I have a modest theory on why President Duterte commands so much attention and support, nationally and internationally, and why he enjoys unprecedented approval and trust ratings among Filipinos, despite his abusive and profane speech, his often contradictory and erratic statements, and his wild-and-woolly foreign policy.
Many cannot get at the essence of the Duterte phenomenon, because they keep getting side-tracked by the itch to paint him as a contemporary version of Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Muammar Qaddaffi, and closer to home, Ferdinand Marcos.
He is not.
Jobs and the reality distortion field
I think one can do better by placing Duterte instead in the company of leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton, whose exceptional success and magnetism lay in what is now called “a reality distortion field.”
“Reality distortion field” was coined to describe Steve Jobs and his way of leadership. (RDF) was originally defined as “an aura of charisma, confidence, and persuasion, in which people report it almost impossible to avoid surrendering to the man and following his will when interacting face-to-face. Well—love his politics or hate them— they followed him.
The term “Reality distortion field” (RDF) was coined by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981, to describe Steve Jobs’s charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Macintosh project and the many admirers of his work as an innovator and trailblazer in personal computing.
Later the term was used to refer to perceptions of Jobs’s keynote speeches (or “Stevenotes”) by observers and devoted users of Apple computers and products.
The RDF was said to refer to Jobs’ ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. RDF was said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible. Jobs could also use the RDF to appropriate other’s ideas as his own, sometimes proposing an idea to its originator after dismissing it the week before.
Bill Clinton’s charisma and sleaze
The term has been extended in industry to other managers and leaders who try to convince their employees to become passionately committed to projects without regard to the overall product or to competitive forces in the market.
Not surprisingly, RDF has also been used in politics.
Bill Clinton’s charisma has been called a reality distortion field.
Writer Michael Ellsberg, who has spent years studying interpersonal persuasion and language (spoken and unspoken), has written that Bill Clinton’s “reality distortion field” is the key to his legendary charm and face-to-face attraction with women.
A New York Times Magazine profile near the beginning of Clinton’s presidency referred to his facility for “making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized. Tabloid rumors aside, Clinton embodies the parallels between the seductions of politics and the seductions of sex. As one Clinton watcher said recently: “It’s not that Clinton seduces women. It’s that he seduces everyone.”
A post on the celebrity news blog WENN said, “Actress Gillian Anderson has discovered the secret behind former US President Bill Clinton’s sex appeal—lingering eye contact.”
Anderson (Special Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files) spoke on Late Night With David Letterman of an encounter she had with Clinton several years earlier: “We all, mostly women, lined up. And when he gets to you, he takes your hand and makes eye contact. After he leaves and he moves on to the next person, he looks back at you and seals the deal. When I got home, I expected to have a message from him, and I didn’t. I bet women across America expect it too.”
The flaw with Clinton of course is that the charisma turned into sleaze. His otherwise successful two-term presidency was ruined by shabby sexual pursuits, which in the end his RDF could not dissimulate.
Duterte’s distortion field
I believe president Duterte has a similar “reality distortion field” with respect to his more outrageous programs and policies. His colleagues and followers also believe in everything he does.
People wonder why despite the excesses of the drug war, most Filipinos still believe that the drug war is necessary and the killings are justifiable.
Originally, RDF was said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible. Now, we are seeing the loss of proportion and rationality in the drug war.
In this column, I theorize that President Duterte has his own RDF, which enables him to transcend his limitations and his gaffes.
When his candidacy for president was formally launched in November last year, he delivered a tirade that appeared to detonate his candidacy instead of promote it.
In this tirade, he unleashed many of his egregious vulgarisms:
1. It was there that he first dropped the offensive remark about wishing to be first to sexually abuse a beautiful Australian missionary who was taken hostage, raped and killed by prison inmates in Davao City.
2. He called Pope Francis “a son of a whore” for causing a massive traffic gridlock in Manila during his papal visit.
3. He boasted to the audience that he had two girl friends and a common-law wife who took care of his needs like a tag team, and that Viagra is the ever-reliable help for his proclivities.
4. He promised the country a bloody presidency if elected, because he would kill at least 100,000 criminals, and throw them into Manila Bay to fatten the fish.
Hearing and reading about that speech, I thought that he was a caricature of what a presidential candidate should be. Yet the man survived that horrible opening salvo as a candidate. Instead of shuddering, people were entertained by his expletives and his bombast.
On the evidence, it is clear that Duterte has much charisma; he has an aura and confidence that entice people to listen intently to his words. And he expresses himself with a candor that is both startling and winning.
His signature war on drugs, which he truly believes is the key to reform and modernization of the Philippines, became his centerpiece program, from which all his other programs and reforms would emanate.
The Duterte presidency began as a carefully composed portrait of a leader with a serious program of reform.
The at-first placid demeanor was shattered when the killings in the drug war began to mount, and criticisms began to pour out in the country and pour in from abroad.
When President Obama deigned to issue a comment reminding about the need to respect human rights and the rule of law in the drug war, Duterte became incensed. He called Obama a son-of-a whore, and denounced America’s colonial record in the Philippines.
It’s been a mess ever since.
In the case of Jobs and Clinton, their reality distortion fields distorted reality in a way that made people accept their less attractive policies and qualities.
In Duterte’s case, his distortion field cannot make attractive the patent brutality of the drug war. It has reached the point where no one can defend the war anymore.
The tragic part is that in trying to defend the drug war, Duterte took it out on the country’s relations with the US. DU30 foolishly talked of separation from the US, militarily and economically.
He retracted the hasty statements; but sometimes he has also retracted the retractions.
Perhaps, the truest thing that can be said is that President Duterte is a leader of his time, a leading example of the tide of populism that has burst upon the world.