American fifth column
Disbelief, perhaps a little disgust, and a lot of disparaging remarks, met the release of a news photo of a costumed participant in the assault on the US Capitol, because aside from the ludicrous costume, the person was wielding a broom obviously from the Philippines. Our ambassador in Washington helpfully pointed out that several Filipinos, it seems, participated in the riot and assault. But then, it should come as no surprise since many news stories focused on Fil-Ams who were Trump supporters, and how the domestic political scene demonstrates how yesterday’s lunatic fringe can be today’s ruling majority.
New stories in the wake of the Capitol assault have zeroed in on the participation of racist radical networks such as QAnon, which believes the media and Democrats (and even Republicans who belong to the “Establishment”) belong to a secret society of pedophile baby-killers who control the levers of power, and the troubling possibility that the police departments of many cities have cells of antigovernment racist radical sympathizers, which may even include not just a significant minority of military veterans, but also possibly some in active service. A phrase from the Spanish Civil War, when the propaganda of Generalissimo Francisco Franco boasted that in the besieged city of Madrid they had a “fifth column” in hiding, biding its time to burst out of the city to open its gates to Franco’s forces, comes to mind about the unease being felt in the countdown to Joe Biden’s inaugural.
The radical, racist, true believers in Trumpism — and worse — already publicly disavowed their former beloved network, Fox News, when it stuck its neck out by saying Trump lost Arizona. In the wake of the Capitol assault, a radical conservative app, Parler, was removed by Amazon, Apple, and Google from their platforms. The growth of alternatives to traditional and even conservative media is just one manifestation of a kind of alternative reality taking shape in American political life.
The thing is, the Philippines has an outsized role, it seems, in the existence of this radical, racist vision and the technology that links its adherents together. In 2019, an interesting book titled “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States,” by Daniel Immerwahr, struck a chord among Filipinos on both sides of the Pacific because of its clear introduction to current Americans and Filipinos alike of how the United States is, and remains, a far-flung empire. In that same year, another couple of books got me thinking that the colonial ties now include a 21st-century manifestation that goes beyond generations-old preoccupations such as “colonial mentality”: We are, in a strange, twisted, but thoroughly modern way, a kind of twisted Wild West hinterland of the United States.
The two books are “The Mastermind,” by Evan Ratliff, and “Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud,” by Elizabeth Greenwood. The former book is about Paul Le Roux, who turned the profits from his network of prescription painkiller-peddling websites in the US into a criminal enterprise that he operated from the Philippines. The latter is an examination of the different ways people fake their own death, with one chapter about the Philippines where bodies can be bought and funerals staged for insurance fraud.
Both these books came to mind again earlier this year, with two events. In February, shortly before lockdown, the tech beat buzzed over a cyberlibel case filed by the founder of the notorious 8chan site, Fredrick Brennan, and its current owner, Jim Watkins; and in August, the Financial Times had a brief story on a Wirecard business partner, Christopher Bauer, being reported dead here in the Philippines; Bauer was the owner of PayEasy Solutions, one of Wirecard’s biggest sources of profit. 8chan had gained public notoriety during “Gamergate,” the 2014 online harassment campaign against women in the video game industry. The site, which hosts message boards, would come to feature in investigations into school shootings and hate crimes.
What all the stories had in common was the strange attractiveness of the Philippines as a haven for online criminal masterminds or the creators and owners of sites notorious for their right-wing extremism. Then in September last year, as part of the continuing feud among the past and present owners of 8chan, came another allegation: Jim Watkins, said Fredrick Brennan, was also a central figure in QAnon, the shadowy, extremist, conspiracy theory-focused network that has already elected members of Congress and, most recently, is among the groups suspected of having organized, and led, the assault on the US Congress.