In 2016, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte placed his country prominently on the global radar screen—too prominently, in the opinion of some Filipinos.
Duterte’s campaign to rid the Philippines of drug users and pushers through extrajudicial executions elicited shock even among the most hardened observers. And his now legendary cursing of President Obama as a “son of a bitch”—part of an angry farewell to a long-standing alliance with Washington and an embrace of China—upended Asian geopolitics.
Despite his bloody reign, Duterte remains popular, with the latest domestic poll giving him a trust rating of “excellent.” What makes Duterte tick? What drives many of his admirers to exclaim that they’re ready to die for him?
Fascism comes in different forms in different societies, so people expecting fascism to develop in the “classic” way often fail to recognize it even when it’s already upon them. In 2016, fascism came to the Philippines in the form of Duterte, but this event continues to elude a large part of the citizenry—some because of their fierce loyalty to the president, others out of fear of admitting that naked force is now the ruling principle in Philippine politics.
Why Duterte Fits the “F” Word
At a panel I was part of last August, one month after Duterte ascended to the presidency, there was considerable hesitation in using what panelists euphemistically called the “F” word to characterize the new executive. There is an understandable reluctance to use the term “fascist,” undoubtedly because the word has been applied very loosely to all kinds of movements and leaders that depart, in some fashion, from liberal democratic practices.
However, there are a few broad characterizations of a fascist leader that could unobjectionably apply to Duterte. In this scheme, a fascist leader is (a) a charismatic individual with strong inclinations toward authoritarian rule who (b) derives his or her strength from a heated multiclass mass base, (c) is engaged in or supports the systematic and massive violation of basic human, civil, and political rights, and (d) proposes a political project that contradicts the fundamental values and aims of liberal democracy or social democracy.
If one were to accept these elements provisionally as the key characteristics of a fascist leader, then Duterte would easily fit the bill.
A Fascist Original
Having said that, Duterte is nevertheless an original sort of fascist personality.
His charisma is not the demiurgic sort like Hitler’s, nor does it derive so much from an emotional personal identification with a “nation.” Duterte’s charisma would probably be best described as carino brutal, a Filipino-Spanish term that denotes a volatile mix of will to power, a commanding personality, and gangster charm that fulfills his followers’ deep-seated yearning for a father figure who will finally end what they see as the “national chaos.”