During the March 20, 2016 Presidential Candidate Debate, Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay identified his opponents with Joseph Goebbels, the leading propagandist of Hitler’s regime. Binay called Manuel “Mar” Roxas III, Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, a disciple of Goebbels twice. Binay pretended to confuse Roxas with Goebbels once. The Vice President called Senator Grace Poe one of Goebbel’s followers.
Roxas and Poe were baffled by Binay’s repeated turn to Goebbels. A frustrated Roxas would ask Binay why—when invited to justify irregular procurement practices during his tenure as Mayor of Makati—Binay would devote his limited airtime to citing Goebbels. More surprising, this is the second time in recent Philippine political history that Goebbels would be cited during a major, public, political event. In 2012, Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III also cited Joseph Goebbels in his privilege speech in opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill, now the Reproductive Health Law.
Binay and Sotto both alluded to an allegedly Goebbelsian theory of propaganda. Sotto cited Goebbels:
I think it was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s hated propagandist, who said that a lie repeated several times would eventually be accepted as fact by the people.
Binay would make a similar statement during the debate:
Alam mo, Mr. Roxas, ikaw ay talagang disipolo ka ni Goebbels, yung bang 1,000 lies ay ultimately eh maniniwala ang tao na totoo. Ikaw yun ang disipolo nun. (“You know, Mr. Roxas, you are one of the true disciples of Goebbels, you know the theory of how a thousand lies are ultimately accepted as truth by the people. You are the disciple of that [Goebbels].”)
Binay and Sotto would both cite Goebbels to associate their opponents with Nazi-style propaganda tactics. By naming Goebbels, they hoped to smear their opponents’ intentions and expose their fraudulent strategies.
Citing Goebbels is problematic. Pundits would later say that Binay lost the debate immediately when he alluded to Goebbels: “Every time you label your adversary as [connected] to Hitler, you already lost the debate.” But Goebbels—who, like Hitler, was a master propagandist—did not think of himself as a liar. Although he has since been popularly associated with the “Big Lie” (the theory that a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as truth for as long as the state can repress information and dissent), Goebbels was also believer. Like Hitler, Goebbels felt that he was exposing the truth of an international conspiracy of Jewry. He believed that the American Roosevelt, the British Churchill, and the Soviet Stalin (a violent anti-Semite) were all puppets of the Jews and a Jewish agenda. Goebbels did not think of himself as a proponent of an anti-Semitic Big Lie, but as someone who had uncovered the Big Jewish Lie.
The Nazi war effort and the Holocaust were both movements founded in paranoia. Hitler and Goebbels believed their nation and their race to be the victims of a vast Jewish conspiracy. They believed their genocidal aggression was justified retaliation. Goebbels and the Nazis often suppressed the truth often (especially when the Nazis were losing the war). In general, they were true believers in their anti-Semitic faith.
Binay and Sotto borrow political currency from Nazi language in order to attack their enemies. Inadvertently, they revealed a habit of thinking like Goebbels. They too saw conspiracies everywhere. Conspiracy theories have long become mainstream. The X-Files, a recently revived television show from the 1990s, made conspiracy theorizing seem exciting. In the 1990s, Hilary Clinton would describe a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband, Bill Clinton. The internet has given conspiracy theorists and their communities—from 9-11 Truthers to Obama Birthers—a platform. Elsewhere in the world, people like American candidate for President Donald Trump have made conspiracy theories part of mainstream political discourse.
Conspiracies—which used to be part of fringe political culture—have found a voice in the language of Vice President Jejomar Binay and Senator Tito Sotto. Binay and Sotto have positioned themselves as truthers– heroic figures who tell the truth about the people who act like Goebbels. In truth, they may have inadvertently asked the people who support them to respond to political discourse with paranoia, suspicion, and fear.
