IN absenting himself from his own official proclamation as President-elect by the National Board of Canvassers on Monday, without offering any valid excuse for it, Mr. Rodrigo Duterte appears to have made it clear to all and sundry that he is much bigger than his office. It does not help that one front-page news photo from Davao, taken from Facebook, showed the President-elect hanging out with civilian gun enthusiasts at a local gun repair shop in Davao. Although he does not take his oath until June 30, this is not a good start.
No matter how much B.S. Aquino 3rd may have debauched and devalued the presidency, the new President-elect owes it due deference. By his example he has to help people, who have lost respect for the office because of Aquino, regain that respect. His duties to the office are both ceremonial and substantive, “dignified and efficient” (to borrow the words of The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot); none of these are so unimportant that they could be whimsically waved aside. The President belongs to the presidency, the presidency does not belong to the President; the servant serves the office.
Leadership styles may differ from one President to another, but presidential manners are frequently not less important than presidential matters. What one says and how one says it; when does one speak and when does one keep discreet silence—these are some of the things one must always remember in office. The arrival of Donald Trump on the US Republican scene, and Mr. Duterte’s arrival at the Philippine presidency do not completely change this.
The famous mouth
His caustic and unstoppable “mouth,” as Mr. Duterte himself admits, was both an asset and a liability during the campaign. It remains an “albatross above his neck,” a Duterte supporter says. His casual curses and insults delighted the masses; they also offended those who could not stand what was vulgar and base. Duterte has since promised to be “prim and proper,” and is now “enjoying the last days of his rudeness.” But his “mouth” is still there, talking too much where there is no need for it.
This could be the more dangerous mistake.
At the Kapihan at Anabel’s, in Quezon City, last Saturday, Duterte’s bejeweled spokesman Sal Panelo said the President-elect is by nature “playful” and says a lot of “preposterous things” which the media and the public should learn not to take seriously. Who, then, will distinguish for the media and the public the serious statements from the “preposterous” ones, asked my Times columnist-colleague Yen Makabenta, who could not hide his distress.
This was not satisfactorily answered.
A fatal slip
It was clearly a booboo, and in some African Cabinet, that first booboo might have been the spokesman’s last. This is not to suggest that Duterte should censure Panelo. He has a right to choose the spokesman he wants, despite any objections from the National Press Club. With all due respect, Malacañang, not the NPC, should run the press office. Panelo says Mr. Duterte has picked him because they think and speak wonderfully alike; it would be a shame to deprive Mr. Duterte of the company of one who knows exactly why he’s been hired for the job.
As a young man, I worked as Mr. Marcos’ spokesman and information minister for 10 long years, starting at the age of 29 in 1969 until I resigned in 1980, six years before the EDSA revolt. I was probably the world’s youngest minister during that period. But until now I cannot say why I was hired in the first place. Whenever I was asked about it, I always said, “Because Marcos did not know any better, and I did not know any better either.” It proved a perfect fit.
Our subject, though, has nothing to do with any of this.
Still talking too much
Mr. Duterte’s “foul mouth” has won him the presidency by a landslide. Even his wild remark about wishing he were the first to violate the woman-victim of a gang-rape and murder in 1989 seems to have been forgotten now. But even after moderating the vulgarity and rudeness of his campaign quips, Mr. Duterte appears to be talking a little too much, without helping the public see what is serious and what is said in a spirit of “playfulness.”
One story doing the rounds in Davao, according to my personal correspondent, is that Mr. Duterte wants to launch a Maoist-oriented version of Hitler’s National Socialism (Nazism), and organize a “national church,” like the Anglican Church of England or the government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church, something totally distinct from and far grander than his pastor-friend Apollo Quiboloy’s “Kingdom of God, The Name Above Every Name.”
It is not easy to pinpoint where this story originally came from, but it tends to reveal the blurred and confused thinking behind those who are expected to prepare the ground for the incoming government. The path they want to tread is not the path of service but the path of power. And this has created a life of its own, like the genie that has risen out of the bottle.
Duterte’s decision to create a coalition government with the Left tends to support this reported attraction to Maoism. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Maria Sison, was heard to say in Utrecht that the Soviet Union had committed a grave error, but that the future still lay with China’s Maoism. Duterte was a student of Sison’s.
