The spectacle that is Dutertismo

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte photographed as kissing the ground upon arrival in Jolo Province.

Tyranny is all about spectacle. It is theater on steroids.

Take for example the Nazi regime in World War II. It was a performance in Three Acts: first, the spread of deadly antisemitism; second, the acceptance of totalitarianism and the credo of holocaust; and third, the banality by which the theft of Europe’s treasures and the slaughter of millions were justified.

All this operated under the parade of banners, the pageant of uniforms, the march of boots and badges — the symbols of confidence and the righteousness of their cause, to say little of the ‘sieg heils’ of power.

The Nazi Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, spent hours in front of the mirror in an attempt to deliver his speeches in the most dramatic way possible before appearing in public. And he knew well enough what the people wanted: to be a little more entertained, or more accurately, distracted if not beguiled, or rather charmed away from the true intentions of the Nazi regime: to rob Europe and the world of their riches.

As most tyrannies in the past have exhibited, there was something of the cult in most despotic regimes. Leaders of these disciples are regarded as the insignia of cohesion and popular enthusiasm, and in Hitler’s case in particular, the pastor of national pride.

It is critical for every despot to be the centerpiece of a once fragmented nation. He is society’s connection and continuity, or so they thought.

The ideology personified.

He is dogma and creed crafted to lure the two extremes of the collective listener: the everyday man hard at work but with little chance at delving into the humanities; and the extremely dedicated disciple of change, the passionate straggler awaiting the messiahs of the world, ready to embrace anyone and everything of significance should the latter prove suited to how they interpret history and the needs of the times.

And there’s a deadlier third: the paid lackey, the parasite on a monthly retainer. The footman wanting to dodge the hand-to-mouth, empty of scruples. Pawn to the king. He will do everything shy of selling his grandmother’s eyes and kidneys, unless the job description requires it.

Pres. Rodrigo Duterte is no different. He is a master actor and performer, an artiste of the deadliest sort, preying on the gullibility of a people too poor to think on the one hand and too rich to think for themselves in the other.

Instead of military parades, insignia, and the marching hordes of uniformed officers, the banners and drumbeats, Duterte dons the rugged appearance of the ordinary Filipino. The poor man in slippers.

In private (and I have met him and spoken to him face to face), he exudes ‘humility,’ the soft tone in his voice arresting, bewitching, forcing the listener to dispense with critical thinking on account of the ‘sincerity’ in his voice. This ‘sincerity’ is often interpreted by his followers as proof of honesty, rare and longed-for, one that justifies even his penchant for hurling profanities against his people while delivering public speeches.

His favorite scene in this running political telenovela is him sleeping soundly underneath a mosquito net: a classic, if not iconic, depiction of himself sharing in the travails of the poor.

What his publicists fail to realize is that very few Filipinos have enjoyed a good night’s rest since he took office four years ago without having to worry about the next government-sanctioned assassination plot.

A photograph on social media of Duterte and his family sharing a simple meal of rice and fried fish (and a side dish of uncooked Vienna sausage) is another favorite image, thanks to his in-house sidekick, Sen. Bong Go.

It aims to belie charges of corruption, for who in his right mind — with tens of billions of stolen and misappropriated loot in the bank — would settle for such a modest meal?

Little did his publicists know that since the beginning of the quarantine period, 4.2 million Filipino families — that’s a whopping 21 million individuals at an average of five (5) per family — have gone hungry since May 2020. Top that with a 7.3 million jobless Filipinos and what do we have?

Fried fish as a luxury.

When his publicists released the photo of Duterte kissing the ground in Jolo— an act supposedly showing his love and respect for the island of Mindanao — many in the said province hailed it as an act of patriotism.

This publicist-crafted flight of fancy is totally different from what’s happening on the ground. Based on the Kyoto Review, “The systemic attacks against indigenous leaders, schools, and communities should also be seen in the light of the economic value of the IP’s ancestral lands for prospective interests in the field of resource extraction. Half a million hectares of land in Mindanao is covered by mining concessions eager to tap into valuable mineral reserves of the Southern island that estimates place to be 4th in copper, 3rd in gold, 5th in nickel, and 6th in chromite reserves in the world..”

Since Duterte took office in 2016, the lumad of Mindanao have been hunted down, displaced in the tens of thousands, their leaders murdered, schools bombed, women and children dispossessed of their homes and ancestral lands on account of the trillions worth of natural resources that can be mined there.

Instead of standing between the lumad and those violently imposing their interests in Mindanao, Duterte threatened to bomb lumad schools.

Duterte is not a patriot from Mindanao. He is an actor, or more accurately described as a guise to camouflage what seems to many is the real intention behind his presidency: the selling of our country to the highest bidder.

He is, of the three I earlier mentioned, the deadliest kind: the paid lackey, the parasite on a monthly retainer. The footman wanting to dodge the hand-to-mouth, empty of scruples. Pawn to the king. He will do everything shy of selling his grandmother’s eyes and kidneys, unless the job description requires it.

And the job description does require it, as we have all seen in Duterte’s relationship with the government of the People’s Republic of China. An even closer look at Duterte’s activities and plans points to him as being someone else’s pawn, moving about in a world checkered by violence in the race for resources.

It’s difficult to deny the assumption that even the war on drugs, which is proven bogus in the main and has claimed the lives of a little over 30,000 poor Filipinos, is just another misprision of theft and sellout but on a grand scale.

For how can a despot camouflage corruption so huge than to conceal the crime underneath the carcass of tens of thousands of the most helpless of our countrymen? The PhilHealth scandal seems to be just the icing on the cake.

Let’s not confuse patriotism with bending the knee and kissing the ground as the stench of death lingers in the air. Duterte’s homage is mere lip service, bearing the horrors of sentimentalism. No amount of spectacle would wash away the smell of murdered blood in Mindanao.

Symbolic gestures do not amount to anything at a time when a pandemic rages on, corruption rampant, and the murders continue unabated.

Lumad blood calls for justice.

There is a ‘morality of limits’ to which he is called to do, and that is to stop the killings.

But he will not. It is a splendid lie to believe that Duterte has what it takes to bring heaven down on earth.



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Joel Pablo Salud

Joel Pablo Salud

Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction. His opinions in are his own.