The road to presidency of the late dictator’s son is built on a campaign that embraces the influencer culture of good vibes and toxic positivity while evading demands for accountability.
“What do you think is the greatest lesson you learned from your father?”
“What do you think is the greatest lesson you learned from your father?” asked Toni Gonzaga, one of the Philippines’ biggest celebrities, to her guest on her YouTube program Toni Talks.
The question itself is not controversial. It is a question talk show hosts ask pop stars, politicians, actors, and athletes. But when the guest of the talk show is the son of a late dictator, the question takes a whole new meaning. It was, as some in social media point out, much like asking North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un what he learned from his father.
The 2022 presidential race
On May 9, 2022, 67 million Filipinos will head to the polls to decide the future of the nation. Leading the presidential race is Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. – the son and namesake of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who ruled the Philippines for two decades.
The Marcos regime was a dark period in Philippine history. Thousands were detained, tortured, and killed. The police violently dispersed mass protests. News organizations were forced to close. National and foreign courts ordered the return of hidden wealth amounting to more than $10 billion US dollars, after ruling the Marcoses had plundered Philippine coffers.
National and foreign courts ordered the return of hidden wealth
amounting to more than $10 billion US dollars,
after ruling the Marcoses had plundered Philippine coffers.
That a talk show host can casually ask the Marcos heir about the greatest lesson he learned from a dictator is a harrowing prospect. For some, it demonstrates the people’s disregard for the legacies of the 1986 People Power Revolution that restored institutions of liberal (and elite) democracy in the Philippines. Others worry that the popularity of Marcos Jr. signals the enduring allure of strongmen in a country that cannot seem to get its act together.
Since 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered on his campaign promise of slaughtering alleged criminals and drug addicts. That Marcos successfully forged an alliance with Duterte’s daughter Sara, now running as Marcos’s vice president, signifies that the strongmen’s children are willing, able, and ready to defend the legacies of their fathers.
Historical erasures via call for unity
There is something insidious with the way these developments unfold. Unlike Duterte who used the divisive populist tactic of dividing the nation between virtuous citizens and criminals who deserve to be killed, Marcos Jr.’s approach to politics is conciliatory. In every speech, in every interview, his singular message is unity.
Marcos Jr.’s approach to politics is conciliatory. In every speech, in every interview, his singular message is unity.
"Thank you for the warm welcome," he told a lively crowd in the industrial Valenzuela City. "It looks like the people of Valenzuela have united to support the Marcos and Duterte tandem!" In the vote rich province of Cavite, Marcos declared that the ‘movement for unity’ has begun. Unity, in his narration, is what kept the country together amidst crisis, and it is unity that will make the country rise again.
This is a clever ploy. Marcos has fashioned himself into an anti-populist. Everyone is welcome in the Marcos campaign. There are no villains in the electoral alliance he calls the Uniteam. Politicians charged of graft joyfully campaign alongside a human rights lawyer who once protested the brutality of Martial Law. By calling for unity, Marcos Jr.’s supporters cast critics as antagonistic personalities unhelpful at a time when the nation needs to stand together. Marcos Jr.’s main opponent – the incumbent Vice President who champions people’s participation – is portrayed as bitter for calling the presidential frontrunner a liar. Marcos Jr. evades questions about Martial Law atrocities, instead asking critics to move beyond the past. He has refused to attend presidential debates, claiming they are divisive.
How, one might wonder, can Marcos Jr. get away with this?
Getting away with plunder
The answer is simple. Marcos Jr., regrettably, is ‘on fleek,’ to use the expression on social media. His appeal for unity masterfully builds on the dominant influencer culture of good vibes and toxic positivity – a culture that celebrates a confident outlook while denying the brutal realities of the past, reduces critical arguments to the perpetuation of bad vibes, and ignores unease because cynicism cripples hope.
It may also be a culture necessary during a pandemic. After people’s newsfeeds turned into obituaries, now is a time to sit back and take a breath.
Marcos Jr.’s vlog shows him living his best life with his sons. They believe in gratitude. They are gracious and pleasant, the sort of moneyed gentility who count their blessings and never forget to thank their supporters. Marcos Jr. claims to be friends with everybody – from the Beatles to the soldiers who mutinied against his father – and he harbors no ill feelings because he is a good sport. “Haters’ gonna hate,” he said in an interview.
Supporting this trope are celebrity influencers peddling the same toxic positivity. They are never baited into fights on social media. Their social commentary comes in the form of bible quotes on Instagram. “If we choose a harsh tone and unkind words, it’s going to be hard for those around you to see God’s grace at work in your life,” said one singer who performed in Marcos Jr.’s proclamation rally. “The Lord will not take her to a path unless she’s ready,” said Alex Gonzaga, in defence of her sister Toni, who has been criticized on social media for performing in Marcos Jr.’s sorties.
His running mate Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao City who first broke national headlines for punching a sheriff for refusing to heed to her request, embraces the same narrative. She talks against cancel culture in her speeches, in defence of celebrities who came out to support the Marcos-Duterte tandem. ‘If they cancel you, throw them a burger,’ she said, an odd albeit relatable colloquial expression of the biblical verse on turning the other cheek.
The opposition is behind the curve again
Many, of course, challenge the toxic positivity of the Marcos campaign. They call out disinformation, highlight previous atrocities, and demand admissions. Tech platforms have done their share, with Twitter taking down over 300 accounts found to be boosting Marcos’s propaganda.
But just like influencers, Marcos loyalists resort to smiling complacency when they are called out for believing in their candidate’s lies. “Respect my opinion,” they always say.
This response, together with calls for unity, forgiveness, and moving forward, all put to an abrupt end to attempts to deepen discourse and deliberation about the upcoming elections.
“Damn, we’re behind the curve again,” said one activist in a personal correspondence. Reflecting on the campaign of one of Marcos’s opponents for presidency, he realized that what they have is “a strategy of stoking anger, but there's no anger to be stoked.” Duterte’s mishandling of the pandemic, for example, has done little to affect his high satisfaction rating. “Amnesia and bliss. Damn, it seems to work as a campaign strategy!!!” he added.
Our rallies have been the absolute best but the situation on the ground is very different.
It's hard to tell how far toxic positivity can take Marcos Jr.’s candidacy. His main competitor, Vice President Leni Robredo, has been packing stadiums and parks with her grand rallies. But less than two months before the elections, polling data suggests that her enthusiastic supporters still amount to 16% of the voting population which is a far distance from Marcos’s 60%. ‘Our rallies have been the absolute best but the situation on the ground is very different,’ said Robredo’s daughter in a Facebook post, reflecting on her experience campaigning outside the opposition’s echo chamber.
For now, it seems that Marcos’s campaign strategists are exploiting popular sentiments that has defined digital cultures – sentiments that that has so far eluded his opponents. Perhaps it is worth revisiting his answer to Toni Gonzaga; “Whoever knows more wins.”
With research support from Bianca Ysabelle Franco.
Dr. Nicole Curato is a Professor of Political Sociology at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. Her work examines how deliberative politics can flourish in the aftermath of disasters, armed conflict, and urban crime. She tweets @NicoleCurato.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.