Competent leadership versus gaslighting

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

In this installment of the series of columns on competent leadership, I will focus on a practice that has become prevalent in politics called “gaslighting.”

To “gaslight” someone is to lie to them or to manipulate their emotions to the extent that the victim begins questioning their own perception of truth and reality.

Former US president Donald Trump brought “gaslighting” to state-of-the-art perfection. Throughout Trump’s ascent to the presidency and his tenure, he was repeatedly accused of this sort of ma­nipu­la­tion, often to deny obvious truths – such as his refusal to accept his losing the election – and to deflect responsibility to others. Trump’s Asian “doppelganger,” President Duterte and his social media army seem to have become adept at deploying the same tactic.

Duterte was voted into office on the promise that he is for the people and understands them better than his predecessors because he is one of them. He presented himself as a socialist, pro-poor and anti-elite. His use of crass language legitimized his appeal to a certain demographic and supported this narrative. Others hoped he could scale up nationally what he addressed effectively as a city mayor – petty corruption at the bureaucracy and peace and order – even as they ignored the inconvenient truth of how he did so as they would later realize.

His term in office though has proven that he has not lived up to his promises and that his experience as a local executive did not translate to a competent national leader. That his heavy-handed methods of maintaining peace and order did scale up nationally, but with terrifying consequences particularly for the poor and to those who would dare raise their voices to criticize him. To perpetuate this narrative in the face of evidence to the contrary, the current administration has resorted to “gaslighting.” Here are some notable examples of this sort of manipulation of public perception. I draw my commentary from views received by this column from readers in an earlier informal survey.

West Philippine Sea

When Duterte was campaigning for the presidency, he said he would jet ski to Chinese occupied Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag. He also said he supported the filing of the case in the UN Arbitral tribunal to invalidate China’s claim to the whole of the West Philippine Sea. We won the case, thus providing us with the most potent weapon – the court of global public opinion – against China’s might. Yet, as soon as he sat in Malacañang, he threw that aside to curry China’s benevolence.

And to spite the US for their criticism of his violent anti-drug war, he threw himself at the mercy of China’s Xi Jinping by declaring our departure from our historic alliance with the US. Yet, despite those promised trade and investments not materializing and China’s increasing encroachment of Philippine territory and EEZ, Duterte refuses to confront China head-on saying may “utang na loob tayo.” That we would lose if we went to war with China, when nobody said we should. Some of our readers commented that he was being naive, while others wondered whether he was co-opted in the same way that Trump was so beholden to Putin.

• More recently Duterte went full gaslight in response to criticism from ex-foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario and ex- Justice Antonio Carpio, saying: “If you’re bright, why did we lose it? Now it’s China who’s holding it. And it’s me you’re pressuring to find a solution.” He has denied ever promising to defend the WPS or “pressure China” about it.

• Justice Carpio said that the President committed grand larceny when he denied making those promises, and that China does not now own and control the WPS. Citing the stance taken by Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, he said asserting our rights does not necessarily mean war. But doing nothing just emboldens China.

• Del Rosario said it was China who “deceitfully breached” a US brokered withdrawal of ships of both sides from Scarborough Shoal and that is why the Philippines resorted to filing a case with the PCA, and regardless of whether Duterte made a campaign promise or not, “it remains his duty as president to protect what belongs to the country and its people.”

• One of our commenters summed it up this way: “Fostering closer friendship with a certain Asian neighbor while making light of some of our historic alliances has not translated to economic gain for our country. Sadly, we seem to be the only nation in the world with a leadership that has officially moved to strengthen friendship with a foreign power which has invaded our sovereign maritime territory.”


The administration’s narrative will say that they acted in timely fashion, that the spread is due to individuals not observing health protocols and behaving recklessly, that lockdowns had to be imposed to save lives over jobs, that vaccine procurement was hampered by competition from other countries and limited supplies, and that the Philippines did comparatively well than other countries.

The truth is that the administration was caught unprepared and waited too long to organize a response, such as not immediately banning flights from Wuhan – then the epicenter of the pandemic - for fear of “hurting China’s feelings.” Our health infrastructure was in a poor state to begin with thanks to under-investment in public health. Private health providers, on the other hand, were hamstrung by the ineptitude and corruption at key agencies like PhilHealth.

Early on, a shortage of PPEs exposed our healthcare workers and frontliners to infection. It took a while to ramp up testing and contact tracing capability. Lockdowns – the harshest and longest in the world – were not planned in concert with specific actions and milestones, resulting in repeated lockdowns that devastated the economy. Daily wage earners and small businesses bore the brunt of the misery. On vaccine procurement, funds had been allocated as early as June 2020, and yet we were left scrambling for supplies until we were left with no choice but to accept Chinese vaccines even before their efficacy was widely established. Vaccine deployment has also been disorganized with LGU’s complaining of not receiving proper guidelines.

Red and yellow

The Duterte administration has used color to gaslight its stifling of criticism and dissent. “Yellow” or “dilawan” is a term used by the administration as a pejorative for elitist politics and the alleged failed governance of former president Noynoy Aquino and his Liberal Party, which the administration uses to discredit its detractors on the right. It uses “red” as in “red-tagging” to go after its critics on the left – individuals and groups who represent the poor and marginalized sectors of our society – who are critical of what they consider the administration’s anti-poor policies. All these leave people wondering whether Duterte is pro-poor or anti-poor.


2022 election

Despite his claim that he stands with the people, particularly the poor, the President has acted anything but. He has ruled more like an extreme right-wing leader reminiscent of an autocrat. As one writer put it: “His reputation for thuggery, nepotism, and mouthing off was as entrenched as his ignorance of the etiquette expected of those in public office.” He has weaponized the law to silence critics in the media, the political opposition, human rights advocates, and civil society. This has become increasingly violent with a rise in extrajudicial killings, the murder of priests and journalists, and deadly raids on human rights advocates and leftist groups.

As in the drug war, it is the poor and marginalized, and their advocates that have been the victims of this violence by police and the military. While showing disdain for the established business elites, he has created his own cabal of new elites. Petty corruption is less rampant at the bureaucracy, but corruption on a grand scale has risen and remained unpunished. He leaves with the country’s coffers nearly empty from his injudicious spending and saddling the future generation with enormous debts – negating the good job his economic managers have attempted to accomplish.

A Duterte-anointed candidate winning the 2022 presidential elections will mean that the President will escape responsibility for his disastrous legacy and ensure that they continue under a Duterte 2.0 presidency. It will take discernment by the electorate to separate fact from false narratives and their ability to do so is where the battle will be won or lost. It will be the opposition’s existential challenge to get the public to recognize that they have all along been “gaslighted.”

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