If you lose your job, I’ll give you one. Kill all the drug addicts. . . Help me kill addicts. . .Let’s kill addicts every day. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (2017)
Rodrigo Duterte served as president of the Philippines for one term, from 2016 to 2022. He was often outspoken, bombastic and threatening. In his election campaign, this former mayor of the city of Davao in the south of the country openly boasted about his bloody municipal war on crime that led to hundreds of deaths of alleged drug addicts and criminals as well homeless street children. He also mocked human rights rules, threatened political adversaries, demeaned women, and often shared scatological humor and personal accounts of fierce machismo and obscene misogyny. And he was wildly popular.
Duterte was elected president with a landslide victory in 2016, and remained extremely popular through his six-year term. Many citizens not only accepted but welcomed his “war on drugs” that targeted both drug dealers and users. Police or civilian vigilantes committed extrajudicial executions at Duterte’s behest. Estimates vary, but between six thousand and twenty-seven thousand suspected drug dealers and addicts were killed by death squads during Duterte’s term in office. Rather than deny responsibility for the killings, Duterte boasted of the executions and proudly shared gruesome photographs of the corpses of the dead.
Given his use of terror and violent threats combined with his demeaning of women and self-aggrandizement, some observers called Duterte “the Trump of the East,” another populist authoritarian at a fragile time for democracies around the world.
Professor Vicente Rafael, a specialist in Southeast Asian history, sought to better understand Duterte’s allure despite his extreme violence, coarse humor, threats, intimidation, and rule based on fear. In his new book, The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte (Duke University Press), Professor Rafael places the Duterte phenomenon in the context of the history of the Philippines from the Spanish and American periods of colonial rule to the authoritarian leaders of the island nation since independence. He finds that Duterte was not an exceptional leader in the course of Philippine history.
Rather than a traditional biography, Professor Rafael offers a “prismatic” view of Duterte and his place in history. He stresses that Duterte’s weaponizing of violence to control conditions in his country with the use of death squads for extrajudicial killings and other extreme policies is not unique but grows from the period of Spanish and then American colonization and has been a feature of other oligarchic authoritarian leaders in the Philippines in recent decades.
Professor Rafael also examines Duterte’s “phallocentric” strongman humor of threats and bluster with elements of self-pity that heightens his appeal to many who appreciate his “folksiness” as well as his brutal, state-sponsored campaign of “social hygiene.”
The Sovereign Trickster is the result of Professor Rafael’s painstaking research into archival documents as well as modern news and social media sources and interviews with many witnesses in the Philippines.
A professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, Professor Rafael’s research and teaching focus on the history of the Philippines, comparative colonialism and nationalism, language and power, translation and the historical imagination, and comparative formation of the post-colonial humanities. His other books include Contracting Colonialism; White Love and Other Events in Filipino History; and The Promise of the Foreign. He also has edited Discrepant Histories and Figures of Criminality in Indonesia, the Philippines and Colonial Vietnam.
Professor Rafael was born and raised in Manila, Philippines, and received his MA and PhD from Cornell University. After teaching at the University of Hawai'i in Manoa and at the University of California in San Diego, Professor Rafael joined the UW faculty in 2003. He has had post-doctoral fellowships at the University of California, Irvine, and the Stanford Humanities Center, and also has been a Guggenheim fellow and a Rockefeller fellow.
Professor Rafael generously discussed at length his work and his new book at a café in Seattle.
Robin Lindley: First, I want to congratulate you on your illuminating book on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, The Sovereign Trickster.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Thank you, truly. It really took me to a lot of different places.
Robin Lindley: Before we get to the book, I wanted to ask first about your background. What sparked your interest in history?
Professor Vicente Rafael: I grew up in the Philippines, and went to a couple of Catholic universities there where I had some really wonderful professors, especially at a Jesuit University, which is very similar to Seattle University here. I did a double major in philosophy and history. I liked history because it allowed me to think about the world as it provided a coherent narrative about how things came to be. And, ever since I was a kid, I was always interested in interested in the way things happened and came to be. And, for the longest time when I was growing up, I thought I would be an archeologist because I thought archeology provided that answer about how certain civilizations came to be.
