Why is Duterte so popular?

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My wife was born and raised in the Philippines and on occasion we like to commiserate on the terrible Presidents of our respective countries of birth.  I have written a lot trying to explain the horribleness of Donald Trump.  I understand the appeal of Trump because he is one of the quintessential American archetypes – the conman.  I do not understand the appeal of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who according to some reports enjoys 80% job satisfaction.  This is one big distinction between Duterte and Trump, the former is popular while the latter definitely is not.

The Philippines scholar Mark Thompson attributes Duterte’s popularity to his “violent populism.”  In an interview with the Rappler he claims that Duterte is seen as authentic by many Filipinos and a man of actions who is instilling “order” and “discipline” in their country.  This sounds to me like the desire for strongman leadership which can border on paternalistic but when you consider some of the ineffective and capricious previous Presidents in the Philippines the desire for some ability of the government to act can seem more credible.

Recently the Filipino scholar, activist, and legislator Walden Bello published a great little book titled Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right.  In it Bello looks at seven case studies of counterrevolution trying to find the commonalities across them especially the role of the middle class and peasants.  The cases are: Italy (in the 1920s), Indonesia (with Suharto), Chile (with Pinochet), Thailand (in the 2000s to present), India (with Modi) and the Philippines (with Duterte).  He also offers a comparison at the end of the book with the present rise of the far right in the U.S. in the persona of Donald Trump and in the U.K. with Brexit.  Although the whole book is insightful, the chapter on the Philippines is of particular interest here.  Bello describes Duterte as a “fascist original.”  He writes:

Interpreting his mandate as a blank cheque to do whatever it takes to ‘defend the nation’, Duterte has reversed the usual model by which fascists and authoritarian populists come to power.  In the conventional model creeping fascism, the fascist personality begins with violations of civil and political rights, followed by the lunge for absolute power, after which follows indiscriminate repression.  He started with massive indiscriminate repression – that is the killing with impunity of thousands of drug users – leaving the violation of civil liberties and the grab for total power as mopping up operations in a political atmosphere where fear has largely neutralized opposition.  His approach might be called ‘blitzkrieg fascism’

Duterte’s shock and awe approach to governing has certainly neutralized any strong opposition and his “mopping up” of some of the holdouts has left no real counterweight to his counterrevolution.  Which begs the question, if Duterte represents the counterrevolution then what was the revolution?  Bello claims that Duterte represents a counterrevolution not to some lower order seeking justice as is the case with many counterrevolution but rather a counterrevolution to liberal democracy itself.  Bello argues that since the people power revolution that threw out Marcos in 1986, liberal democracy has not delivered for the Filipino people what it promised particularly for the aspiring and downwardly mobile middle class, which Bello argues makes up Duterte’s base.  Much like Trump, Duterte has a passionate and volatile online force of shock troops that come to his defense against even the slightest criticism.  According to Bello:

Much of Duterte’s online support comes from Filipino workers overseas, many of them people with college education who suffer from occupational dissonance owing to their seeing themselves as trapped in menial blue-collar service jobs for which they are overqualified.

Bello’s chapter on the Philippines counterrevolution against liberal democracy ultimately highlights the role of the middle class.  He notes:

The Philippines provides an interesting case study of the volatility of the middle class.  At times, it can be a force for democracy, as in the late eighties when the middle class played a central role in the overthrow of Marcos and other authoritarian regimes throughout the Global South.  At other times, they provide the heated mass base for authoritarian rule, as they did for Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany and as the do now for Duterte.

The volatility of the middle class that Bello highlights adds important nuance to Barrington Moore’s famous quip of “no bourgeoisie no democracy.”  Its tragic but true that the base of democratic support in a country can be turned against it under the right circumstances.  This, sadly, is what is happening in both the Philippines and United States.  The forces of multicultural social democracy must provide the next revolution if we want to have a better world.

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