By WILLIAM C. REMPEL
A divisive and unpopular president talking tough about law and order and peaceful protests that sometimes turned violent – whose party lost heavily in the previous off-year elections – threatened a constitutional crisis by suggesting he might remain in office beyond legal term limits.
If you thought that could only describe President Donald J. Trump, meet Trump’s evil twin, his doppelganger from the annuls of history,another elected president who nearly 50 years ago turned Southeast Asia’s oldest democracy into a 13-year dictatorship – Ferdinand E. Marcos of The Philippines.
Trump has disguised his extra-constitutional ambitions behind winks and nods, as when he urged a GOP convention crowd to chant “12 more years.” Or when he suggested an extra term to make up for alleged spying on his 2016 campaign. But Marcos never joked. He quietly plotted, setting about to delegitimize democracy, much like Trump’s constant vote-rigging claims threaten to delegitimize November’s election results.
Consider this quick glance back at history: In 1972, after months of veiled threats to take drastic actions against protesters and anarchists, Marcos used one of Trump’s favorite legal weapons – the executive order – to impose martial law. It stopped much more than street riots.
Overnight, Marcos shut down every major news organization in the country, arrested his leading critics and most popular political rivals and suspended the U.S.-modeled constitution. His repressive and corrupt regime was ushered in at gunpoint under the guise of “law and order” while silencing all forms of political dissent and public protest.
That may seem long ago and far away and too drastic to take seriously here, but for Americans increasingly concerned about the fragility of their own democracy, the Marcos story should be a cautionary tale – The Nightmare Before the Election of 2020.
Much of the rich record available to compare these two authoritarian-inclined heads of state comes from their own words – public statements and Twitter posts by Trump and private diary entries handwritten by Marcos and kept secret for decades.
The Marcos diary was recovered by Philippines officials who found it buried among stacks of boxes and crates left behind when the Marcos regime fell in 1986. The dictator and his family had been forced to flee the presidential palace on short notice, plucked away by a U.S. military helicopter ahead of angry crowds. What the Marcos family was most careful to pack were gold bars, paper currency, suitcases filled with fine jewelry, bearer bonds and other financial papers.
As an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I had access to hundreds of those abandoned documents, including copies of more than 2,500 pages of the dictator’s secret diary. Its contents were first disclosed by The Times and later detailed in my book.
Similarities between Trump and Marcos have grown more apparent and more ominous in recent months, making the dictator’s old journals especially urgent reading today. Let’s start with some of the most striking examples:
Both presidents compared themselves to the greatest leaders in history. For Trump, he did “more for African-Americans” than any president since Abe Lincoln. When he emerged from Walter Reed Hospital in defiance of his Covid-19 infection, he took to the White House balcony for a photo-op to show that he was back, the victor over Covid and a world leader still leading. Friendly commentators compared him to wartime leader Winston Churchill. Critics compared him to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Marcos dreamed of a Churchill-like legacy as well. In the immediate aftermath of martial law – with the media shuttered and his critics in jail – Marcos savored the moment, writing triumphantly: “I am some kind of hero.”
Both presidents have projected themselves as messianic leaders and embraced religious imagery. Trump, the “only-I-can-fix-it” candidate in 2016, has been a favorite of evangelical Christians. He called himself “the chosen one” with barely a hint of jest. And there was that infamous photo-op with a Bible on a street near the White House barely cleared of peaceful demonstrators and tear gas fumes.
At various times in his diary, Marcos claimed to be directly communicating “with my Creator,” saying that God wanted him to risk everything to save the country: “’And you are the only person who can do it… Nobody else can,’” Marcos quoted God on the morning of March 6, 1971. Still in bed at the time, he told wife Imelda that he had received the divine assignment in a dream.
On his road to dictatorship in Manila, Marcos invented a national menace. He hyped a small, ragtag band of anti-government leftists and anti-Vietnam war protesters as “a Communist insurgency” that threatened the country – a distant version of Trump’s black-clad Antifa boogeyman supposedly threatening American cities.
Just as Trump’s FBI director has dismissed Antifa as an ideology, “not a terrorist organization,” Marcos’s military intelligence dismissed any meaningful security threat from subversive groups. Marcos, like Trump decades later, also ignored U.S. intelligence. The CIA had assured Marcos that leftist groups were “small and vulnerable” and no match for Philippine armed forces.
Privately, Marcos acknowledged in his diary that insurgents amounted to a few dozen ideologues with even fewer weapons, “poorly armed, poorly organized and poorly financed.” Publicly, however, he sounded very much like Trump hyping fears of anarchists and radicals and warning that leftists were coming to their neighborhoods.
Trump and Marcos also shared an abiding contempt for the media – “fake news” to one was “false news” to the other. Both assigned derisive nicknames – “the failing New York Times” by Trump, while Marcos made Manila’s Daily Mirror “the Daily Error.”
Trump watchers will recognize the tone and vocabulary of anti-media rhetoric found in the diary throughout the early 1970s as Marcos’s public approval ratings plunged. Both whined that they were victims of the press.
