I came upon a very interesting article in Foreign Policy Magazine written by Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, entitled, “Top 10 Signs of Creeping Authoritarianism, Revisited”
The article poses a very intriguing question about President Donald J. Trump: “Is the president looking more like a dictator after six months in the White House?”
The piece is obviously dated because Trump has been president of the United States for over a year now and the answer to Walt’s question is, “Yes, Trump is looking more like a dictator after a year in office,” based on the top ten signs that the author listed.
But what is even more striking is how the same set of red flags apply to President Rodrigo R. Duterte.
Walt’s check list of dictatorial tendencies follows:
1. SYSTEMATIC EFFORTS TO INTIMIDATE THE MEDIA:
Trump has openly waged war against the US media, calling those critical of him “fake” and their unflattering accounts of his governance “fake news.” According to Walt, Trump has “arbitrarily excluded reporters of some organizations from press pools, press conferences and other events.”
The Duterte administration has not only excluded a Rappler reporter from covering Malacañang, the president has actually warned “corrupt journalists” that they are fair game for liquidation. Duterte has also used his presidential powers against critical media organizations like the ABS-CBN broadcast network, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler, which the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered to be shut down.
2. BUILDING AN OFFICIAL PRO-TRUMP MEDIA NETWORK:
Writes Walt: “There’s little doubt Trump has tried to favor (media) outlets that embrace him, which is why the White House gave press credentials to the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit and has given the reliably wacky and pro-Trump Breitbart privileged access…there’s no sign that the president intends to build a publicly funded pro-Trump media organization. But with Fox News and Sinclair (chain of TV stations) and the various alt-right websites in his corner, he may not need one.”
Duterte has done Trump one better in this regard. Early in Duterte’s presidency, his communications chief, Martin Andanar, actively pushed for an “independent state media.” Recently, Andanar announced an agreement with the Chinese government for a “media exchange program.”
Said Andanar, “We all know that the Xinhua News Agency is one of the most successful news agencies in the world and the CCTV is also one of the largest broadcasting networks in the world; China Radio International also.”
Without any doubt, China’s control of media operations and content is something that the Duterte government is salivating over.
However, Duterte did not invent authoritarian control over media. The unlamented President Ferdinand Marcos saw this as a requisite for maintaining power and every president since then has, to some degree, taken the same attitude.
3. POLITICIZING THE CIVIL SERVICE, MILITARY, NATIONAL GUARD, OR THE DOMESTIC SECURITY AGENCIES.
In this regard Trump can learn a thing or two from the Philippines about controlling government agencies, as well as ostensibly “co-equal” bodies like the legislature and the judiciary.
While Trump can only express exasperation over his lack of control over the office of the Attorney General (the equivalent of the Philippines’ Department of Justice), Duterte and every president before him, particularly Marcos, have lorded it over lapdogs and bootlickers in every branch of government, mainly because of the Golden Rule (He who has the gold makes the rules).
Of course, it can’t be said that Trump hasn’t tried nor is he expected to stop trying anytime soon. And if you think the Republican-dominated US Senate and the House are “independent” of Trump, think again.
4. USING GOVERNMENT SURVEILLANCE AGAINST DOMESTIC POLITICAL OPPONENTS.
Here again is an area where Duterte, as well as past Philippine presidents, trump Trump in the dictatorial department, although it is said that sending the bloodhounds of the Internal Revenue Service after political pains-in-the-neck is not beyond the inclinations of White House occupants. The difference is that, in the Philippines, using government power as a sledgehammer against political opponents is SOP, while it is done with greater subtlety in the US.
5. USING STATE POWER TO REWARD CORPORATE BACKERS AND PUNISH OPPONENTS.
Walt thinks the tendency of Trump for favoritism and nepotism is “Worrisome, but not a big problem so far.” But Walt did point out that the recent tax reforms instituted by Trump and the Republicans obviously tilted heavily in favor of the super rich. He also added that “All presidents accommodate powerful interest groups that backed them, and Trump is no exception.”
But favoring cronies and relatives is considered normal in the Philippines and Duterte and his government are simply living up to that classic axiom, “What are we in power for?”
6. STACKING THE SUPREME COURT.
Appointing agreeable and compliant members of the High Court is a prerogative exercised by US and Philippine presidents, but the Philippines may leave Trump gaping with envy at the way Duterte not only thinks he can control the Supreme Court, he has openly declared that the Chief Justice is an “enemy” and should be kicked out of her job.
7. ENFORCING THE LAW FOR ONLY ONE SIDE.
Walt raises red flags here over Trump’s seeming tolerance of right wing extremism — even of outright Nazism and racism. If Walt were in the Philippines, he won’t just be raising red flags, he would be blowing the whistle, ringing the alarm bells, and sounding the sirens over the way “justice” is dispensed.
8. REALLY RIGGING THE SYSTEM.
Writes Walt about Trump: “…the demographics of the US electorate give him (and the Republican Party) a big incentive to try to stack the deck in his favor, and that incentive only increases the lower his approval ratings go. How else can one explain the transparently bogus ‘voter fraud commission,’ headed by die-hard voter suppression advocate Kris Kobach…”
Once more, the Philippines is ahead of the US in the dictatorial tendency department, although “dagdag-bawas” and “Garcification” are probably just more advanced techniques for rigging the elections that our politicians learned from America’s notorious Tammany Hall.
Both Trump and Duterte are masters at exploiting the fears and anxieties of their political base and using them to foist policies that are unreasonable and even dangerous. But every despot, going back to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung has used fearmongering to rouse support from the masses.
10. DEMONIZING THE OPPOSITION.
If this is an indication of a dictatorial or authoritarian tendency, then Trump and Duterte do not have a monopoly of this tactic. It seems to me that this comes naturally with being a politician. Marcos demonized President Diosdado Macapagal. President Cory Aquino demonized Marcos. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo demonized President Joseph Estrada. President Benigno Aquino III demonized Arroyo. And now, Duterte is demonizing Aquino and the “Yellow Horde.”
Did I miss President Fidel Ramos? Actually, he is the only one I know of who went out of his way to reconcile with the opposition, even while he too demonized his cousin, Marcos.
Walt concludes: “President Trump does not have much respect for the existing constitutional order, especially when it impinges on his personal power or threatens his own position.”
In other words, Trump has dictatorial tendencies.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because Duterte is exactly the same. To paraphrase the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, “When these ten signs come, can dictatorship be far behind”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.