What is a trapo?

“It is a piece of cloth used for cleaning,” Speaker Jose de Venecia told a talkshow audience recently, as he tried vainly to recover the positive meaning of a word that has stubbornly clung to him.  In the unique vocabulary of Philippine politics, it is not, of course, the trapo’s cleaning power, but its natural affinity with dirt, that is recalled when applied to politicians.

The term, as we know, is a clever contraction of “traditional politician”. How this term came to acquire the negative values it signifies in our political terminology remains a mystery to me.  For the adjective “traditional” in the Philippine context is typically employed in a positive light, as in “traditional values”.  And the word “politician”, while loaded with more negative than positive connotations,  can actually be made to look good when paired with an affirmative word, like “progressive” or “new”.

In political theory, the term “traditional leadership” is a purely analytical category.  The German sociologist Max Weber gave us three types of leadership: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational or bureaucratic. He had good as well as bad things to say about them all.

The charismatic leader inspires faith and determination among his followers, but in the long run, unable to organize and delegate authority, he is unable to hold his constituency.   The traditional leader, on the other hand, inherits authority, and represents a link in a hollowed chain, but, like many monarchs, his own personal qualities may not suit him for the position to which he has been thrust.  The bureaucratic leader, to Weber, is the model of the modern leader. Chosen on the basis of his own merits and capabilities, he represents a necessary link in a rational chain of command, but then, like the typical bureaucrat, he may often lack the personal magic that alone can galvanize and push a community forward.

Thus, Weber foresees that political orders would tend to swing from charisma to tradition to bureaucracy, and then back again to charisma. His own view of progress favored the increasing rationalization of every sphere of human activity, but he was also painfully aware that the forces of renewal and vitality often come from territories outside reason.

There is nothing here that provides any basis for the comprehensive denigration of the traditional politician that we find today in Philippine politics.   The traditional politician in political theory may be part of a dynasty and may often be proven to be unfit to rule, but he personifies stability and continuity.  In our own society in an earlier time, he would have been referred to as a gentleman of the old school, for whom politics was a calling or a vocation.

But today’s trapo summons none of this nostalgia.  He finds himself in the same league as the “crony capitalist”, a metaphor that was born in the Marcos years to refer to a businessman who amasses wealth by the scandalous use of political influence.  The trapo in our lexicon refers to a politician who uses wealth to buy power, exploits the poverty of his constituents through selective patronage, and treats public funds and facilities as if they were his own personal resources. In his speeches, he casually makes extravagant promises, and recites a litany of projects and accomplishments as if they were the heroic deeds of a lone superman.

The trapo has no unflinching commitment to any set of ideals.  His only commitment is to himself.  His most highly valued skill is the ability  to work out compromises that offer something to everyone.  As far as he is concerned, everyone has a price.

Because he has no core self, except that which defines his thirst for power, he has no problem assuming contradictory identities.  And though he may sometimes justify this as ecumenism, it is really nothing but opportunism.  The trapo will clothe himself in the colors of the flag if that will make him seem like a patriot.  He will hang scapulars around his neck if that will project him like a pious man.  He will have his picture taken with his wife and children if that will show that he is an ideal family man.  But, in the end, we don’t know who he is, what he believes in, and what higher things he lives for.

The revulsion against the trapo in our society represents this generation’s deep yearning for a renewing politics, one that risks institutional stability for a chance to elect new inspiring leaders.  It comes from the same modernist impulse that unified and prodded the business community at one time to launch a crusade against crony capitalism.

After the overthrow of Marcos in 1986, almost everyone thought the era of modern politics was at last upon us.  The old parties and political families had lain dormant for over two decades.  And indeed, many new faces filled the political stage.  What we did not expect was the tenacity of the old political culture. The new forces were not accustomed to the electoral arena.  They groped for models of how to re-imagine democratic politics after a dictatorship without going back to the familiar ways of patronage and clientism.

At the end of the Ramos presidency, we now know that Philippine politics has come full circle.  Traditional politics is fully restored.  And those who had thought of themselves as its grave-diggers remain as marginal as ever.  The 1998 election is a watershed in our political life, for unless the forces of modern politics come together to stop the trapos’ final ascent to power, our nation may enter the new millennium hopelessly weighed down by obsolete leaders.


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