Usually, art imitates life. Occasionally, it's the other way around. But in the Philippines, there seem to be no distinctions at all. It would take a bad movie about a corrupt Asian republic ruled by a dissolute despot to even approximate what has happened in the last several days. Please, switch the channel.

But no matter what channel you chose last weekend, there was Ferdinand Marcos, as ubiquitous as a test pattern, giving yet another interview in which he claimed a victory that even he must know is not there. In the paper and on the tube, journalists reported the incredible: Gunmen had run into polling places and seized ballot boxes. In some towns, the results showed that not a single person had voted for Corazon Aquino -- not even her own poll workers.

Goons worked the polls. Dozens of people died in election violence. Thirty computer operators at the government's own vote-counting center walked out, charging they were being asked to cook the numbers. And there were reports that government agents had been buying votes. Even before the election, Marcos had used the power of incumbency to promise everything short of the moon: lower electric rates, cheaper rice and, maybe, a water buffalo in every pot.

But on American television, Marcos would concede none of this. Priests and nuns, he said, had held back the voters. He said the election was tainted, but it was the opposition and its dirty tricks that had done it. An unholy alliance, led by the widow Aquino with a squad of priests and nuns, had stolen the election. Where the vote was low, weather was to blame, and where the weather was good (and nuns were not muscling people), democracy flourished and Marcos won.

Enough. It was not supposed to be this way. A U.S. government, woefully out of touch, had thought that Marcos could use the power of his office to win reelection. There would be corruption, sure, but it would be almost invisible -- the voting of the dead, the manipulation of the count. No one, except experts who truly knew the country, had counted on the kind of show the American people saw on television. The experts predicted an Aquino victory. The administration thought -- later hoped -- otherwise.

But there is no "otherwise." The Marcos the American people saw on just about any channel is not someone who can be supported as an ally. As a people, we cannot be asked to lend financial or military aid to someone who is either lying or so out of touch with his own people that he has no right to govern. The communist insurgency in the Philippines is both growing and serious. The U.S. bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay are not vital, but they are important. Still, it would be better to abandon them than fight the Philippine people in the cause of despotism.

The Reagan administration has a weakness for an anticommunist with a steely glint to his eye. This is why the United States embraced the regime in South Africa, thinking we could reform it with hugs and kisses. It didn't work there, and it did not work in the Philippines. It was in 1981 that Vice President George Bush, who talks the way Liberace dresses, gushed over Marcos in a toast at the presidential palace: "We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process." Since then, the administration has come to its senses. It is time to write Marcos a Dear Juan letter.

The elections in the Philippines were called by Marcos to placate his American critics. He said he believed in democracy; we said we did, too. The United States urged Marcos' opposition to unite and participate in the election process. As a government, we supported free elections and hoped, in that way, that democracy would be revived and the communist insurgency defeated. From the unofficial vote count, it seemed that millions of Filipinos thought the same. We owe them something.

The United States is a world power, and its influence in the Philippines is enormous. Even in the post-Vietnam era there are some things we can do. One of them is to reiterate who we are as a nation and what we believe. Marcos insults us if he thinks that our anti- communism is a pill that enables us to stomach anything. As quickly as possible, President Reagan ought to make that message clear. With the elections, we tried to change the channel. That failed. Now it's time to pull the plug.