The messianic motif in Philippine politics

It’s important to bear in mind that the average person does not remember the past the way a historian does. He or she is less interested in what “really” happened in the past, than in images that bring the past and the present together in a single meaningful constellation.

Therefore, it is often futile to use the facts of history to argue against the validity of an “image.” The philosopher Walter Benjamin makes this point in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again… For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”

Filipinos are no exception. That many of us seem unable to remember the atrocities and the grand larceny committed by the Marcos dictatorship does not necessarily mean we have no memory. It may only mean that in the scale of our present concerns, such images of past brutality and corruption have not been as weighty as our hopes for a better future. So, we’ve been willing to overlook these.

In here, I think, lies the insidious potency of Bongbong Marcos’ present campaign for the presidency. It is subliminally framed in messianic time. And within that frame, past events are flattened, and only the image of the redeemer stands out. “All things are recapitulated in the Messiah,” is how the Pauline letter to the Ephesians (1:10) renders it.

There is a long messianic thread deeply embedded in our political culture. It runs through the series of mass uprisings that preceded the 1896 revolution, furnishing the primal motive that powered the rapid recruitment into Andres Bonifacio’s Katipunan. This mindset did not disappear with the advent of Western modernity. It has lain dormant in the Filipino psyche, like a virus ready to spring into action when summoned by a confluence of events.

I would not be surprised if someone or a group that understands the power of this messianic thread is behind the design of the precise messaging of the Marcos presidential campaign. The projection of Bongbong Marcos as a unifying figure is the key element in this clever appropriation of the messianic motif.

He promises to unite all — friends and enemies alike — and to bring together all things in heaven and on earth. More significantly, he is cast in the role of one who “recapitulates” everything that is past, rising above the fragmentations of history, in order to deliver a comprehensible vision that his father left unfulfilled. Accordingly, he submits to all insults hurled against him while remaining outwardly impervious to these attacks. He will not defend himself because his mission is higher and nobler: He unites all in him — like the Messiah.

This messianic narrative allows him to gloss over the past, and to refuse to engage those who would argue using the truth of facts. For the truth he is supposed to represent is the higher truth of redemption — the Filipino people’s deliverance from poverty, oppression, humiliation, and hopelessness. When you frame the presidency in these mystical-religious terms, all debate about qualifications, experience, and record of performance appears almost petty — pulitika lang (just politics).

How does one counter this messianic discourse in which Ferdinand Marcos Jr. seems to thrive? There is no other way, I believe, except by questioning his suitability for the role into which he is being cast. Unlike the messianic figures in history, this man has never known any real adversity. His own father despaired over his laziness and lack of discipline. As far as the public record goes, he grew up surrounded by nannies, servants, bodyguards, and private tutors.

Prior to joining the government, he never had to earn his keep. When he finally did, he neglected to pay taxes, as though this was beneath him. He has never been associated with any social cause, or with anything that transcends personal or family interests. He seems to have no affinity with heroism—whether real or invented. Absolutely nothing qualifies him then to be the bearer of a vision of greatness.

Yet none of this may matter to voters who have been conditioned to think in messianic terms—who see in a Bongbong presidency the fulfillment of an imagined golden age. We who witnessed and experienced what it was like to live in Ferdinand Marcos’ mythical New Society can only shake our heads at this blatant revision of history. But it would be a mistake to think of it as the eruption of a collective irrationality that misapprehends the true heroes and villains in our nation’s history.

The Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto warns against such unilinear reading of history. “What the study of Philippine politics often misses,” he writes, “are the readings of the play by various sections of the audience. Controversies in Philippine history have arisen out of the practice of locking events and personalities to singular, supposedly true and factual, meanings.”

The 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that gave birth to the political order that Rodrigo Duterte has tried to override throughout his presidency, and which Bongbong Marcos now seeks to reverse, was not always seen by everyone as its interpreters defined it to be. Indeed, many see it as nothing more than the restoration of traditional elite rule, or the triumph of one section of the elite over another.

The “real people,” who were never part of the revolution except in name, need a real champion who identifies with their oppression and shares their hopes. Not a reincarnated Marcos.