Written on the day of the controversial second State of the Nation Address, and published on July 25, 2017.
Since I first met him in August 2015, I have tried to describe Rodrigo Duterte, the man and politician, as fairly, as completely, as I could. In this column and before various audiences—rule of law advocates in The Hague, student leaders on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, Asian news executives in Bangkok, campus writers in Legazpi, journalists in Perugia, even residents of my hometown of Cagayan de Oro—I have sought to give President Duterte his due.
I have always pointed out that, in private, Mr. Duterte is unfailingly courteous, and thoughtful and responsive in conversation. He makes bold statements (arguing, for instance, that the presidency is not powerful enough) but leavens them with an earnest mien, a healthy sense of humor, even a talent for mimicry. I’ve met him only thrice — a group interview at the Inquirer that lasted for about four hours, a chance encounter at the Naia 2 airport, a presidential debate — but my impressions have found an echo in the recollections of the senators and Cabinet secretaries I’ve interviewed since his election.
I have also always noted that Mr. Duterte is a genuinely charismatic personality; I have seen his effect on an audience of about 50 as well as a massive crowd (the thanksgiving rally in Davao City after his victory) of perhaps 500,000. There is really something there that many people respond to. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seen this charisma at work, not only in the President’s native Davao but in Tokyo, too, when Mr. Duterte came visiting. It is a mistake to dismiss this talk of mass appeal or reduce it to cult-like conduct. (To be sure, there is that, too.)
But put a microphone in front of him, and (time to look afresh at this tired phrase) all hell breaks loose.
We all know the President likes to talk. He had a weekend talk show for years, where he, not his guests, did most of the talking; when he makes himself available for press briefings, he tends to overstay; after the first presidential debate in Cagayan de Oro ended, while the other candidates repaired to dinner he went to Divisoria Plaza where his supporters had gathered and continued talking, picking up from where he had left off.
But when he talks, in front of a microphone, he transforms into an angry old man—impatient with niceties, dismissive of other people’s experience, smug about his point of view. He hurls insults and expletives as a substitute for argument, bristles at criticism and, in high dudgeon, can even end up provoking himself.
A stomach-turning instance: His horrific declaration that he was “happy to slaughter” three million Filipino drug addicts was made mere moments after he took pains to distinguish himself from Adolf Hitler. He was offended that he was being “portrayed or pictured as a cousin of Hitler,” he said. But having provoked himself, he returned to the topic and embraced the comparison he had only shortly before rejected: “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
I wish to be clear; even when he is ranting, he does not forget to indulge his sense of humor, but then his jokes seem to come from a darker place. The jokes about rape, for instance, seem out of sync for a man proud of his record of womanizing; by all accounts, he does not seem to need force to get his way, but then again his entire message as a public speaker can be summed up as an appeal to force. In his public rhetoric, the jokes about rape are yet another trope about the violent use of power.
An astute young man at a planning workshop I was invited to last week asked a telling question: Do these contrasting personalities point to a psychological fracture?
I do not know; I am not a psychologist, only a journalist and a student of history. But if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that both personalities are the real thing, the authentic Duterte. Perhaps the fractured ones are those who work with the President and choose to see only the humble man who gives them all the latitude they need, not the leader whose speech has fatal consequences.