There was a time when every single word that comes from a world leader bore meaning. He or she wouldn’t say something unless he or she understood its implications. There was always a target audience and sound bites were designed or calculated to reach them whether they were the enemy, their countrymen, or simply the world at large.
In the days of Twitter and Facebook, and populism in general, all that has gone out the window. Populist leaders would say what they want, when they want, without regard for how it will impact their country, or just the office in which he sits. You have an American President tweeting to his heart’s delight much to the chagrin of the White House’s communication staff. When they try to do damage control, he comes out and reinforces his original tweet. In fact, he is so tweeter-happy that he even tweets about state secrets. A case of too much truth.
Not only that, he is a believer and/or propagator of conspiracy theories and alternate facts. He will hammer on something as the truth when facts show otherwise. Credibility be damned.
Over at the other side of the Pacific, you have a Philippine President who speaks in public and later tells everyone it was just a joke or a lie. Parenthetically, when people think he was joking, he comes out to assure us that he wasn’t. That makes it difficult for Filipinos, and other nations as well, to read what he is really trying to say and act accordingly.
In both countries, there is now a need for government officials to “explain” what the head of state meant, and where the latter insists on his own interpretation of what he said, then some officials would simply contradict him. That’s a problem for cabinet secretaries who are supposed to be alter egos of the president. They are extensions of the president, and while this is not a problem for some, others soon find themselves out of the government.
To this we can add a tendency towards historical revisionism. No administration is perfect but when the wrongs say of the Marcos regime during the martial law years appear to be glorified, then it tends to belittle the sacrifices and lives lost by a generation who fought those same ills. Of course, this could be expected even as political affiliations swing one way or the other; eventually, a friend of the old regime will surface as president and attempt to rehabilitate them.
We ask: how much of the drug war is real? What about the anti-corruption drive? Can we rely on what they are saying, or is it a lie or just a joke? How is our economy doing? Whose data or what sources can we rely on? What is really going on?
All this reflects badly on their leadership. With people now uncertain of what they mean, or what is real, how are they expected to plan and move forward if they cannot read what their government is trying to do or accomplish? That’s a problem not just for individuals but more so for businesses, investors and other countries. It certainly creates a lot of uncertainty and with it, loss of confidence. While some die-hard believers will carry on regardless, the rest will certainly be a lot more cautious. That caution could hurt the economy and our relationships with our allies, trading partners and neighboring states.
People and nations also tend to dismiss them and their governments. It is strange to see an American president ignored in a meeting of nations but there it was. World leaders have now turned to others for leadership even as the US focuses in on its self. Too much it seems. No one is so naive to think that any of the past US administrations have acted without considering its consequences first on the US yet they have not failed to lead the rest of the world. The current administration is not inclined to do so. It chooses to build a wall both literally and figuratively around it and live in its bubble safe from what it believes to be a climate change hoax. Coaxing it out of its shell and rehabilitating its confidence to lead will take time. Lots of it.
In the end, the victim to all of this is the truth. It’s bad enough that we have to contend with fake news and alternate facts but when leaders consciously actively engage in them, their citizens suffer and the world bears the consequences of their actions. There have been past administrations that have lied but none have done so openly and flagrantly.
Borrowing from the X Files, the truth is now just out there. We cannot trust our own governments. That’s a terrible thing to have to say.