Imagine being chained in a chair in a cave. You are chained along with a host of other individuals in such a way that all of you can only see straight ahead without being able to turn sideways in either direction and without being able to glance backwards. What is visible to you is a large screen in front of you and the shadows that are moving across it. Imagine that you and the rest of the captive audience that you are a part of have known nothing other than the shadows; you can be forgiven for believing that they are reality.
But then there is a revealing moment, a moment in which you break loose of your chains. At that moment, your consciousness begins to open to the possibility that there is a more bonafide reality hidden behind the screen “reality” of shadows. However, the problem is no longer simply to seek the reality that lies beyond the screen, but to convince your still chained compatriots that what they have been seeing on the screen since they can remember is nothing but superficial images and errant illusions. Despite your best efforts you not only fail to persuade the rest of the audience of the deception that has been perpetrated on them, but you get them so indignant at you for trying to burst their delusions that they reject you as an interloper. Some would say that you are better off getting back in your seat and keeping your mouth shut.
What I am alluding to here is Plato’s famous allegory “Parable of the Cave.” The metaphorical tale is relevant to the public discourse and debate that Filipino voters in the Philippines and American voters in the United States have had to contemplate in their respective countries’ 2016 presidential election campaigns.
Whoever came up with the idea that “image is everything” or that “perception is everything” wasn’t kidding. Nowhere is this more true in politics, particularly when it comes to campaigning. More particularly when it comes to campaigning for the highest office in the land, the presidency. It’s been no secret that over the years, presidential candidates in both the Philippines and the United States have become reliant on the professional manufacturing and packaging of their public images. And why not? Reaping the harvest of their meticulous image-making has brought untold benefits and advantages for political clienteles the world over.
I suppose that at its essence there is nothing wrong with the utilitarian contriving of images except when it is used to deliberately deceive electorates. Let’s be honest: it is a rare thing for voters to see through all the smoke and mirrors of the political imagery that is peddled to them. Indeed, rarely do voters want to see the reality behind all the imagery. Like the chained prisoners in Plato’s cave, far too many voters allow themselves to be fooled into believing a comforting illusion rather than uncover the hard truth hidden behind it.
Considering that the majority of Filipinos are living in socioeconomic destitution and have been so for a very long time, it would almost be a pity to disparage their need for comforting illusions. Remember, they don’t see the images put before them as such. Out of these images come self-styled heroes or champions that anyone in any kind of distress can relate to and believe in and follow until the ends of the earth. Until very recently, such compelling and vigorous political saviors were hard to come by in the Philippines and in the United States. Now both countries have simultaneously spawned two false prophets for disillusioned voters to follow on the primrose path.
Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have rocked the political establishment mold and reworked it to make it look foreign to the political generations that came before them. Both men’s indulgent and provocative rhetoric and propaganda are their ways of evening the score with the ossified establishment, of leveling out the political playing field for the discontented, the disenfranchised and otherwise marginalized.
Guided by the spirit of a resurgent populism, Trump and Duterte are the surging princelings of a new political composition, a composition that is intended to shatter the junction of elitist politics and the corruptive influences of money. The aggregate of causes of what has become fractious, unpopular, and dysfunctional governments on both sides of the Pacific are all on record. Therefore, in asking ourselves what business does two loutish and monosyllabic blowhards like Trump and Duterte have in offering themselves as legitimate presidential candidates, we must decisively call into question the commitment that American and Filipino political leaders profess for the well-being of their constituents. Knowing what we know about how politics is done in Manila and Washington today, I think it’s safe but regrettable to say that there is reasonable cause for the Dutertes and Trumps of the world to emerge out of their holes to spout their venom and vulgarities for every feeble-minded, easy prey voter within reach.
However, when confronted with tough questions about planning and policy in detail, Trump and Duterte run for cover behind their public images. They go on as before, having voters take them on image and trust even as both men avoid direct answerability and accountability for their past and present actions and statements. Trump and Duterte get away with it because their cunningly-crafted images are not only effective political tools, but tight-knit safe havens for them to hide behind when any kind of adversity strikes.
Political imagery has long been a fixture of modern politics. It has been one of politicians’ greatest instruments as they traverse trials and tribulations on the long, difficult road to the presidency. But everything in politics is relative: what might be appealing, empathetic, galvanizing illusions—even if they are overreaching—will always be preferable to a solid and penetrating truth for many Filipino and American voters. That is the power of the image. That is the power of Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte.