Rodrigo Duterte And The Fine Art of Being A Postmodern President

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has exploded political bombs into our imaginations that burned those who were used to the pretentious “daang matuwid.” But he also brought a healthy dose of fresh air, a new breath of hope to a people tired of this hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

antonio-p-contrerasWhat is in this man that draws so much violent reactions from people that normally I would have agreed with in the sense that we inhabit the same common grounds – university professors, pedigreed scholars, intellectual artists, feminists, human rights advocates, street-level bureaucrats, civil society activists?

There is something in this man that destabilizes the stable, unsettles the settled, and questions what used to be non-negotiable grounds, and he gets away with it. And the answer lies in the fact that Rodrigo Roa Duterte came at a time when the country was looking for redemption from the grand elite and colonial narratives that have contained, confined and imprisoned us.

He is postmodern without him knowing it. And this is the source of his power.

Being postmodern implies one who does not believe in single meanings, and who takes advantage of the plurality and multiplicity, and the intractability of language to create a kind of politics that subsists on simulations, or the state in which image and reality are no longer distinguishable. President Duterte is postmodern in the sense that he escapes any attempt to be named and labeled. He is unpredictable. He is an iconoclast in that he challenges conventions in almost everything. His identity rests on fluidity rather than on certainty. He forces people to pay attention to the nuances of language if only to make sense of what he says.

He interrupts the usual, subverts the conventional, and challenges the traditional, and deploys a kind of unpredictability that becomes his own weapon. This is why the elites and those who lived comfortably in the certainty of the “daang matuwid” and black and white politics hate him. He is the master of simulations, in the sense that one could no longer distinguish his image from his reality. Unlike his predecessor who lived on contrived imaging courtesy of staged narratives by media spinners, Duterte’s obliteration of the divide between joke and hyperbole on one hand, and serious policy statement on the other is so organically rooted that it acquires enormous political power, to the consternation of media and the elites so used to predictability and plasticity of messages.

Take the case of his war on drugs.

The offensive speech of the President was a deliberate attempt to shock and awe, which proved useful in staking out his scale of support as to how much people are willing to support and tolerate him. He ended up having the approval of 4 out of 5 Filipinos. He also was able to smoke out his opposition, throwing them in a frenzy of revealing their trump cards that made everything appear as just too obviously staged and coordinated. The price that we have to pay is the image of having a free-for-all in the streets, seen in drug-related deaths painted on cardboards allegedly from the hands of state agents acting upon the imprimatur of the President.

And for this, the President is threatened with a case at the International Criminal Court or ICC.

But these are images and representations that are socially and politically constructed, and therefore can be dealt with by countering them with a deployment of narratives that effectively undermine their certainty. The President himself appears to have moved his focus away from the drug war as he now turns his fluidity towards foreign policy. This is perhaps why Senator Pangilinan of the opposition LP keeps on reminding us of the drug-related deaths in his Facebook posts to keep the narrative alive, hoping that it will strengthen the case against the President. However, to prove Presidential culpability, one has to produce evidence that such was indeed state policy. But this is now negated by the fact that there is no written policy document governing the drug war. It was all delivered in oral texts, where hyperbole was intertwined with policy, where nuances render the process of attributing direct culpability extremely difficult.

Added to this is the fact that the state, through the IAS, has actually initiated motu-propio proceedings on all drug-related deaths, thereby rendering it difficult to find for wilful neglect and failure to investigate, which are essential in proving a case for crimes against humanity. The President has turned governance on its head, by refusing to be boxed into the traditional and conventional. He deployed his authenticity as the basis from where to judge his actions. His speech creates meanings that are so fluid and nuanced, and hence culpable intent is hard to prove beyond any reasonable doubt.

Legal systems are built on certainty, where fluidity creates doubt. The fluid nature of this postmodern President would lead to a level of doubt that would be hard to surmount.

Antonio P. Contreras


Just a regular "Joe" who decided the rat-race in the states was getting to ridiculous for words, and made the move to the Asian side of life.

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