Duterte and the presidency

By now, people who have listened to President Duterte speak in public a couple of times may have learned to focus less on the information he “gives” than on the information he “gives off.” Not so much on the priorities of his administration, as on who the current objects of presidential ire are. Not so much on what he says as how he says it.

Some people can never get used to this style of public speaking. But, not his legion of admirers. They prefer authenticity over substance, and every speech of the President seems to affirm this for them. They like seeing him unbound and unchanged by the trappings of the presidency. To them, it is a comforting sign that he remains the individual that he is, the sole author of his actions — neither the aloof functionary of an anonymous entity called government, nor the tool of a despised oligarchy.

Mr. Duterte plays this role to the hilt. He manifests impatience and awkwardness, and, sometimes, even contempt, for the rituals that have become integral to the office of the President. The State of the Nation Address is a prime example of these rituals. Most presidents do their best to embrace the role assigned to them in these state functions. They try hard to sound and look as though they were not reading from a teleprompter, that they understand and mean every word they speak. Mr. Duterte is different. Indeed, he not only deviates from his prepared speech; he also seems to draw satisfaction from mocking the artifice behind the entire event.

At several points in his second Sona, Mr. Duterte tells the operator of the teleprompter to stop rolling the text because his eyes were getting tired. Prior to this, he is seen dutifully reading the text as though it were something he wanted to quickly get done with. With the official text in suspension, he pauses, takes a deep breath, and squarely faces his audience. Then, like the common folk who identify with him, he proceeds to “speak from the heart.”  As though on cue, the audience sits up to listen intently to the authentic voice of the man who occupies the highest office of the land.

This is the magic behind Mr. Duterte’s speaking style. Although he often speaks in a kind of drone, he is never boring. And, it is not merely because of his colorful language; it is also because of the unrestrained and raw quality of his casual speech.

The image he projects is that of someone who talks with authority not because of the office he occupies but because of the person that he is. The Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins explains the origin of the word “authentic” thus: “Etymologically, something that is authentic is something that has the authority of its original creator.”

Certainly, Mr. Duterte would be interesting to listen to any time. He is folksy, friendly, and funny; he loves to crack outrageous jokes, and never runs out of stories to make a point. His reputation as an endearing thug also precedes him. But, if he were not president, I doubt if he would be able to command the same attention that he does when he addresses the public from the high perch of his office.

The public has always looked up to the office of the President as a source of direction in uncertain times, a beacon for a nation in need of orientation. Perhaps, in a complex society, it no longer serves this purpose for a lot of people, in the same way that politics itself has lost much of the aura that used to shroud it in traditional society.  Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear people speak of politics and of politicians in purely negative terms.

In many ways, the rise of antiestablishment leaders like President Duterte is symptomatic of these antipolitical times. They represent, to the common folk, the antithesis of the polished statesman, the technocrat, and the professional politician. Thrust into the nerve center of the state by the same electoral exercise they distrust, such leaders invariably find themselves hemmed in by the sheer power of the formative routines of the modern political system.

Their charisma and their willfulness notwithstanding, they soon realize they have no choice but to bow to the authority of the systems in place if they are to get anything done.  Much as they wish to skirt them, they could not ignore the existing hierarchies of decision-making and accountability to which officials in the lower echelons of government are in thrall. At every turn, leaders like Mr. Duterte are reminded of the imperatives of due process, of the rule of law, of the inviolability of the principle of separation of powers, of the autonomy of constitutional bodies, and the sanctity of contracts, etc.  They have so much power over the lives of their citizens, but they soon discover that the economy is not under their command, nor are the educational, religious, and communication systems of society.

I think that if we want to know where the Duterte administration is headed, we would learn more from carefully scrutinizing the text and subtext of the written Sona (portions of which the President skipped) and the proposed national budget that accompanies it, than from attempting to decipher the deep impulses behind Mr. Duterte’s fulminations.

Like every politician before him, President Duterte has promised radical change under his administration. His fiery rhetoric conveys this in no uncertain terms. But, I think, unless they are specifically named, those whose fortunes are massively affected by the twists and turns of government policy might learn to listen to these off-the-cuff presidential speeches more for amusement than for policy guidance. Having said that, I cannot presume to know how these speeches shape the consciousness of the ordinary folk.