“We have been the subject of criticism, bitter and vicious, by all the newspapers and other media,” Marcos wrote in 1971. “False news as well as slanted reporting was a consistent pattern…and the concocted stories of corruption.”
In another entry Marcos complained: “The media will not let the good that is being done (by the administration) be known by the people. They distort and falsify news to increase circulation.”
And with no friendly television channel available to the presidential palace – no Fox News or Sean Hannity – Marcos mused about publishing his own palace-run metropolitan newspaper. “It is unbelievable that the government cannot disseminate its side of every controversy,” he wrote.
Both presidents rewarded favorite political commentators. Trump presented right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Marcos gave an ambassadorship in West Germany to a friendly newspaper columnist.
Both presidents were married to glamorous women. Imelda was a reigning beauty queen in Manila when she met Ferdinand, and the couple won early popularity as stand-ins for Jackie and JFK — “the Kennedys of the Philippines.” Melania was a top international model when she met Donald and became only the second foreign-born First Lady in U.S. history.
Both presidents used similar campaign slogans in their first successful run for the office. Trump’s 2016 MAGA mantra got its trial run as a wordier version for Marcos in 1965: “Our Nation Can Be Great Again.”
Both presidents coveted bigger-than-life depictions of themselves carved into stone. Trump told the governor of South Dakota he dreamed of being added to the presidential lineup on Mount Rushmore. On a Fourth of July visit last summer, Trump tweeted a photo of himself posing as that addition. Marcos had a huge concrete bust of himself constructed on a hillside near a popular resort north of Manila. It was defaced, vandalized and finally bombed into mangled debris after the dictatorship collapsed.
Both presidents found themselves denying and deflecting inconvenient sex scandals. The “Stormy Daniels” of 1970 Manila was Dovie Beams, a Hollywood B-movie actress hired by the Marcos campaign for a propaganda film that was shot but never released. Nor was the actress paid. She was miffed and threatened to sue. When she disclosed their months long sexual affair, Marcos denied it – publicly and in his own diary.
Sex, Lies and Tape Recordings
Dovie held a press conference and played a recording that featured telltale sounds of lovemaking and Ferdinand warbling an off-key romantic tune. Like the “Access Hollywood” tape that undermined Trump’s denials of sexual improprieties, Dovie’s tape from a recorder hidden under her bed was a public relations disaster for Marcos.
One of Trump’s most widely quoted claims, that he could shoot someone and get away with it, was actually tested and substantially validated long ago by Marcos himself – though far from Fifth Avenue in New York City.
It was in 1935. Marcos was an 18-year-old university student when he gunned down a political rival. It was an ambush killing in Marcos’s home province of Ilocos Norte. The victim was the congressional candidate who had just defeated Ferdinand’s father.
The teenager, a sharpshooter and member of his school’s pistol team, was convicted and sentenced to a minimum 10 years in prison. Marcos served less than a year behind bars before talking his way out, arguing his own appeal before the Philippines Supreme Court.
Both presidents shared fears of appearing weak due to illness, prompting extraordinary efforts to hide their health crises.
Trump delayed disclosures of his own Covid-positive test results as well as those of others close to him. Then, after he was hospitalized, he insisted on limited release of information about his condition. Finally, he walked out of the hospital to showcase what he called his strong recovery.
Marcos was better able to conceal his biggest health crisis – a debilitating Lupus disease that destroys kidneys and other internal organs. To keep Marcos’s treatments secret, a private medical ward was installed in the presidential palace with dialysis machines and surgical equipment. He underwent at least two undisclosed kidney transplants in those very private hospital quarters.
But it was Marcos’s last campaign in 1986 – a snap election conducted under U.S. pressure to restore democracy – that showcased an incumbent refusing to accept the results… just as Trump has threatened.
The unpopular Marcos had faced likely defeat of landslide proportions. Instead, his party-controlled National Assembly proclaimed the reigning dictator the election winner. It was a rushed decision that ignored complaints of massive fraud and violence. Many provincial ballots were never counted.
Hundreds of thousands of people swarmed into the streets of Manila in protest, peacefully defying tanks and armed soldiers. Marcos, holed up in the palace, conducted a sham inauguration surrounded by a dwindling corps of loyal generals and a palace guard augmented by armed civilian supporters.
President Ronald Reagan, fearing a potential explosion of violence in Manila, pressed Marcos to accept U.S. evacuation and political exile in Hawaii. It didn’t end there.
In what could be a bad omen for Trump, Ferdinand and Imelda were indicted on federal racketeering charges in New York within a couple years of losing power. Prosecutors for U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani in the the Southern District of New York — yes, THAT Giuliani — brought fraud, bribery, and obstruction of justice charges against the deposed couple.
Marcos escaped prosecution when he died in 1989 from kidney failure. He was 72. He controlled what Philippines authorities estimated was about $10 billion in looted national assets. Imelda was tried and acquitted in 1990. Jurors told reporters they had been reluctant to convict the widow for the crimes of her dead husband.
The verdict of history has been rendered already on Ferdinand Marcos. He ranks among the richest and most corrupt of modern world leaders. For now, however, history and Donald Trump remain locked in negotiations.
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