At the last presidential debate, the candidates were asked how they would deal with China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea. Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte had a ready answer. He will tell the Coast Guard to take him to the middle of the sea, and, from there, he will ride a jet ski to the nearest disputed atoll. There, in full view of the Chinese naval forces, he will plant the Philippine flag—alone.
Wherever the mayor talks about it, his audiences greet this verbal bravura with rousing laughter and effusive cheers. It makes no difference to them whether he’s joking or he’s serious about this grave policy issue. No matter what he says, Mayor Digong seems to fulfill their expectations of the kind of leader the country needs for our desperate times.
He must be tough, decisive, fearless, and, yes, heroic. “I don’t care if they kill me,” the mayor adds. “That will make me a hero, and I have always dreamed of being a hero. But, I will not risk the life of a single Filipino soldier in this fight.”
I don’t think the man is joking. I do not doubt his readiness to do exactly what he says on impulse. Nothing seems to intimidate him. There, I believe, lies his dark charisma.
But charisma, in Max Weber’s definition, is not a magical quality possessed by a person. It is, rather, a type of relationship. To make sense of charisma, one has to understand the social context in which a leader attracts throngs of followers.
The context is typically one characterized by crisis—as in the aftermath of a war or in the face of famine or a calamity. Institutions have broken down. Criminals, bandits, and armed individuals roam the streets. People are gripped by a sense of despair and panic. They feel they have no one to turn to for protection, assistance, or justice.
It was this situation that the anti-Semitic writer, Dietrich Eckart, saw in his defeated and demoralized country in the wake of World War I. He saw Adolf Hitler at a meeting of the German Workers’ Party, and at once he knew this was the man who could lift Germany from its humiliation. “[A] fellow who can stand the rattle of a machine gun. The rabble has to be scared sh*tless. I can’t use an officer; the people no longer have any respect for them. Best of all would be a worker who’s got his mouth in the right place … He doesn’t need much intelligence; politics is the stupidest business in the world.” (Quoted in Lawrence Rees, “Hitler’s Charisma,” 2012)
All this sounds frighteningly familiar when one views the phenomenal rise of Digong Duterte in Philippine politics. Except for one thing: The Philippines is not struggling to recover from the desolation of war. There’s threat of hunger in some parts of the country because of the drought, but food is readily available everywhere else. Some areas devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” are still not fully rehabilitated, but much has been done to resettle the displaced communities. There’s poverty, but this is occurring in the midst of unprecedented economic growth. There’s crime, but there is no anarchy in our streets. Some judges and prosecutors are corrupt, but the rule of law remains.
In short, the country is not in crisis—at least not in the way it was in the aftermath of the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino. During that time, the economy shrank by 10 percent. The peso lost much value. We could not pay the nation’s creditors. International banks refused to extend credit lines to pay for basic imports. We didn’t know if the ailing dictator in Malacañang was still in command of government. Daily demonstrations filled the streets, and rumors of a military coup were rampant. There was loud clamor for a new government that would rebuild the nation’s institutions.
No doubt our problems have multiplied over the years. That is what happens to any country that is growing in density and diversity. Our national situation is more complex today not only because there are more of us, but also because our daily lives have become increasingly shaped not just by innovations in technology, but by shifts in the global economic system and world politics as well. We have been able to reasonably adapt to the challenges and opportunities of this changing global reality. But, undeniably, many of our countrymen are falling through the cracks of these developments.
Interestingly, it is not the extremely poor who are reacting to these complex issues with great impatience. The sense of desperation is coming rather from those who have relatively more in life. It is they who righteously proclaim their entitlement to something better—better paying jobs, better public transport, more responsive public service, safer neighborhoods, lower taxes, better airports, better hospitals and better schools.
This is nothing extraordinary. We find this in every country that is in the throes of modernity—the sense of drowning in an accumulation of problems beyond the capacity of existing institutions and leaders to solve. In a flash, the people’s pent-up resentments against the existing order come to a head and find release in the quest for a god who can solve their problems—the traffic jams, the petty criminals, the undisciplined motorists, the insensitive government employee, the abusive cop, the bribe-taking judge, and the thousand and one aggravations that mark their daily lives.
We don’t need a dictator to tell us how to live. We need a president who can form a capable team that will sort out the complex problems of governance. Yet, no government will ever succeed unless we, the citizens, can rise above our unexamined fears and emotions—high enough to be able to ask what we can do to help our country or, at least, not add to its problems.
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