Politics
Donald Trump is a Filipino politician
Why American politics is making us go, "What's the big deal?"
IMAGE Esquire
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During the second United States presidential debate, Donald Trump sent political analysts and scholars into apoplectic fits and hand-wringing when he threatened to jail his political opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton—a threat he has since repeated a number of times.

At the heart of the shock is a time-honored political precept: Alternation. This essentially is the smooth transfer of power between regimes, but also the shifting of the winner to the dominant political position and the loser into the role as legitimate political opposition. This give-and-take both strengthens a democracy and preserves its institutions from being subverted for personal agendas by those in power.

This [smooth transfer of power between regimes] both strengthens a democracy and preserves its institutions from being subverted for personal agendas by those in power.

Conjoined with the consternation over jailing political opponents is the use of executive power (in this case of the Department of Justice) to persecute (i.e. investigate) them. Mr. Trump’s language is what caused the most concern: The ordering of the Justice Department to appoint a special investigator to investigate a political opponent. In the United States, pundits repeatedly pointed out that they have laws on the books to prevent this sort of abuse of power. This reads as the executive arrogating the investigative powers of government unto him—which, for functioning democracies, is anathema. That is not a flourishing democracy, but the subversion of institutions and processes by a dictator.

The damage that this brings to a democracy—wielding the use of vast executive powers to silence dissent, stifle opposition, and threaten—is enormous. It undermines the fundamentals of democratic expression and allows the ruling regime to act with impunity. Clearly, critically, and clear-mindedly we can see how this is completely at odds with basic concepts of equality and equal protection within a democracy. Human rights, as dismissive as we collectively have been of them, are at their heart limitations placed on the use of the powers of the government against citizens.

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Human rights, as dismissive as we collectively have been of them, are at their heart limitations placed on the use of the powers of the government against citizens.

From a Philippine vantage point, many of us probably thinking: What’s the big deal? The reality of political persecution of previous regimes and their supporters is part of our social fabrica normal occurrence in our political cycle dating back to the dawn of the Martial Law era (or, you know, the Spanish Era). Ferdinand Marcos ensured that many of his political opponents, or those viewed as “dissidents,” were jailed, persecuted, prosecuted, and tortured along the way. Naturally, with the EDSA Revolution, investigation and prosecution of Marcos crimes went hand in handthus, the establishment of the Presidential Commission on Good Governance.

We have less shifts between regimes and more cycles of political persecution or chicanery. When viewed through the prism of protecting our institutions, this is a big deal.

Arguably, though, the administration of President Corazon Aquino did not go after the Marcos family and their cronies hard enough. While transfers of power were relatively benign between Aquino to Ramos and Ramos to Estrada, the EDSA II driven shift from Estrada to Arroyo saw the return of presidential persecution as an integral part of regime change. President Benigno Aquino III’s administration jailed former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in dramatic, late night, last-minute fashion. While currently, the allies of President Duterte (and himself during his press conferences and speeches) have exchanged President Aquino (who maintained high approval rates at exit) for less popular, but far more theatrical allies, such as Senator Leila de Lima.

From a Philippine vantage point, many of us probably thinking: What’s the big deal?

Thus, the cycle of deploying of Executive and Legislative powers (wielded by staunch and newly minted allies of a freshly installed administration) to investigate or persecute political opposition and stifle dissent (at least for their term) remains in full force.

Even President Aquino is not exempt from the cycle of legal suits that always follows a regime change: Groups such as Bayan practically lined up to file suits before the Ombudsman over DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) and the Mamasapano tragedy. If rumors are true, he has been threatened with further investigations and lawsuits to keep him sidelined. We have less shifts between regimes and more cycles of political persecution or chicanery. When viewed through the prism of protecting our institutions, this is a big deal.

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Extending methods of disrupting political alternation outside of persecution, we are familiar with attempts by ostensibly outgoing regimes to consolidate and maintain their position of primacy through Machiavellian maneuvering: Both President Ramos and President Arroyo attempted to mount last-ditch attempts in the twilight of their regimes to amend the constitution to shift a parliamentary system to perpetuate themselves in power. This also erodes the quality of our institutions.

Realistically, though, one of the chief methods for eroding opposition in Congress is via the carrot: Pork barrel. This helps explain the rapidity with which politicians in Congress and on the ground shift parties: They want to ensure they receive their piece of the pie.

