In a country where news about crimes and misdemeanors (of both civilians and law enforcers) have become the bread and butter of news organizations, it is easy to understand how and why ‘the people’ have become so fearful, angry and disillusioned with the government. Impunity has become a national crisis; corruption is causing the breakdown of society’s institutional and moral fabrics; lawlessness and violence have become existential threats to the survival of individuals and societies.
From the point of view of ‘the people’, only an outsider, anti-establishment leader can salvage the government and the nation from complete decay. And Duterte’s perceived persona has become the perfect embodiment of a messianic leader who can deliver them from self-destruction: rebellious but warm, unorthodox but likeable, nonconformist but honest, punishing but just.
Duterte’s populist politics gets its momentum from his skillful framing of a crisis, breakdown and threat confronting the ‘the people’, whether real or imagined. By projecting himself as the only leader who has the extraordinary political will to adopt and implement unlawful, albeit necessary, ‘extraordinary measures’, Duterte has successfully captured the hearts and minds of ‘the people’. The public’s growing suspicion and dissatisfaction toward convoluted policymaking processes and institutional mechanisms of modern governance has made Duterte’s simple and direct solutions particularly attractive to ‘the people,’ demanding swift and decisive actions. Duterte has taken advantage of this situation by conjuring a sense of national emergency that can only be resolved by ‘dumbing down’ the terms of political debates, and dichotomizing the terrains of public discussions between pro- and anti-government forces.
In doing so, Duterte is bent to overlook, usurp and destroy everything that obstructs his method for addressing the crisis, breakdown and threat, including the independent institutional powers of the legislature and judiciary if deemed necessary.
When Duterte issued a warning against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to not get in his way; when he teased about being vested an emergency power to solve Manila’s traffic problems; when he threatened to destroy a senator for criticizing his deadly war on drugs; when he allowed the burial of a former dictator and a notorious human rights violator in a cemetery intended for heroes; when he expressed his intention of protecting the police accused of extrajudicial killings from facing criminal charges; when he went back and forth with the idea of declaring Martial Law; he was in effect gauging the extent to which the ‘the people’ will allow him to ignore, circumvent and depose the legal and institutional constraints to his power. Moreover, such statements also help determine the limit of his popularity. And if the response of ‘the people’ to these events was any indication, the present limit to Duterte’s popularity is little as the popularity of the disorganized, uncoordinated opposition.
Duterte’s packaging of an issue as a threat that can potentially lead to a national crisis and eventual societal breakdown, has been so compelling that his supporters are now increasingly becoming hostile and adverse to human rights protections because they ‘impede’ the government’s war on drugs; accepting and forgiving of the former dictator’s unremorseful family in the name of national unity; doubtful and critical of the important role of opposition in a healthy democracy; intolerant and aggressive toward other state and non-state actors (local and international) who question the wisdom of the president’s policies; vicious and savage to citizens who openly desecrate Duterte’s demigod image even in literary satires.
Yet, the underlying logic behind Duterte’s simple and direct answers to some of the most divisive national issues that he has faced thus far, is neither ‘simple’ nor ‘direct’. His willingness to disregard the principle of human rights is based on what critics view as the biased and selective application of the concept by powerful countries in states where they wish to intervene to pursue their own interests. His aversion toward multilateral treaties intended to combat the effects of climate change is grounded in what critics view as an attempt by the core countries to prevent the global south from developing by kicking away the very same ladder that they used to industrialize their economies. His desire to revive the Philippines’ tumultuous relations with China is influenced by Thucydides’ realist outlook of international relations in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. His confusing relations with the Marcoses could be an indication of his subscription to a postmodernist view that there are as many stories as storytellers.
But given Duterte’s gripping portrayal of a crisis, coupled with the sheer magnitude of his popularity, the president may not even have to dig deep into his intellectual faculties to secure the approval and support of ‘the people’.
Duterte’s captivating personification of ‘bad manners’
A significant part of Duterte’s hypnotic appeal to ‘the people’ comes from his explicit disdain for ‘appropriate’, ‘decent’, and ‘civilized’ language that is favored by traditional politicians and technocrats. When performing his populist brand of politics, Duterte adds a ‘tabloidal’ flavor to his political discourse by embellishing his speeches with colorful slang and swearing or lacing his anecdotes with exaggerated political incorrectness.
In many ways, Duterte has become the personification of ‘bad manners’ in Philippine politics. But instead of becoming a liability, Duterte’s ‘bad boy’ image has provided him with huge electoral advantage over his more affluent, more composed, and more diplomatic rivals. Rather than questioning Duterte’s aggressive rhetoric and boorish behavior, ‘the people’ think of creative ways to put these words and actions within more palatable contexts to mitigate the negative reactions from the opposition and non-supporters.
