to Hillary

The reality is that right now, Hillary is playing Trump’s game and not the other way around. Her entire campaign has become a response to Trump, making Trump look like the most important person in the room, the person to whom everyone else responds. And it isn’t just Hillary doing this. Every time a prominent Republican says publicly that she or he won’t vote for Trump, it sends the opposite message to American voters: it makes it look like Trump is already shaking up the establishment, ruffling the feathers of those professional politicians whose feathers need ruffled.

So what else is there to do? If Hillary’s campaign wants to drop a real “October surprise,” then they should do the one thing that so far they have not done — namely, to ignore Trump. Trump craves publicity, indeed he thrives on it, and the one thing he cannot tolerate is to be ignored. This campaign ceased to be about issues a long time ago — it has devolved into a personality contest and a dark carnival of hateful rhetoric. If Hillary’s campaign can shift the focus back to her and her stance on specific issues and act like Trump isn’t even in the room, making him appear as a non-factor in the campaign, that might just turn the election in a different direction, and also restore some much needed integrity and dignity to the campaign. Otherwise, just accept the great paradox of this year’s campaign, delivered to us in a Manila envelope: the more loudly we try to proclaim that a Trump presidency can’t happen, the more likely it is that it will.