Barely a month into his new job as president of the Philippines and Rodrigo Duterte was dressing down the world’s most powerful. In May 2016, when the Pope’s visit to the country created traffic jams in Manila, the president lambasted him as a “son of a whore” — a once unthinkable feat in the world’s third most Catholic nation. Months later, when President Obama criticized the human toll of the Philippine Drug War, Duterte likewise called him a “bastard” and suggested he “go to hell.” The European Union didn’t even stand a chance: its condemnation was met with the casual flash of two middle fingers. “Don’t fuck with us,” the Philippine leader bristled as he threatened to eject 12 of the European ambassadors from the country.
Everyone, it seems, has incurred Duterte’s wrath, including, and perhaps mostly vehemently, Filipino detractors. In 2017, the regime arrested Senator Leila DeLima, the chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, who unearthed damning information about Duterte’s Davao death squads. The journalist, and now Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Maria Ressa was also targeted, along with her news organization, Rappler, for reporting on the drug war’s casualties and challenging police impunity.
Duterte quickly became known as the “Trump of the East” for his vulgar outbursts and authoritarian tendencies. Yet unlike Trump, Duterte’s popularity seemed invincible. In fact, even as the pandemic squeezed Filipinos’ wallets and last breaths, the “punisher” of Southeast Asia enjoyed a 91 percent approval rating.
These apparent contradictions make up the heart of The Sovereign Trickster, a new book from University of Washington historian Vicente Rafael. In covering topics ranging from Duterte’s obscene speeches that are greeted with laughter to the mass indifference of the Philippine public toward extrajudicial deaths, Rafael’s essays lend analytical clarity to the chaotic politics of a democracy in retreat. As Duterte’s term nears its end and the return of the Marcos family looms with the May elections, I talked with Rafael about the president’s legacy: his Teflon popularity, his regime of violence and fear, and the significance of his likely successor.
Patrick Peralta: First, I want to talk about the book’s title, The Sovereign Trickster. Tell me more about how you arrived at this name, and why you chose to frame President Duterte in this way.
Vicente Rafael: I’ve always been interested in the history of the present. In fact, you could say that everything I’ve written about tries to think about history as something that speaks to certain moments that we’re living through. So this book on Duterte is part and parcel of that concern with thinking historically about the present.
Before COVID, I used to go to the Philippines, and of course you couldn’t go there after 2016 without running into these questions of Duterte: who is he, why is he doing what he’s doing, why is he so popular? And so I didn’t set out to write a book about Duterte; at the time, I was writing shorter op-eds about him. I was very fascinated by his style, by his politics, and I was trying to situate him within the history of Philippine political thought. And out of the short pieces, what grew were the longer essays.
Another reason why I ended up writing about Duterte is because at the time I was teaching the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault, which I found to be very useful for situating the “political aesthetic” of Duterte: his style of rule, the way he governs, the overlapping and contradictory ways in which he tries to assert his sovereignty and power. Hence, the title of the book, The Sovereign Trickster, which encapsulates the paradoxical way in which Duterte seeks to govern the Philippines. On the one hand, he draws upon notions of sovereignty that are linked to fantasies of absolutist rule, but on the other hand, he twists sovereignty in such a way that he subverts his authority only in order to assert it. The latter is the style of a certain kind of tricksterism.
Peralta: Speaking of tricksterism, the second half of Duterte’s “sovereign trickster” regime moves beyond coercion and focuses on the president’s use of humor to foster conviviality against his political enemies. Do you know of any other instances in history or world affairs in which humor is used for violent or authoritarian ends?
Rafael: Certainly the stuff philosopher Achille Mbembe talks about when he talks about African rulers, wherein a certain kind of conviviality is established between rulers and ruled by way of this display of vulgarity. He talks about the “aesthetic of vulgarity” as essential to the establishment of hegemony, wherein people consent to incivility by joking among each other. You can see that in the United States with Donald Trump, who can be very funny. He has a way of establishing himself as an entertainer figure. After all, he comes from the reality TV world, so there’s a certain way he’s able to project a kind of humor that is part of his “charm”with his supporters. Bolsonaro, I’m told, is the same. He also has a way of projecting a kind of humorous persona. I’m not sure about Putin or Xi, maybe Modi. But I wouldn’t be surprised if humor is one of the ways in which a certain kind of intimacy is established between rulers and ruled.
All of this goes into the formation of what I call the “authoritarian imaginary.” If you’re going to determine the popularity of an authoritarian figure, you have to be able to ask what he imagines himself doing, and what his supporters imagine themselves doing when they’re in his presence. So there’s a kind of mirroring relationship that circulates between rulers and ruled. One of the things people don’t get about authoritarians is their weaponization of humor, which adds to their charm and disarms you, making it very difficult for you to dissent when you’re confronted with it.