When Duterte joked about how ‘the mayor should have been first’ when recalling a tragic incident involving an Australian woman lay minister who was gang raped and killed, they laughed with him and pointed out that he risked his life to personally visit the scene to save the lives of as many hostage victims as he could. When Duterte planted kisses on some of his female supporters during the presidential campaign period, they cheered him on and argued that he was merely showing his appreciation of his supporters. When Duterte called the former US Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg a ‘gay son of a whore’, they praised him and underscored his courage for standing up against American imperialism. When Duterte admitted to ogling at Vice-President Leni Robredo’s legs during cabinet meetings, they rooted for him and retorted that the latter should have been flattered these remarks rather than embarrassed. When Duterte admitted to personally killing at least three men who were involved in hostage-taking in Davao, they rallied behind him and stressed that such method was necessary to ensure the safety of the people.
Regardless of whether or not these ‘bad manners’ reflect Duterte’s true nature and character, the point is that they are a vital component to his political performance as a populist actor. By deliberately coarsening his expressions and demeanors, Duterte is able to demonstrate not only his attachment to the grassroots, but more importantly, his detachment from the political establishment. His explicit disregard for rigid hierarchies and corrupt traditions that have defined the contours of Philippine politics for decades allows him to frame his populist acts as a way of giving politics back to ‘the people’. Rather than struggling to acquire the élan and finesse of high-ranking politicians from rich family backgrounds, Duterte has further emphasized his ‘otherness’ by speaking the words and adopting the expressions which are commonly associated with the ‘uncouth’ and the ‘unlearned’ to add more credibility to his performance as a populist leader.
By valorizing the most common forms of ‘bad manners’ of ‘the people’, Duterte is able to successfully project himself as an outsider who has grown tired of the cold attitude and ineffective ‘politics as usual’ approach of the well-manicured politicians. And while bad manners have certainly no place in schools, Duterte’s public display of ‘bad manners’ has captivated and enamored both members of the proletariat and bourgeoisie classes: going as low as ‘joking’ about a rape victim to bring him closer to his ‘unthinking’ supporters; and as high as providing empirical contexts to the hypocrisies underpinning American foreign policies to satisfy the intellectual requirements of his ‘intelligent’ followers.
The term ‘populist’ has commonly been used both by academic scholars and media practitioners to refer to politicians whom they find rather unpleasant and disagreeable. But as revealed by Duterte’s repertoire of populist performances and tropes, populism can also be employed as an effective political style. If understood properly and used adeptly, the performative elements of the concept can yield significant political capital for anyone who dares to harness their powers. Duterte’s gamble with populism has rewarded him with legions of devoted fans and supporters who have bestowed the qualities of invincibility and infallibility upon him. His potent combination of enthralling charisma, gripping portrayal of crisis, and alluring display of political incorrectness, have catapulted him into a demigod status, commanding absolute trust and demanding unquestionable faith from ‘the people’.
How long can Duterte sustain this demigod status depends largely on the length of time it will take ‘the people’ to realize that national development demands more than just a charismatic yet empty talk to feed hungry families; that national security necessitates more than just a compelling yet aimless manufacturing of crisis to emancipate the citizens from insecurities; and that national healing requires more than just a captivating yet senseless mockery of good manners and political correctness to reunite a bitterly divided nation. Before the novelty starts to wear off, and before he gets completely consumed by his megalomaniac tendencies, it will be in the best interest of Duterte and ‘the people’ to ensure that their populist movement is strengthening Philippine democracy rather than undermining its democratic institutions.
To do so, Duterte must resist the temptation of taking advantage of the autocratic powers that such a rare condition promises to afford him as it will only lead to the corruption of his promise to bring politics back to ‘the people’. On the contrary, he must use his enormous political capital to prevent the country’s gradual slip toward a post-democratic society by providing solutions based on the very same democratic values and aspirations that give populism its ‘moral legitimacy’.
In the end, populism could be what populist leaders make of it. And Duterte has an era-defining choice to make: to exploit the populist will of ‘the people’ in order to clear the road toward authoritarianism; or to harness this populist will in order to emancipate ‘the people’ from all the ills and shackles of bastardized democracy.
Michael I. Magcamit is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Musashi University in Tokyo, Japan. His current research project explains the three-way linkage between populist politics, securitization process, and realist foreign policies. He has also published numerous journal articles on Southeast Asia’s security-trade linkages, and is the author Small Powers and Trading Security (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Aries A. Arugay is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and a Visiting Fellow of the National Institute of Defense Studies of the Japan Ministry of Defense. Image credit: CC by Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ/Flickr.