Negotiating with the Left
Now one funny news story says Duterte is appointing Silvestre “Bebot” Bello III as Secretary of Labor as one of the four nominees of the Left to the Cabinet. But, in the meantime, he is being dispatched to Oslo to negotiate with the NDF on behalf of the incoming Duterte government. Can anything be more unreal?
And what can the new government possibly learn from Nazism? It is not known for any particular ideology but more for what and who it opposed (the Jews), and its messianic and charismatic but completely despotic leader.
As for the rumored plan to set up a “national church,” this could be an offshoot of the reported fallout between Mr. Duterte and Pastor Quiboloy, who founded his church in 1985 and has drawn a respectable following since then. But if the plan is to do anything like the Church of England or the Patriotic Catholic Church of China, this is easier said than done.
Iglesia ni Duterte?
In England, the English Parliament, through the Act of Supremacy of 1534, declared Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England, independent of the Vatican; in the English Reformation under Edward VI, the Church acquired a distinct Anglican identity.
In the case of China, the state vilified religion as a manifestation of Western imperialism and expelled Catholic and Protestant missionaries after the 1949 communist revolution.
The revolution shut down 201 archdioceses, 85 dioceses, 39 apostolic prelatures, 3,080 missionaries and 2,557 Chinese priests. Later, it organized the Patriotic Catholic Church under the State Administration for Religious Affairs without any relationship with the Vatican. In recent years, however, the Holy See and Beijing have entered into meaningful dialogue for the normalization of relations.
The talk about Duterte establishing a “national church” started after he released a broadside against the Catholic Church after the unofficial count showed him winning the elections by a landslide. He was reported to have said, in apparent levity, that people would be better off if they joined “Iglesia ni Duterte” (Duterte’s Church).
Some people appear convinced that Duterte’s reported estrangement from his pastor-friend, Quiboloy, may have further fueled this rumor.
Assuming this rumored plan is true, I cannot see a 71-year-old politician succeeding very quickly as the founder of a new church or religion. But if there is any seriousness in this thought, it only shows how profound is the desire to abolish the transcendental authority that makes the authority of the State subordinate to a higher authority and power. This poses a greater threat to democracy than any rumored plan to launch a Maoist-oriented National Socialist program.
Whatever the truth is, Duterte has to clear these dark clouds that now hover over his incoming administration. I do not see him as a fascist, but he cannot afford all these rumors swirling around that he is. Indeed, some observers are beginning to associate him with the perceived rise of global fascism. One reader cites a recent op-ed article in The Washington Post by Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to support the view that Duterte is, in fact, the Philippine version of Donald Trump, plus or minus a few things. Trump is a fascist to many Americans.
What is fascism? For starters, fascism is a governmental system that asserts aggressive nationalism and often racism.
In “This is how fascism comes to America,” Kagan slams Trump’s “attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: they provide and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others”… whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of non-white complexion.”
Fascism, which once tyrannized Italy under Benito Mussolini, has no coherent ideology, nor clear set of principles for society’s ills. It is anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical; it measures success not in terms of its policies, but in terms of the success of its leader. Whatever the problem he could fix it, whatever the threat, whether external or internal, he could vanquish it, and it is not necessary for him to explain how, says Kagan.
Duterte and Trump
To the author, the description fits Trump to a tee, and some other analysts see Duterte in the shadow of Trump. But while there may be district similarities, there are also profound dissimilarities. Like Trump, Duterte may be anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-clerical, but he is certainly not anti-Marxist, nor anti-capitalist, nor anti-foreigner. In fact, the people he evidently wants to lead Congress in proposing changes in the Constitution all seem resolved to propose 100-percent ownership of land, mineral resources, and public utilities by foreigners in the Philippines. They are all votaries of international capital, which is mainly responsible for inflating the affluence of the 1 percent and the miseries of the 99 percent everywhere.
It seems clear that Duterte himself does not quite know exactly what he is or exactly where he is in the political spectrum; he is trying to recreate himself into an undefined vision of himself in order to respond to a specific historical need and a specific historical situation.
For this, he needs the gift of a clear mind, a sound health and an unbending will so that he could lead the people in getting to know the truth and the good and to choose them with courage and conviction. He cannot merely ride on their shoulders to seize and accumulate wealth and power.