A battle for trust

When we find ourselves having to make decisions in the face of so much confusion, we rely on trust to find our way and keep going. Trust simplifies what is complex. It dwells in the familiar, in the expectations that people have about their world and about the other people around them. Unlike hope, trust is precarious. It is withdrawn when things turn out differently.

Last Monday’s State of the Nation Address, President Aquino’s fifth, was all about trust. Throughout his 90-minute speech, the President offered reasons why Filipinos can continue to trust in him and in his promise to transform the nation for the better. He said he has not forgotten that, four years ago, they made him president purely on the basis of a trust that flowed from the recognition of his parents’ intrinsic patriotism and goodness. He assured them that he would never do anything to betray his parents’ memory.

P-Noy knows that trust is fragile, that it takes but little to break it. Perhaps more than anyone else, he is also aware that whatever political power he wields today largely rests on the moral capital he inherited from his parents. If this gift of grace is lost, nothing can bring it back, and none of his achievements as president will matter. To me, this explains why—in the wake of the Supreme Court decision declaring his budget reform initiatives unconstitutional and challenging him to prove good faith—he has waged a relentless battle to keep the people’s trust, even at the risk of appearing to disrespect a coequal branch of government.

Some commentators had advised P-Noy to “drop the DAP” (Disbursement Acceleration Program), “move on,” stop criticizing the Court’s decision, and assume the stance of a statesman when he faced the nation to deliver his fifth Sona.  They must think that he heeded their counsel when what they saw and heard last Monday was a somber President reciting his accomplishments and showing some vulnerability.

We could fixate on the form—the tears and all—and miss the substance of what was being communicated here.  Indeed, unlike his two “belligerent” speeches attacking the Court’s decision, there was no explicit attempt to explain or defend the DAP in Monday’s Sona. But references to it were all over the place—all the achievements the President chose to highlight in this Sona were funded from savings that were harvested through the DAP.

As a cluster of budget reform measures, the DAP is too complex for the average citizen to comprehend.  Even more so are the legal issues it raises. But its impact on people’s lives is not. That is the reason for the video clips of testimonials from ordinary people. Of course, these were selective, as all Sonas are. The point is that it would be a mistake to read P-Noy’s fifth Sona as a retreat from the previous occasions in which he staunchly defended the DAP.

To “drop the DAP and move on” could easily be interpreted as conceding not just the unconstitutionality of the executive order creating it but also the possibility that bad faith informed it from the start.  P-Noy could accept the former, but would never grant the latter. The first is a judgment of law; the second involves a judgment of character.  Neither would he allow his budget secretary, Butch Abad, to resign and take the flak for the DAP.  That would be like saying he did not know what his men were doing or what he was signing.

I can understand it. “He who stands by what he has allowed to be known about himself, whether consciously or unconsciously, is worthy of trust.” That is a line from Niklas Luhmann, whose classic book on trust and power is unparalleled to this day.  The President is fighting to keep the people’s trust, and so, for him, even the slightest hint that an illegal act had been knowingly committed by him or by any of his people on his instructions would be fatal to his claim to the people’s trust.

In so many ways, last Monday’s Sona reverses the tide of distrust that has come in the wake of the confusing pronouncements about the DAP.  More than ever, P-Noy needs the people’s continuing trust to be able to complete and secure the program of governance reform he has begun.  He knows he cannot demand trust; the people themselves must offer it.  The last thing he would want is to be kicked about as a lame-duck president, a reluctant figure who was thrust by circumstances into the presidency and found unworthy.  That is how the most strident of his critics want to paint him.  Interestingly enough, they have not been able to dent the one thing he values most—his personal integrity.

And it is this that he now holds up as an ultimate shield against those who doubt him when reason itself seems unable to serve the purpose. This maneuver is not without its risks. Like trustworthiness, integrity is not something one claims for oneself. You can’t say “I’m honest” without somehow, in the process, devaluing the claim itself. But, this fifth Sona managed to deliver its message—I would say, far more effectively than the forgettable “I’m not a thief” speech the President gave in connection with the same issue.

A lot of it is due to P-Noy’s own communicative instincts. Even as he seemed momentarily flooded by a surge of memories and feelings at one point during the Sona, he quickly recovered his bearing and reined in his emotions. Thus, a rare display of presidential weariness turned instantly into a show of strength and resolve. Many observers will probably long remember this particular Sona for that brief moment of personal vulnerability. But, we should as well recognize it for the arduous work it set out to accomplish—the urgent recovery of the people’s trust.