The Bong Bong Problem

Ferdinand Marcos, elected president of the Philippines in 1965, became a vicious kleptocratic dictator ruling by violence and torture. Overthrown in 1986.

Now his son, Ferdinand Junior, known as “Bong Bong,” has been elected president. His infamous 92-year-old mother Imelda Marcos (she of the great shoe collection) preened at the inauguration.

It was a two-to-one landslide over the runner-up (seemingly a good sober candidate). I don’t know if Bong Bong is a chip off the old block, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the auguries aren’t encouraging. It’s not that Philippine voters have forgotten the Marcos nightmare. They actually seem to have romanticized the memory into some halcyon dreamscape (according to polls reported in The Economist).

Bong Bong succeeds Rodrigo Duterte, another charming character (not) whose signature policy was combating drugs by murdering anyone accused of involvement. Many thousands — many of them innocent — were killed. Duterte’s daughter has just been elected vice president. Oh, and Duterte also warred against press freedom, a lead Bong Bong seems to be following.

Why do people vote for such creeps?

Like Boris Johnson, who’s finally been forced out as Britain’s prime minister (blaming everyone but himself), after much of his government quit, no longer able to stomach his parade of misdeeds and lies. Johnson was a thoroughly irresponsible chancer from the get-go; his leadership the degradation of a once-proud nation. At least the denouement shows Britain’s Conservative Party still puts some value on truth over lies. (Whereas our Republicans have put a huge lie at their core.)

Johnson’s signature policy was Brexit — Britain exiting the European Union — via a 2016 referendum. His campaigning for it vaulted him to power. A big problem ensued. Brexit portended a hard customs border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland. Johnson swore he wouldn’t permit that — until he did, agreeing a deal putting the customs border in the Irish Sea. Hardly a solution, which he then sought to violate anyway.

The Brexit referendum itself was a stupendously boneheaded voter blunder, obvious at the time. A mindless anti-establishment lashing out, against the EU and EU-loving elites. Also venting hostility toward immigration.* It’s become increasingly clear how much Brexit impoverishes Britain — especially those lower socioeconomic echelons who voted for it.

And so it goes.

Yeats wrote the epigraph for our times — “the center cannot hold . . . the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In France’s recent parliamentary election, President Macron’s responsible, reasonable, centrist party lost to the extremes — LePen’s populists with a witch’s brew of Brexit-like policies, and an alliance headed by Mélenchon, always called a “left-wing firebrand.” Firebrands start fires.

Colombia has elected a leftist radical president over a right-wing asshole, after sensible moderate candidates were eliminated in the first round. An all too familiar story, lately seen too in Peru, then Chile.

And how many countries get suckered into electing “strongmen” whose chief strength is crushing democracy? Ortega; Maduro; Erdogan; Putin; Lukashenko; Orban; Modi; Sisi; Bukele. Brazil’s Bolsonaro will try to pull a Trump when he loses this year’s election. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador is not too authoritarian, mainly just a feckless jerk, whom his people love as though sainted. Sri Lanka did see off the Rajapaksas, only to bring them back; plunging the country into total chaos and upchucking them again. Even in Italy the center seems to have collapsed.

The late 20th century saw a great expansion of democracy. Since then a great rollback. Dictators have upped their game, but in large part it’s voters collaborating.

Humans evolved to thrive in social groups, instilling us with good detection instincts for liars and creeps. But somehow those instincts often fail when it comes to politics. As in America, in 2016. We did manage to reverse that act of political insanity — temporarily at least. Now we’re learning more about Trump’s despicable coup attempt, to overthrow our democracy based on a giant lie, all of which his party whitewashes and defends. You’d think that would destroy its legitimacy. But no, it’s poised to win control of Congress in November’s elections!

And so it goes. Voters — you gotta love ’em.

* Somewhat ironically, Britain’s front rank politicians now include the names Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Nadhim Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Sadiq Khan.

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