Peralta: In your chapter “Duterte’s Phallus: On the Aesthetics of Authoritarian Vulgarity,” you write about how Duterte exercises the “authoritarian phallus,” or forms of obscenity that project his power and allow him to govern by fear. Among other tactics, he curses his critics, praises his own virility, boasts about his penis size, and fantasizes about rape. At the same time, as you argue, Duterte is able to create a sense of community among Filipinos who enjoy his vulgarity, laugh at his sexual innuendos, and continuously lend him enthusiastic public support. What does this embrace of vulgar authoritarianism say about our current politics and the electoral audiences that shape them? Has personality so subsumed policy?
Rafael: First of all, the vulgarity and the humor are crucial elements of Duterte’s trickster persona. If you read the ethnographic literature on tricksterism, you’ll see that the trickster shares some characteristics with the authoritarian: the trickster is vulgar, he’s funny, and he pulls all kinds of pranks, if you will, in order to win sexual conquests, accumulate money, defy authority, etc. So, it’s this phallic humor that’s crucial to his trickster persona.
Second, these vulgar and sexist jokes are not something unusual with Duterte; it’s something you will see in a lot of local political gatherings. This is characteristic of so much of Filipino male culture; patriarchy in the Philippines precisely thrives on this kind of sexism and misogyny. It’s the sort of thing you might encounter if you’re sitting around the sari sari store (convenience store) drinking and joking and trying to “one-up” one another, which is what a lot of these gatherings are about. A lot of it is status competition. And Duterte certainly comes out of this provincial atmosphere, so the notion of humor as an attempt to both establish authority and status and form a sense of solidarity and conviviality is nothing new.
But what Duterte does, though, is elevate a practice usually kept within small circles to the national scale. And I think it’s precisely respectable middle class people who don’t participate in these kinds of ritual “one-upmanship” who are shocked, but, in fact, the people in Duterte’s audiences are laughing. So, one of the things Duterte does is he opens up, or makes visible, a certain kind of class cleavage.
Peralta: Like many people, I’m really puzzled as to how Duterte’s obscene challenges to morality are popular in the third most Catholic nation in the world. What explains this apparent contradiction?
Rafael: Again, Duterte makes visible something that’s always been there, which is this tension between devout followers of the Church and its hierarchy and those who might be considered culturally Catholic, or simply raised as Catholic. I would submit to you that the great majority of Filipinos are cultural Catholics: they pray if they need something, they have these devotions to saints in order to seek protection and favors, and so forth.
The other thing is that there’s enough resentment in the Philippines towards a kind of clerical order that tends to be very conservative, self-righteous, and asserts its authority to mold behavior — to “conduct conduct.” Sometimes that resentment wells up, and I think Duterte is a figure that taps into that resentment.
Also, in the case of Duterte, his resentment of the Church is a very personal one. In one of the book’s chapters, “Duterte’s Phallus,” I talk about how he was molested as a 14-year-old teenager by an American Jesuit priest, and I don’t think he’s ever gotten over that. It’s a trauma that gnaws at him, which is why he constantly tells that story to people as a way of trying to come to grips with it. And when people hear it, they laugh, and I think they laugh because it wouldn’t be surprising if many people in the audience were also molested. They share that dilemma, that trauma, with Duterte. So here, there is a political as well as a personal reason to be anti-Church.
Peralta: Your chapter “Photography and the Biopolitics of Fear” examines the unique role and work of photojournalists who document the Philippine Drug War’s indiscriminate and often nightly killings. What unique legacies do you think Duterte’s drug war will leave?
Rafael: You can think of Philippine society as one that is constituted by all kinds of wars: counterinsurgent wars, revolutions, war on crime, war on terror. And so the war on drugs follows in the wake of, for example, anti-communist wars and wars against gangs. There’s also a brutal war against Muslims (in the Philippines, the Moros) and indigenous peoples (in the Philippines, the Lumads). So, I don’t want to make it seem like the war on drugs is sui generis or brand new. It’s not. It comes from this long history of warfare that’s constitutive of Philippine society, which is why I talk about the war on drugs as much as a class war that victimizes the poor and, even more, as a civil war because of the lines drawn. It is not only rich people against poor people, but poor people against poor people. Many of the cops and vigilantes that kill these drug dealers and users are from the same class.