And when I was in my junior year in college, I had an American professor who was working at the US Embassy then and had gone to Cornell. He was teaching a course on Southeast Asian history. I talked with him and he said I could try applying to Cornell. And I knew a couple of other people who had gone to Cornell, and they encouraged me to apply. I did apply and I got a scholarship and that's what happened. Like many things in my life. it was pretty accidental. But it was also a good time for me to leave the country because it was in the middle of martial law during the Ferdinand Marcos administration. I left in 1979.
Robin Lindley: That had to be a scary time.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. And for some people, it's still pretty scary. And a lot of my friends, in fact, had decided to either go to the mountains and join the rebels or go underground or leave the country to go to graduate school. And so, I was one of those who had the opportunity, and that's how my career in history started.
Robin Lindley: When you went to Cornell for graduate school was your focus Southeast Asian history?
Professor Vicente Rafael: That was the program I was admitted to in the history department. I took courses in the history department, but I very quickly got interested in a more interdisciplinary approach. I took a lot of courses in English, and also in French and Italian, because they offered a lot of theory. And this was a time when a lot of French theory was circulating. I also was very interested in Spanish history because I figured I would write something about the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines, and my first book was on the Spanish colonial period. I also was very interested in psychoanalysis and took a lot of classes on Freud, and some of that comes through in my writing now. And I minored in anthropology withe a couple of professors who were very good. And comparative lit was also an interest of mine.
Robin Lindley: You are a Renaissance man.
Professor Vicente Rafael: (Laughs) And when I went to Cornell, I felt very ignorant because all of the students around me had read all the classics. I felt like I had to do all this catching up. So, my first summer there, I decided to read all of Proust because everyone seemed to have read it. Then I got very interested in Marx because I thought he was very important to understanding the world. He provided a good lens to do that. And I was involved in Marx reading groups.
So, you can see that I had a promiscuous intellectual training. I remember my first day in graduate school when I talked to my advisor. If you remember, that was horrible time in the American economy. Reagan was elected during a huge recession in 1980. Nobody was getting jobs. And my advisor said, “I got news for you. You're not going to get a job.” So I thought, that's great. I failed even before I started. I decided then I might as well use this time because I had a fellowship. So I thought I would use this time to basically get into anything and everything that looked interesting even if it had nothing to do with my field because I wasn’t going get a job in that field anyway. I might as well just have fun. So I took different courses. I read all the fun books and talked to really intelligent people. And that's exactly what I did. I don't necessarily give my students this advice today, but I felt committed to a certain intellectual irresponsibility.
Robin Lindley: Wasn’t your dissertation on Southeast Asian history?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. My dissertation was on the relationship between language and Christian conversion in the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The dissertation was called Contracting Christianity. But the book was called Contracting Colonialism. It was about the role of translation and Christian conversion during Spanish colonization in the Philippines. And it's still in print 35 years later.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations. Did you get any criticism from politicians in the Philippines about your work under President Ferdinand Marcos or any of his successors?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Not really because my work isn't polemical or aimed at a popular audience, except maybe this new book has a certain appeal to a wider audience. But all my other books have been very academic. The only pushback I got was from other academics who didn't agree with my approach or who didn't agree with my arguments. But those academic arguments were very limited.
Robin Lindley: You probably know the case in Seattle of the two Filipino-American labor leaders were murdered in 1980. Marcos eventually was linked to those killings. That’s why I worry about people who were from the Philippines during the Marcos era.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes, I knew of the murders. I'm interested in activism, but I'm not an activist. I'm an academic who's very interested in what people try to do in order to push back against the oppressive forces around them. And I will help if I can, but I'm not part of that. I’m like Groucho Marx: I wouldn't want to be part of an organization that accepted me.
Robin Lindley: I understand. Your book The Sovereign Trickster was eye-opening to me. You may not be an activist but you’re a powerful writer on authoritarianism and colonialism. What inspired your book on Duterte now?
Professor Vicente Rafael: I go to the Philippines a lot. I have family there, and I do research. And for a while, my wife was in the Philippines where she was working with UNESCO there. I would visit her and we would go back and forth. Now we're together here in Seattle, but at that time, in the mid-2010s, I would go back to the Philippines a lot where I was just hanging out and trying to catch up with what was going on. And I've always been interested in contemporary politics.
I started writing short journalistic pieces about Duterte and Marcos, which then eventually grew into longer essays. Then the essays started to become more connected to each other. In around 2017, I realized that I had actually written a lot that could be put together in a book, and hence, this book.
