Rodrigo Duterte, the trickster authoritarian
President Rodrigo Duterte is known among his supporters as “The Punisher”. But his punitive approach to governing includes telling jokes that disarm his audiences, often reducing them to laughter, as he names and shames his critics – often foreign and female.
Those critical of the Philippines leader have called him out on his use of obscenities and misogynistic remarks. But so far as Duterte is concerned, his sexual banter is a way of asserting his sovereignty. It is for him an enactment of his freedom from the constraints of responsibility and the norms of decency. Unrestrained, he takes great delight in spewing profanities. He recounts bawdy stories about masturbation, jokes about rape, publicly kissing women and admiring their anatomy, making references to vaginal odour, and much more.
In so doing, he has shown that he will not be bound by the norms of decency, or delicadeza, as his political opponents insist, just as he refuses to abide by the laws of due process and the protection of human rights. Duterte, to put it crudely, doesn’t give a f**k and has long run out of f**ks to give.
A popular posture
For the president, part of his executive privilege includes the freedom to take pleasure in joking and shaming, turning these into important weapons. That he manages to hit his targets is indicated by the outrage he stirs among his opponents and the endearment he generates from his supporters. Breaking from protocols of respectability endows the president with a rebellious quality in the eyes of the “Duterte Defence Squad”. It confirms to them that he is unlike anyone from previous administrations.
As a “bad boy” who commands the room with his menacing charm, his flurry of invectives and sexual innuendos, Duterte seems excessive. But this excess is precisely the point. To his supporters, his coarse language and bawdy humour resist what has been proscribed by establishment elites. They relish his irreverence, identifying with his insurgent energy to upset conventions. Indeed, not only does he escape unscathed, his aura seems to be magnified as he becomes even more emboldened with every insult and invective.
Put differently, when Duterte jokes and cusses, he engages in a form of extended, recurring dissipation. In his speeches, he often sounds like someone who is intoxicated by his ability to act out his intoxication.
In taking on the role of the dissipator in chief, the president thumbs his nose at bourgeois demands for discipline and decorum. Instead, he becomes a sort of trickster figure who entertains by veiling his aggression with jokes and obscenities. As a trickster, he plays the role of the pusong, a staple figure in traditional comedies and folktales. It is the pusong who makes fun of those in power, while managing through deceit or humour to gain power himself.
Braggart, liar, rogue
As the anthropologists Donn and Harriet Hart point out in their survey of folktales, the pusong is characterised by a set of overlapping traits. Known as “Juan Pusong” or “Juan Tamad”, he is at once “tricky, arrogant, and mischievous in addition to being a braggart, liar, knave and arrogant and a rogue… He is always lazy and indolent… [while being] shrewd, witty and immoral… Other stories point out the pusong’s criminality, deceitfulness, bravery, compassion, and possession of miraculous powers.”
In nearly all the tales, he succeeds in overcoming obstacles and winning rewards such as “marrying the princess (or rich girl), [gaining] wealth, [having] illicit sexual intercourse, gaining prestige, or merely the pleasure of defeating his opponent… He, like other tricksters, also has his helpful companions or stooges and often appears as a… child in his preoccupation with the humour of elemental incongruities, scatology, and cruelty.”
In assuming the role of the trickster, Duterte converts dissipation into an aspect of his authority even as he orders the arrest and prosecution of others who would dare muscle into his monopoly of dissipation, such as addicts and tambays. His dissipatory behaviour has an anticipatory effect: He is able to criticise the authority of anyone who would dare criticise his authority.
He steals, as it were, the comedic resources of his opponents, pre-empting their playfulness while commanding the laughter of his supporters. These supporters, in turn, are drawn to Duterte’s style of political engagement, emulating it as a tactic for dealing with his critics by reducing the latter to caricatures ripe for vicious attacks.
From cruel stereotyping, it is a small step to declaring critics as social enemies.
PROF Vicente L Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.