The second thing in terms of the legacy of this war against drugs is that it is characterized by, of course, the prevalence of extrajudicial killings. With Duterte, what you have is the amplification and intensification of extrajudicial killings. Again, extrajudicial killings have been par for the course for earlier administrations. But with Duterte, there’s a certain kind of celebration of the hypervisibility of these killings. What I think is happening now, though, is that they’re becoming so commonplace to the point of being banal. And let’s admit it: from 2016 to 2018, it was pretty nerve-wracking and traumatic, but after 2018, there were almost no more photographs and the reporting became very scattered. It’s still happening, and all throughout the COVID pandemic, but people seem to have lost interest. This normalization is one of the legacies of Duterte’s drug war. Vigilantism will continue long after Duterte is gone, especially if Duterte is not brought up on charges in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which I doubt he will be. People will try to put this behind us, but it’s still happening.
Peralta: For months, BongBong Marcos has been the frontrunner in the 2022 Philippine presidential race. There are multiple similarities between him and Duterte: Marcos Jr. is a dictator’s son; Duterte is a dictator; Marcos Jr. has deflected accusations of his family’s ill-gotten wealth; Duterte has had his own corruption scandals. And both have armies of social media supporters. Yet the appeal of the two politicians appears different: Marcos Jr., like Marcos Sr., is composed, measured, and glamorous while Duterte is coarse, meandering, and modest. Despite their controversial backgrounds and stylistic differences, what is it about Marcos and Duterte that speaks so strongly to the Filipino electorate? Is Marcos also exercising the authoritarian phallus to win over voters?
Rafael: I don’t think BongBong is exercising the phallus; Sara probably has a bigger dick than him, so to speak. But it’s very interesting, the current situation. Duterte has no love lost with BongBong; he’s criticized BongBong and called him out as a drug user, which he is. Duterte has no respect for BongBong; he says the senator hasn’t done anything for the country, that he’s very lazy, a momma’s boy. Also, if you look at the campaign, you’ll notice it has a long history. YouTube is the site of a lot of his campaign activity, which goes all the way back to 2012 when you could see them paving the way with revisionist histories of martial law, with very PR-type videos of their family, and so forth.
And, of course, there’s the role of Cambridge Analytica, which has been hired by the Marcoses to do a lot of their social media work and trolling. So, it’s a very complex operation going on, and one of the ways to understand his popularity isn’t because BongBong has personal charisma — he has none — but that his charisma has been completely manufactured through social media and Cambridge Analytica. Also, because the Marcoses have billions and billions of dollars of plunder, BongBong has been giving regular monthly pay-offs to local officials. We’re not talking about one-time payments as the election approaches. This has been going on for a couple of years. Everyone from council members to barangay (village) captains to municipal mayors has been getting envelopes of support from the Marcoses. And when you have local officials supporting a particular candidate, it’s not hard to mobilize support from everybody else in the community because some of that money is often dispersed to those people.
So you have to understand BongBong’s popularity as the result of a much longer history of campaigning and the presence of unlimited amounts of plundered cash. It’s understandable. He doesn’t like to debate, he doesn’t want to be in the public eye. For him, the less said, the better. This makes him very different from Duterte. You could argue that Duterte came to power on the strength of his own charisma, whether or not you agree with him. BongBong has nothing to offer.
Peralta: To close, you emphasize that your book is “diagnostic rather than prescriptive.” In other words, you seek to explain Philippine political life under Duterte and how we arrived at this moment instead of recommending a solution or method to resist him. Yet with a President BongBong Marcos and a Vice President Sara Duterte on the horizon, do you think the Philippines can overcome the kind of crass and cruel politics Duterte unleashed?
Rafael: First of all, Duterte certainly nationalized and popularized that style of politics, but it’s not unique to him. It’s quite common among local politicians. So will it change? Probably not because it’s so deeply rooted; it’s a certain kind of vernacular politics. In the book’s conclusion, I draw from a very rich ethnographic study of Bagong Silang — a slum in Caloocan City, Manila — and you can certainly project that outwards and see that political style happening in other places in the Philippines. And not just among poor communities, you can probably see that happening in more middle-class and wealthier communities.
So, there’s a certain kind of post-colonial Philippine political culture that still relies on patron-client relations, fantasies of revenge in order to deliver justice, seeing rights in terms of the rights of the wealthy as opposed to the rights of the poor and disenfranchised.
And why does this happen? I think it occurs against the backdrop of prevailing inequality, of a very deep ambivalence towards democracy, where, on the one hand, you have a desire for more freedom, and on the other hand, a nervousness towards or rejection of democracy in favor of something like security. In the end, overcoming Dutertismo will require social revolution, and Filipinos have tried and failed many times, which is why the book ends on a pessimistic note.