But, inhibiting legitimate political alternation also occurs during the course of each regime. So far we have talked about the schtick—political persecution through investigation by the Executive branch, mudslinging and trial by publicity via legislative inquiry—as a way to eliminate political opposition as a force. Realistically, though, one of the chief methods for eroding opposition in Congress is via the carrot: Pork barrel. This helps explain the rapidity with which politicians in Congress and on the ground shift parties: They want to ensure they receive their piece of the pie. The reformatting of political alliances is now expected. This constant, consistent reorientation of parties and politicians ensures that political ideology continues to pace far behind personality and patronage within the hallowed halls of Congress. Here is another erosion of political institutions that inhibits the formation of legitimate opposition and disrupts political alternation. While the person at the top may change: the likelihood is the same interests and agendas are served within the Legislative branch no matter the change in administration.

While the person at the top may change: the likelihood is the same interests and agendas are served within the Legislative branch no matter the change in administration.

Political alternation is focused on not only on the smooth transition of power once, but twice, three times, four times; well into the future. The ability to shift "effortlessly" between ruling party and opposition, the chance to offer citizens with vibrant and effective ideological options at the polls are vital aspects of functioning democracies. Those shifts are stymied through the abuse of political power to persecute opponents, but also through attempts to eliminate legitimate political opposition.

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Opposition is democracy. Without that, we are just voting to exchange one tyrant after another. All that differs is the extent to which they use that power for their own benefit, the benefit of others, or the pursuit of a hitherto unknown agenda. We require trust in our institutions, basically to ensure that they function correctly. For example, when it does become necessary to investigate an outgoing or seated politician we can be assured it is not in subservience to a political agenda, but because there are legitimate issues that must be investigated. The use of Executive and Legislative powers for sub-rosa political persecution precludes that level of trust existing.

Opposition is democracy. Without that, we are just voting to exchange one tyrant after another. All that differs is the extent to which they use that power for their own benefit, the benefit of others, or the pursuit of a hitherto unknown agenda.

These things matter, concepts of alternation, the efficacy of transfer of power, placing limits on the use of executive and legislative power to investigate opponents or predecessors, trust in our institutions. Big ideas matter in the construct of democracy, because without them, democracy comes to a screeching, grinding halt, undone by personality politics and Manichaean constructs masquerading as law and order. They matter when the bulwarks of democracy begin to erode in the pursuit of political revenge seeking – shifting the entirety of a government’s investigative apparatus towards the stifling opposition as a way to consolidate power.

* * *

Our election cycles are practically built around referendums on the corrupt practices and failures of outgoing administration; cast, not within terms of ideology, but personal failings. We view elections as grand narratives, built around the rise and fall of previous leaders, incorporating elements of redemption and destiny into the mix.

That is part of one of the key defects in our current form of democracy: We have exchanged political ideas and ideology for personality. Elections, and subsequent regimes, take on less the color of convictions and more the power of the cult of personality.

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That is part of one of the key defects in our current form of democracy: We have exchanged political ideas and ideology for personality. Elections, and subsequent regimes, take on less the color of convictions and more the power of the cult of personality.

Thus, within the framework of our political sphere, pursuit of political opponents is almost expected. The stifling of dissent is not a matter of ideology, but generally accepted political gamesmanship. We do not have a flourishing multiplicity of political beliefs because the axis around which our political world revolves is personality. As a result, we have become inured to the use of government powers in the pursuit of political opponents. We revel in the sort of political theater this offers: We titter and tweet over insults hurled in supposedly august halls, dirt dug up or manufactured only to be paraded across our screens to the delight of the masses. We gasp with delight when lasciviousness is hinted at and corrupt practices are mined for entertainment, all in furtherance of trials by publicity.

As entertaining as it may be, as wonderfully decadent the headlines they produce are, these sideshows eat away at the very fabric of our democracy and institutions.

This personalization of politics is something the United States is grappling with now precisely because of the infusion of reality TV antics by Donald Trump. It is all about right, might, and vanquishing opponents – the fundamental elements of democracy are left by the wayside in favor of theatricality.

We live in that theater daily.

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About The Author
Nik de Ynchausti
Nik Skalomenos de Ynchausti splits his time between the business world and the non-profit world. When he has the opportunity to write, he focuses on the intersection between Philippine politics, culture, history, and identity.
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