I’ve been increasingly horrified at the rise of authoritarian governments in the Philippines and around the world, as authoritarian leaders have attacked democratic institutions and chipped away at civil liberties. Because of this, I’ve been reading books about how authoritarian governments consolidate power and how artists and other individuals can resist authoritarian governments. Right now I’m finishing reading Carolyn Forche’s book “What You Have Heard Is True”, a memoir about her experience as a poet traveling in El Salvador learning about the rise of death squads in 1979 just before the country’s civil war. I just reread a few months ago Erik Larson’s book “In The Guardian of Beasts”, about the experiences of William Dodd, American ambassador to Germany, and the Dodd family in the early 1930s as they witness Adolf Hitler consolidate power in Germany and escalate the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population.
If you look at history, authoritarian leaders, whether from the Left or the Right, have the same playbook when it comes to consolidating power: they attack the free press and any institution that can act as a check to their power; they scapegoat vulnerable minority groups for the problems of the society; they demonize opposition parties or anyone who disagrees with the authoritarian leader; they promise prosperity and security for those who follow an exclusive nationalist ideology; they glorify militarism and the empowerment of the police to use extrajudicial means to control rampant crime. I look at Duterte and see him use a lot of those tactics: he’s tried to close down or intimidate news sites like the Catholic radio, Rapper, the Philippines Daily Inquirer; he has jailed opposition Senator Leila de Lima and had judicial supporters vote out Supreme Court justice Maria Lourdes Sereno after she made some rulings against Duterte’s policies; he’s attacked lawyers, activists and clergy who have spoken out against the Duterte policy of extrajudicial killings.
Two years ago, I had to leave a few Filipino American facebook pages when I got into arguments with some Filipino leftists who were trying to defend Duterte’s extrajudicial killings. While most authoritarian leaders around the world appeal to the political Right in their countries, Duterte is different in that he initially tried to co-opt the Philippines Left. Some of his policies, like controlling mining companies that have been the source of much human rights abuses against the indigenous people, and the increase in social services to the poor, have been good. Two years later, I’m glad to see that more and more leftists are speaking out against Duterte as they see the devastating affects of his drug wars are having against the poor and as leftists activists are starting to get targeted for killings and intimidation. This is a pattern in history: before authoritarian leaders have consolidated power, they form temporary alliances with groups who see the authoritarian leader as a means to achieving some of their goals. Once the authoritarian leaders consolidates power, however, the leaders turns on those groups because of their potential to challenging the leader’s power.
When I read that 80 percent of Filipinos support Duterte, I see them making the same mistake that many Republicans are making in this country in supporting Donald Trump. In exchange for the tax cuts, business deregulation, and Supreme Court nominees, too many Republicans are willing to ignore Trump’s scapegoating of vulnerable minority groups and his attacks on democratic norms. They are ignoring Benjamin Franklin’s warning that if you trade your freedom for security, in the end you will eventually lose both.
I’m glad that leftists in the Philippines are speaking out against Duterte’s drug war. Any opposition needs the support of the Left if it is to succeed in checking Duterte’s power.. Looking at history, the first groups to usually oppose authoritarian governments are leftists, the Church, students, human rights activists, civil libertarians, and journalists. The opposition starts out in the fringes, and only gain in strength when they can persuade the middle class to join in opposing the government.
I don’t think the Philippines opposition has gained enough strength yet to effectively challenge Duterte’s more anti-democratic policies. But if the Duterte government tries to enact more anti-democratic measures to consolidate power, I think the opposition movement will grow.
In this video poet Carolyn Forché talked about her latest novel, “What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance”
In this video Erik Larson spoke about his book “In the Garden of Beasts,” which chronicles the experiences of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Nazis Germany in 1933