In 1986, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos called an election, a cynical ploy to prove to his American patrons he still had popular support. He thought he could bribe and bully his way to victory at the polls as he had done in the past, but after 20 years of plunder and abuse, Filipinos could no longer be bought or cowed. Fearing their votes would be stolen, they chained themselves to ballot boxes and kept vigil during the long count, confronting Marcos’s goons with linked arms and prayers.
Hundreds of thousands gathered on the streets in revolt, their numbers swelling as troops refused to fire and officers ordered their tanks and helicopter gunships back to the barracks. Marcos tried to defy them by declaring himself president, staging a faux inauguration under the protection of the still-loyal presidential guard. Within hours, “people power” chased him and his family out of the presidential palace. The Marcos family fled to Honolulu on U.S. Air Force planes crammed with hurriedly packed diaper boxes full of money and jewels.
But that wasn’t the end of the Marcoses. Far from it. In bitter and lonely exile, Ferdinand Marcos funded coup attempts against his successor, Corazon Aquino. Back home, his allies blocked efforts to hold the ousted president accountable for murder and thievery. With the restoration of competitive elections, many of the elites who had flourished under his regime were soon back in power.
Marcos has been dead 30 years, but his ghost still haunts the Philippines. Rodrigo Duterte, the reigning strongman, is a Marcos fan. His election campaign was partly bankrolled by the Marcos family, which continues to wield considerable political clout. In 2016, Marcos’s son, Ferdinand Jr., came close to winning the vice presidency. Marcos’s eldest daughter, Imee, is a senator, and his grandson is governor of Marcos’s home province. In addition, the Marcoses fund a troll army that is burnishing the family’s reputation by rewriting and erasing history.
After three decades of democracy, the Philippines is in the throes of an authoritarian resurgence. Inspired by Marcos, Duterte has jailed oppositionists, ordered the extrajudicial killing of criminals and activists, and muzzled the media. Like Marcos, he has lashed out at “oligarchs” even as his cronies feed off the public trough. Like Marcos, Duterte has said he would defend Filipinos from criminals and communists. Like Marcos, he has short-circuited the fail-safes of democracy by taking command of the courts and Congress and assaulting the other institutions of accountability, including a free press.
Trumpism has far different roots from its counterparts in the Philippines. But President Trump, Marcos and Duterte have much in common: the promise of greatness, the assault on facts, the stoking of fear, the erasure of memory. They even have the same aesthetic: loud, bombastic, hypermasculine. They like to wave from balconies, finding affirmation in the adulation of crowds. They thrive in times of insecurity and uncertainty. And they feed off the shortcomings of democracy.
For more than a hundred years, the United States has been lecturing the Philippines — its former colony — about democracy. As a Filipino who has been at the receiving end of such tutelage, I’m now in a position to return the favor: Americans, you should understand that demagogues don’t really go away. Like bears in winter, they fall into a deep sleep and awake once they can feed again.
Unless democracy’s defenses are reinforced, authoritarians will return. Democracy is vulnerable because it is a promise that is hard to keep. Democracy requires the taming of self-interest and greed so there can be equity, inclusiveness, dialogue and mutual respect. Democracy cannot flourish if the soil from which it rises is poisoned by injustice and division. It requires constant tending through the seasons of discontent.
Despite the joyous celebrations of this past weekend, the United States is experiencing just such a season of discontent. Even in the unlikely event that Trump exits the White House with equanimity and grace, the allure of Trumpism will not quietly fade away.
What we have learned is that demagogues are not an aberration. The only way to move forward is to acknowledge the sins of the past that helped them rise and to address the anger and frustrations that keep them alive. The battle for the nation’s soul means addressing racism and other forms of injustice. It means not only rebuilding democratic norms but also attending to the social safety net and good government.
The Philippines’ flailing democratic experiment offers other lessons for Americans. We must look to the past, making sure that anti-democratic leaders are held accountable for what they have wrought. And we must look to the future, upholding a truthful record of history so the demagogues’ lies do not live on even after they die.