Duterte, Trump, and populism

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and US President Donald Trump seem like twins in terms of political style.  They appear to revel in their repeated breach of correct speech and behavioral codes, treating these as the hypocrisies of a detested political establishment. They have both been antagonistic toward the mainstream media, seeing them as complicit guardians of a corrupt system.  In the pursuit of their pet programs, both have manifested an authoritarian intransigence darkly reminiscent of fascism.

As comparisons go, that is probably where the similarities end. The issues on which their political appeal is anchored are vastly different. Mr. Duterte chose the brutal war on illegal drugs as the centerpiece of his presidency. The US president’s focus has been on the perceived threats posed by globalization—the influx of immigrants, the exportation of American jobs to other countries, unequal trade, and the domination of the American economy by a global financial elite.

But, I am afraid that zeroing in on the substantive differences in the issues chosen could blind us to the worldwide reality of populist reaction to which we can ascribe the rise of strongmen like the two presidents.

What is populism? We might start from an interesting characterization of populist leaders offered by the philosopher and political commentator Pierre-André Taguieff, in an interview with the French news website Atlantico. “In terms of the leaders’ posture, populism can be defined as a political style, compatible with any ideological content, that involves direct appeals to the people, rejection of mediation, and criticism of established elites. This also includes the promise of change, a rhetorical gesture that populist leaders have in common with all modern political leaders. But they differ from the latter by featuring a charismatic authority, which explains the fact that they are either admired or hated with equal intensity.”

I believe that the definition perfectly fits Mr. Duterte like a handmade shoe. First of all, populism can ride on any issue, ignoring conventional classifications of left versus right, or of progressive versus conservative.  There’s nothing intrinsically rightist or leftist about the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, just as there is nothing socialist about its so-called pivot to China, or, for that matter, its espousal of federalism as a preferred form of political system.  But, once he was able to seize the imagination of the public, Mr. Duterte could have won on any issue he chose to highlight.

Second, what seems crucial to the emergence of populism is the perception that the political system of representative democracy has failed—that the elites have rigged the system and expropriated state power for themselves.  That explains why Mr. Duterte presented himself as a crusader from the periphery who has come to do battle with the political elite and the oligarchy in the name of the people. It is not uncommon, of course, to see politicians deploy this type of populist rhetoric.

But, Mr. Duterte was different; he looked and sounded the part. He shunned the trappings of respectability and formality.  His demeanor was coarse, his language rough and excessive, making him every inch the personification of the authentic outsider who had crashed an exclusive party. No one could have invented a more complete antithesis of the Establishment politician.  Yet, if another politician had tried to imitate him, the reaction would surely have been different.  The hapless copycat would have been caricatured as a pathetic demagogue, as distant from the people as the visions of change he offers.

At the heart of this populist explosion is the deep resentment against “formatted” politicians who are perceived to have locked the system so that no one but those who are sworn to serve the interests of the elite could enter.  Taguieff says that the driving impulse behind this anti-elite resentment is mistrust.

Everywhere, for a variety of reasons, the elites are denounced as complicit, complacent and corrupt.  Complicity is “the idea of a certain connivance between the ruling elites, who share power and wealth and who strive to pervert or destroy the meritocratic game, leading to discrimination and wider social injustice.” They are also distrusted for being complacent, meaning, of being oblivious to the threats that ordinary citizens experience in their everyday lives.  (Think of Mr. Duterte’s claim that the political elites in this country have fatally ignored or underestimated the drug problem.) But, on top of all these, these elites are also corrupt to the core, skillfully concealing the various shady deals they make with the oligarchy by overt acts of benevolence.

How does one respond to populism? The challenge of populism in the West is probably far more complex and difficult to address than its local version here.  Dialogue seems tough.  Human rights advocates everywhere are often dismissed for their “sermonizing humanitarianism.” On the other hand, it seems counterproductive to merely demonize populist leaders by inciting public fear about their fascistic inclinations. Taguieff argues that the momentum clearly lies with populism, but there’s no way of knowing where it will go.

In the face of this uncertainty, the philosopher offers little consolation, if any: “What are required are will power and a refusal of resignation, if both are conditioned by a sense of limits.”  But, for the moment, he strongly believes that the most urgent task of all responsible citizens is how to prevent “ritualized clashes” from ripening into civil war.