[OPINION] The politics of fear

Perhaps the single greatest achievement of the Duterte regime is maintaining the overwhelming public support it has enjoyed since coming to power – a stark contrast to the previous regime which had all but exhausted the goodwill accumulated in the aftermath of the 1986 EDSA Revolution.

Despite the controversy of its methods and the numerous blunders made along the way, a significant number of the Filipino people still possess an irrational, even delusional hope in this government to provide the fundamental changes they desire, contrary to any evidence we may have seen or experienced thus far. The reason for this, I believe, lies in the Duterte regime’s extraordinary capacity to manufacture fear capable of reducing what had once been thinking human beings into tribalistic automatons. For, as we have come to know in the past few years, our politics (and politics in general) has rarely ever been governed by logic, rather by emotion. 

Looking back to 2016, Duterte had already been laying the groundwork for this even before his election. Whether this was his intent or merely a by-product of his simplistic populist politics can only be surmised. The issue concerning drugs had only been one among many prior to his entering the political scene on a national level. Immediately after, it had become the sole cause of the nation’s problems. Quite the reversal: corruption, crime, terrorism, and most especially poverty, had suddenly become rooted in the issue of drugs rather than itself being merely being a symptom of the former. Coverage and interest on the issue had increased exponentially succeeding his campaign, and specifically within the first 100 days of his administration. These had the unintended consequence of not only highlighting Duterte’s supposed foresight in calling for a solution – as it seemingly validates his own radical propositions – but also retroactively antagonizing previous administrations in the eyes of a now skeptical public for failing to possess that same foresight. 

Nonetheless, this groundwork had provided his government a sort of social, political, and economic bogeyman necessary to terrify the people and secure not only their submission, but their willing cooperation and proactive participation. This phenomenon has taken many iterations throughout the course of his term. At times it was the United Nations or the Liberal opposition; occasionally ABS-CBN or Rappler; then it was COVID-19; now it is the activists and the Leftist movements. Examining further, however, there exists no consistent underlying characteristic tying all these together as any existential threat, the only consistent thing being the rhetoric used to denounce them.

Perhaps clear by that example, the form that this proverbial bogeyman takes has never truly mattered; rather, it is necessary only that there must always be one. Conveniently, of course, it has always been the prerogative of the ruling power to decide who or what that bogeyman is. This is evident to us, as the supposed enemies which we are directed towards have only ever been a threat to the self-interested political agenda of the regime, rather than any threat capable of undermining the social cohesion and unravelling the very fabric of the nation itself. Ironically enough, this last fact is embodied more so by the Duterte regime itself than anything they have told us to hate, what with the well-oiled and well-funded propaganda machine at its disposal. 

Propaganda has played a tremendously important role in the propagation of the fear responsible for this government’s continued hold on power. It allows for the collectivism that dictates our identity politics to be defined explicitly under two parties; either “with us” or “against us;” a “DDS” or a “Dilawan;” or more broadly, one who supports the nation and another who exposes it to danger. This great divide between the national polity is preyed upon by the complex movement of deliberate and strategic misinformation through various channels which stir the emotional core of the favorable mass base. Duterte has managed to embed himself into a dichotomous formula that equates his absence with negative consequence. By threatening to resign he is, in fact, likening his resignation to a return to form; a return to the previous order which had failed the Filipino by virtue of his own exclusion. 

The security provided by its mass base allows for the regime’s continued monopoly on power regardless of any attempt – by civil society or otherwise – to oppose it. Willing cooperation and proactive participation have introduced a public moral collapse that emboldened the government to extreme measures of violence the likes of which we have not seen for decades, allowed it to present the persecution of its own citizens as legitimate political objectives, and eradicated any vestiges of rational action in favor of irrational reaction.

That said, however, the nature of such a relationship between government and the people is ultimately why this regime is so fragile; there is no relationship as transitory as one built upon the prospect of commonality out of fear of a common enemy – precisely the reason for its outcry on the closure of a significant number of accounts and pages on social media that act as unofficial state apparatus. Ultimately, the continued existence of the Duterte regime lies totally dependent on its capability to continuously manufacture the fear and hatred used to subdue and direct the will of the people, without which their already precarious grip on the country is compromised. – Rappler.com

Kyle Parada is a third year undergrad taking up Political Science in the Ateneo de Manila University. His fields of interest include Political Theory, Ideology, Philosophy, Western History, and Classical Antiquity.