Jojo Binay, Due Process, and Conspiracy Theories
During the March 20 debate, Jojo Binay seemed especially sensitive to statements that he understood as attacks on his alleged corruption. Prior to 2015, Jojo Binay had looked like the mostly likely future President. A series of highly publicized accusations of corruption in 2015 against Binay and members of his immediate family made a devastating impact on his popularity.
Binay’s son, Makati Mayor Jejomar “Junjun” Binay, Jr., is currently facing charges of malversation of public funds and document falsification in the Sandiganbayan and has been suspended from his post. Binay (Senior) was explicitly asked how he would treat his son’s criminal case should he be elected President. Binay, a lawyer, insisted that he would allow due process to take its course, although he also swore that Junjun was innocent in the eyes of God and the law. Throughout the debate, Binay would insist that accusations without the due process of law were worth nothing. He repeatedly distinguished between “bintang” (accusation, allegation, charges) and “hatol” (legal judgment).
The repeated turn to Goebbels, however, exposed a habit of thinking as a conspiracy theorist rather than a lawyer. For Binay, “bintang” or charges are not brought to trial because of probable cause. Instead, Binay repeatedly called “bintang” propaganda as he described his opponents’ participation in a conspiracy.
In the course of answering a question about balancing the need for energy security with the commitment to reduce pollution by 70%, Binay would accuse Mar Roxas of “analysis by paralysis (sic).” Mr. Roxas would admit to being slow:
mabagal ako gumalaw at hindi ako gumagalaw pag pangnanakaw ang pinag-uusapan. Hindi ako magnanakaw. (“I am slow to act, and I don’t act at all when it comes to stealing. I am not a thief.)
Binay then went on the attack and accused Roxas of being involved in corruption himself:
“Mr. Roxas, tinuturo ka ni Mr. Vitangcol! Nagnakaw ka dun sa MRT. Ano ba?” (“Mr. Roxas, Mr. Vitangcol accused you of stealing from the MRT [Manila Rail Transit]. C’mon.”)
Roxas replied that Binay’s allegation was not true, and Binay did not press him further. Instead, Binay would accuse Roxas of being “talagang disipolo ni Goebbels” (“a true disciple of Goebbels”). Roxas would respond:
“Kilala po ninyo si Goebbels dahil binabasa po niyo sya at sinusunod po nyo siya. Hindi ko kilala yan” (“You know Goebbels because you read him and follow him. I don’t know anything about Goebbels”).
Binay ignored Roxas’ witty riposte and proceeded to accuse Roxas of propaganda.
Although it was Binay who would accuse Roxas of corruption directly, Roxas had clearly been baiting him. Binay had responded similarly earlier in the debate when he was attacking Grace Poe for having assumed American citizenship (since renounced). Poe had responded to accusations that she hated her country by drawing parallels between herself and overseas Filipino workers. She also said that moving abroad to seek an honest livelihood was better than staying behind only to “nangulimbat ng pera” (“have plundered [public] money”). An enraged Binay, assuming that she was referring to the accusations against him, would try to force Poe to distinguish between allegation and conviction:
Kung magbintang ka parang ako ay nahatulan na. (“You speak of these allegations as if I’ve been convicted”).
Grace Poe would take advantage of Binay’s suspicion by pointing out that she hadn’t actually referred to him directly:
Ikaw ba yung sinabi kung nangungulimbat? (“Did I say you were the one who had committed plunder?”)
Binay would then say “Sinabi mong magnanakaw ako” (“You said I was a thief.”). Poe had not called Binay a thief directly at any point in the debate. She was certainly that the language of plunder would remind her audience of the accusations against Binay. But, Poe had not called him a thief or named him in her generalizations about “pangungulimbat.”
Binay described a conspiracy against him. When Grace Poe suggested that there were politicians guilty of plunder (“nangulimbat”), Binay said:
Kita mo ikaw, sama-sama kayo eh, sa conspiracy. (“Look at you, you’re all in it together, in this conspiracy.”)
