Duterte’s charisma

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - December 4, 2015 - 9:00am

I am glad I was in Century Plaza Hotel when Rody Duterte made the speech peppered with cursing and cusswords.

To the audience, mostly the marginalized sectors of society he spoke their language – even the p.i. word that riled polite society the day after. (As writers in “polite” newspapers we are not allowed to use the words in our articles.) As expected, on the morning after, the elite and educated were hopping mad even if they were not present to see and hear the enthusiasm and applause of the audience for the man who spoke their language and expressed his feelings as frankly as they would.

He had used the p.i. word when he told the story of how he felt when was stuck in traffic for five hours when Pope Francis visited Manila. (He has since explained that it was not the Pope he was cursing but the traffic and many accepted that explanation).

The audience applauded his speech lustily. A man with a torn T-shirt in front of me raised his hands, squealed and jumped) rebolusyon, rebolusyon each time Duterte used the p.i. word in anger, and humor, making  fun about his life. He was like them and the more he talked the more they liked him. He was the mirror through which they saw themselves. They curse, they womanize. But they also hate crime especially rape and murder and corruption. The high and mighty, the polite and genteel who might have cursed at the traffic but they were not bold enough or free enough to say it they way he did – p.i. That is the deeper meaning of the story of the Duterte curse. Accept it or not that is also the story of the Duterte charisma sweeping the country at a time when we thought there is no candidate who could lead us to change our system and break the source of our hypocrisy.

This is the Duterte charisma, p.i. and all. As the surveys show he is pushing towards an unstoppable groundswell. He has charisma because of a mixture of symbols – of reform, of revolt against hypocrisy. We would be remiss if we did not see what was the deeper meaning of p.i. in Duterte language. Call it magic, call it any name you please but it is upon us. The realization came to me so unexpectedly when we thought all was futile and barren in a society and a future with the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots…p…i…mo.

* * *

Had I not been invited to the Century Plaza launch, I would probably not have understood the meaning of the Duterte charisma. Alan Peter Cayetano, his vice-president,, more educated and genteel sat behind him meekly.

In the crowd were both Christians and Muslims from different parts of the country. The excitement began when a small group of about 50 seamen waited outside the hotel shouting, “Duterte! Duterte!” Inside, his supporters mobbed him, grasping for photo-ops.

The acceptance speech  had its serious side – the need to observe the law, target criminals and lawless elements, and replace the current system of government with a federal one. When Duterte spoke about serious matters of state like our relations with China, he showed a lot of common sense. He mentioned his talks with the Chinese consul-general and literally told him to go fish elsewhere.

At times, he made fun of others and of himself, particularly when he attended a Jesuit school in Davao.

As he talked with a straight, less than handsome face, I could not help but ask myself why this candidate should have had such a strong appeal to the masses. Neither Mar Roxas nor Jojo Binay could communicate with the masses like he did.

By making fun of himself, he made the audience laugh at and with him.

After his long talk, he met me in the Business Center before entering a room with his aides. He said, “I want the people to see me as I am, that I do not hide anything. If you vote for me, you vote for what I am.” That was why he had to speak candidly and tell everything that he was. “I have said everything that I was warts and all and if they cannot accept that then they should not vote for me.”

The scholar Vicente Rafael gave an interesting insight on Duterte’s mass appeal. He had watched carefully his performance on video.

“This video struck me as one of the keys for understanding his remarkable popularity crossing class and regional lines. He’s flirtatious, tempting you to try him, as it were, like Erap or FPJ before him, though without the moralizing grumpiness of Alfredo Lim. Duterte is willing to take on all comers, regardless of gender or sexuality.

“That he liberally sprinkles his speech with cuss words in English and Tagalog makes him into a kind of bad boy, the stuff of erotic fascination for the electorate. People want to be swept away, driven to the edge of delirium, so they gravitate towards him. He brags about the number of criminals he’s killed in the same breath that he advertises the number of women he’s involved with. The rumor of violence and sexual potency are all wrapped up in his persona, recalling Marcos as much as every action hero you can think of.

“That he comes across as a ‘probinsyano’ expelled from Ateneo de Davao and took seven years to finish high school further amplifies the bad boy image even as it allows him to connect with the masses. He turns crassness into a virtue, his craggy face into an image of attractive authoritarianism.

In his personal appearances, he shies away from bombast like most other politicians. He rarely ever raises his voice – always controlled: quietly threatening, seductively inviting, full of folksy, ribald humor all confected into a lilting Cebuano accent that clearly locates him as a refreshing outsider to Manila politics.

Death and sex (both straight and gay): this is the potent mix that Duterte offers up. It is, of course, part of a persona that the media spectacularizes – the lumpen turned hero, as with every FPJ movie, who is able to harness violence to save the downtrodden. His ability to aestheticize and eroticize politics is unmatched by the current crop of candidates, except perhaps for Grace Poe.

Her appeal lies in the opposite direction: the virgin mother, the innocent foundling who plays up her lack of experience as sign of her purity, her filial piety the source of her authority (shades of Cory). That’s a different kind of erotic appeal altogether.”


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