Column: Understanding Duterte: 40 theses

Published on August 9, 2016.

  1. IT IS a mistake to think of President Duterte as Donald Trump without the orange skin and the ridiculous hair.
  1. He is not only not a bigot, as he himself said; he also has real, quantifiable achievements in his two decades as Davao City mayor.
  1. Even Mr. Duterte’s bitterest critics will not deny these achievements. They may argue about scope and impact, but accept these feats.
  1. In contrast, Trump has built a reputation and created wealth based largely on deception: the shady deal, the lease of his name, the scam.
  1. To be sure, the Duterte record is shadowed by the killings in Davao City, often attributed to the Davao Death Squad.

  1. But the President and the presidential candidate are likened to each other because of their use of intemperate or offensive language.
  1. First-time candidate Trump, however, lacks the discipline to stay on message, even when his self-interest is at stake.
  1. His references to “wanting to punch” people are also hard to credit; his tough-guy act depends on the presence of bodyguards.
  1. Mr. Duterte, on the other hand, uses foul language when he thinks it necessary to drive a point. (All too often, unfortunately.)
  1. And no one questions whether Mr. Duterte is capable of committing violence, with or without bodyguards.
  1. It is also a mistake to think that President Duterte is not an effective communicator, simply because he does not meet “usual” standards.
  1. Many make this mistake because they think he is too vulgar, or unaware of language registers.
  1. Or because they do not like what he says, and cannot accept what he is saying at face value.
  1. Or because they haven’t had enough practice decoding his statements and confabulations.
  1. Some make this mistake because they don’t like him to begin with; they see him as a man of violence, using words as masquerade.
  1. But there is a reason he connects with the masses. It’s not just the message; it is also the messenger.
  1. Whether it is defined as old-fashioned charisma or a celebrity’s X factor, the President has it.
  1. Some people are immune to his appeal, to his self-deprecating jokes or to his surprising courtesy; but others are vulnerable to it.
  1. He is, in the Clintonian formulation, someone an ordinary citizen can imagine having a beer with.
  1. Unlike Bill Clinton, though, he is also seen as a powerful person who will use that power to fight, even literally, for his friends.
  1. The President meets the Keynesian idea of a “practical man”—someone who sees himself as “quite exempt from intellectual influence.”
  1. But practical men are “usually the slaves of some defunct economist”—or the followers of old-school politicians.
  1. It was revealing that Mr. Duterte’s inaugural address pivoted around two passages attributed to Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
  1. He could have quoted John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, but they weren’t factors yet in his formative years.
  1. This explains the continuing hold of Ferdinand Marcos on him, and the role of state-inspired violence.
  1. This is a mystery to those who know that President Duterte worshipped his mother, who was a leader of the anti-Marcos struggle in Davao.
  1. But Mr. Duterte is a product of his times, and his times had an outsize figure in Marcos—in his view, the country’s best president.
  1. For him, Marcos was a lawyer who bent the law to his own will, because he needed to reshape a broken society.
  1. In this light, Marcos was only undone by the people around him, and by the excesses of the late years.
  1. This perspective rationalizes the concentration of power, and the instruments of violence, in one man’s hands.
  1. Mr. Duterte’s formative years help explain why he was eager to forge peace with communist rebels, even though they no longer pose the same threat.
  1. They help explain his attempts to appease Nur Misuari, even though the Moro National Liberation Front already agreed to peace in 1996.
  1. These are part of a worldview shaped many years before; now he is in a position to make it real.
  1. His understanding of law and order, of crime and punishment, also comes from this formative time.
  1. It helps explain why, for all his avowed love of the poor, he embraces a now-discredited strategy that kills many of the poor.
  1. Mr. Duterte’s use of a legal axiom during his State of the Nation Address made him sound foolish, but it is a mistake to think that he is not an able thinker.
  1. This perception is more a matter of preconceptions about accent or language than anything else.
  1. His friends and allies swear that he is good at strategic thinking; the new members of his official family regard him as truly open-minded.
  1. Thus, the tension in the Duterte era: His received assumptions formed during the key years are in conflict with his openness to new ideas.
  1. The killings his victory inspired reflect his worldview. How do we square this with proof that one cannot save society by killing it?
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