Poe was surprised by assertion—“Sama-sama saan?” (“In it together in what?”). Roxas, Duterte, and Poe working together seemed extremely unlikely, since they were all each others’ opponents. But Binay reiterated his faith in the existence of a conspiracy intent on “demolition by perception” (?). By this, I think he means to suggest an unlikely alliance between opponents to destroy his personal reputation without proof.
The repeated invocation of Goebbels allowed Binay to subtly accuse Poe and Roxas of provoking hatred as well as subverting legal procedure. According to Binay’s logic, he was like a demonized Jew—an innocent victim of Nazi-style propaganda machinery. Binay was pointing out that he was legally innocent, but victimized by conspiratorial enemies. In another context, the parallel between a powerful representative of the State, like Vice President Binay, and a victim of an oppressive state machinery (a Jew during the Nazi regime) would constitute deeply offensive hate speech.
Binay’s suspicion that his opponents were colluding against him—instead of accidentally all finding the same vulnerability—exposed his conspiracy-theory driven paranoia. Grace Poe challenged Binay’s claims of a conspiracy:
Conspiracy? Kami walang pero. Wala kaming makinarya…ikaw may pera, ikaw may makinarya. (“Conspiracy? We don’t have money. We don’t have a [campaign] machinery…you have money, you have [campaign] machinery.”)
Grace Poe is right—Vice President Binay does have a more powerful and prepared campaign machinery than the other candidates. His repeated allusion to Goebbels allowed him to associate Poe and Roxas with mighty propaganda machineries that they may not have at their disposal. Duterte, in turn, would point out that Binay’s campaigns had deeper pockets (a topic especially sensitive for Duterte, because his budget is relatively small). When Binay suggested he would not withdraw from the race because he was innocent of all charges of corruption, Duterte provided an alternative reason for sticking to the race. Duterte said:
O hindi kaya, dahil malaki na ang gastos mo? (“Or maybe you won’t withdraw, because you have spent so much money on this.”).
Roxas, Poe, and even Duterte did not allege anything new against Binay during the debate. Poe made polished and practiced statements; Roxas defended his service record; Duterte delivered pithy statements and dismissive jokes. But, they managed to discredit the idea that they were working together in a propaganda conspiracy against the Vice President. As Poe points out, they are unlikely to work together since they were opponents. And, as Poe and Duterte point out, they did not actually have the machinery to support the kind of propaganda campaign the Vice President was imagining.
Roxas modeled a non-paranoid political response to the kind of accusations Binay was facing. When Binay accused him of stealing from the Manila Rail Transit project, he simply denied the charge: “Hindi totoo ‘yan” (“That is not true.”). Roxas’ straightforward denial worked. The allegations against him did not resurface during the debate. But Binay’s tactic of not denying allegations in favor of a confusing tendency to insist on legal due process and conspiracy did not.
The allegations of corruption through inappropriate procurement practices against Jejomar Binay are very specific. Roxas asked Binay why a 26,000 square meter parking lot cost PHP 2 billion instead of PHP 280 Million. He asked Binay why a Makati hospital bed cost PHP 500,000 instead of PHP 34,000. Binay choose to make no substantial response to the allegations of misuse of funds (perhaps for legal reasons). Instead, Binay strategically borrowed the rhetorical weight of history and allusion. He did not simply say, I’m innocent and you’re a liar, which as a political statement can sound hollow. Instead, Binay responded, with incredible specificity: you are a disciple of Goebbels, you are in league with Goebbels, and you are Goebbels.
On the debate stage, Vice President Binay required props in order to make a case for his honesty. He carried documents and notes to his lectern despite the “no notes” rules of the debate. He needed paper (which no one watching the debate could read or verify) in order to testify to his honesty. The repeated allusions to Goebbels acted like a weaponized, verbal prop intended to bring down those who would conspire against him. Instead, it revealed something about Binay—he was suffering from paranoid delusions of conspiracy.
See Part 2 on Tito Sotto here.
For a scholarly account of Nazi propaganda, see Jeffrey Herf’s The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during WWII and the Holocaust.