At the end of his rambling speeches before mesmerized crowds, presidential candidate and preelection poll frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte touches the Philippine flag that is brought to him on cue. He brings it to his lips, and solemnly proclaims: “Together let’s fix this country.” As he raises his clenched fist, the audience breaks into ecstatic applause.

No other presidential candidate in Philippine political history has used the nation’s highest symbol so deliberately and to such effect. This melodramatic patriotic gesture seems to work. Instead of explaining his political program, Duterte regales his listeners with stories of his frustrating encounters with a dysfunctional national government and how he deals with these to produce tangible results in Davao City. He himself admits he has no program of his own to offer, and that he intends to copy some of the good plans of his rivals.

What is urgent, he says, is that we restore order and respect for authority. He laments the fact that criminals, drug peddlers, and corrupt public officials have been able to act with impunity by exploiting the weaknesses of the judicial system. In this manner, he articulates the exasperation and desperation that the people experience in their daily lives.

But more than this, he unleashes a torrent of aggressive and resentful impulses not previously seen in our society, except perhaps in social media. For now, the explicit targets are the drug syndicates, criminals, and government functionaries who spend more time making money for themselves than in serving the public. In the future, they can be any group that is perceived to stand in the way of genuine change.

Never going into specifics, Duterte promises just one thing: the will and leadership to do what needs to be done—to the point of killing and putting one’s own life on the line. “If you are not prepared to kill and be killed, you have no business being president of this country,” he has said on more than one occasion.

This is pure theater—a sensual experience rather than the rational application of ideas to society’s problems. Observing the same phenomenon in Europe in the 1920s, the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin interpreted the events that saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini as the transformation of politics into aesthetics. In Germany, this phenomenon came to be known as Nazism; in Italy, it was called Fascism.

It would probably be appropriate to call its Philippine incarnation “Dutertismo.” Calling Duterte a fascist would probably not mean anything to the average Filipino. If at all, it might focus inordinate attention on the man himself and the dark charisma he projects, when what is needed is to understand the movement he has given life to and the collective anger and despair it represents.

It would be instructive for all of us, in this election season, to take a moment to step back from the political personalities that today occupy center stage, and view the broader picture that seems to be upon us in the light of the history of other countries. A book titled “The anatomy of fascism” written by former Columbia University professor Robert O. Paxton and published in 2004 has proved to be an eye-opener for me.

Fascism is neither a distinct ideology nor a coherent philosophy of government. Therefore, it would be hard to locate it in the political spectrum between Right and Left. Its agenda changes as it moves, rejecting what it regards as the flabbiness of existing moral and political institutions.

It draws its base from all social classes, from the cities as well as the countryside, attracting support from businessmen as well as former soldiers, workers and peasants, intellectuals and artists, statesmen and shopkeepers. Paxton quotes an entry from the diary of the novelist Thomas Mann in March 1933, shortly after Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. What Mann saw was a revolution “without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice.”

As puzzling as it might appear, this complex phenomenon can be explained, Paxton writes.  “Fascism rested not upon the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader’s mystical union with the historic destiny of his people…. Fascist leaders made no secret of having no program.  Mussolini exulted in that absence.”  Hitler had a 25-point program but he also declared it to be changeable, staunchly refusing to make “cheap” promises. Indeed, what this really signified, says Paxton, is that “the debate had ceased.”

Fascists dismissed modern liberal politicians as “culpably incompetent guardians” against the enemies of the state. They had nothing but contempt for humanist enlightenment values. The supreme irony is that the typical bearers of these values—the educated middle classes—found themselves cooperating with, if not actively supporting, the movement. Unable to appreciate the complexity of the problems facing modern society, and seeing only the unpalatable choices before them, they primed themselves for a “brutal anti-intellectualism” that reduced everything to the “will and leadership” of the strongman.

Reading Paxton’s book while watching Digong Duterte speak before the Makati Business Club gave me goose pimples. These captains of industry came to listen to his economic program. The man started by reading the scanty notes before him with undisguised indifference. He then put these notes aside and used up the time telling them about how he dealt with criminals, and how he was more honest about his libido than any of them in the room. As it turned out, he was the program they came to hear.

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