This book emerged accidentally. It wasn't something that I sat down and planned to write. There were many interesting things happening. I would write a 800-word piece for a newspaper or l would write a 1300-word for a magazine. Some questions merged. Then I did more research, and pretty soon I had a 10,000-word essay that I would submit to a journal and on and on. So this book grew piece by piece and, as you see in my introduction, it a prismatic history.
It’s not an overarching biography of Duterte, but certain consistent themes emerge. I was very interested in his use of death threats. I was interested in his fascination with violence. I was interested in his use of humor to threaten people and to project his authority. And this was happening, of course, when Donald Trump was emerging in the US, when Bolsonaro was coming in Brazil, when Orbán was emerging in Hungary. You had all these authoritarian figures, and I thought, there's something going on here, and I wanted to be able to connect to Duterte to these global developments.
Robin Lindley: I have to admit that I didn't know much about Duterte and this may be the case with most Americans. Most people may know about his death squads and the killing of drug dealers and users and his obscenity and misogyny, but that may be all most people know of him. How would you introduce Duterte to readers?
Professor Vicente Rafael: First of all, I want to emphasize the fact that he's not an exceptional leader of the Philippines. People tend to think of him as this weird phenomenon that just emerged out of the blue. He’s seen as unhinged, as some people see Trump.
But Duterte is not some exceptional, once in a lifetime figure that just came out of nowhere. Like everything else, there was a history behind him and a political and economic context around his popularity, and that's what I tried to illuminate in the book. I wanted to emphasize the fact that Duterte’s emergence was part of a long history of colonialism in the Philippines.
Duterte comes from a part of the country in particular that has always been riven by conflicts between Christians and Muslims, between settlers and natives, and I wanted to point out that his penchant for violence is something that is shared by many other local warlord types in the country. And it’s precisely this use of violence that's absolutely crucial for holding onto power for a lot of people. Marcos was a great example of that, but all you have to do is look at all the local mayors and governors and various other people around the country who use many similar tactics: threatening opponents and using private bodyguards as well as police forces to mobilize death squads and kill people. At the same time, you see many of these people engaged in many criminal activities just as Duterte’s family and Marcos's family have been, including smuggling, especially drug smuggling, and using extortion, extraction of resources. All of these things are to make money, money that they need to pay their private bodyguards and military forces and to stay in power. Duterte in some ways follows that pattern
Robin Lindley: How could Duterte get elected in an ostensible democracy?
Professor Vicente Rafael: He was popular. He left office with an over 80% approval rating. It's because people saw something in him that they recognized. They saw a reassuring figure—the figure of the strong man—which has great appeal not only in the Philippines, but in many parts of the world. They love these strong, patriarchal figures.
Robin Lindley: You call Duterte a sovereign trickster. You mention trickster legends in the Philippines such as a Pusong story. How is Duterte a trickster?
Professor Vicente Rafael: The tradition of trickster is a global one. You have Native American tricksters, and African tricksters and so forth. In Southeast Asia, you have trickster figures everywhere, and in the Philippines every single ethnic group has this notion of a trickster. But they all share something in common. Number one, they're all men. Number two, they all tend to be young or middle-aged. The age itself is not that important, but what's important is that they all seem to be able to finagle themselves into getting what they want whether it's food, whether it's women, whether it's power. Part of what makes them tricksters is they're capable of performing, fooling people into thinking that they're someone other than who they really are for them to get what they want. And they're heavily reliant on humor, and part of the trick is humor.
Duterte was popular because he was recognizable. He fit into this idea of a trickster who could get what he wanted through a combination of humor and terror, and hence death and laughter. The reason I refer to him as a sovereign trickster is because he was, of course, the sovereign as the president. And people like the idea of having a clown when you can’t necessarily predict what he will do.
When you think about Trump. one of the things that makes Trump so weird is he doesn't care for convention and he won’t abide by rules. He doesn't care about the rule of law. He's that trickster figure himself, except he's not as funny as Duterte.
Robin Lindley: Duterte seems frightening, so you'd think that there would be more resistance to him. And Duterte preferred China over the US and didn’t trust the US. At the same time, he seemed to admire Trump and so you’d think he’d feel closer to the US.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes, he loved Trump. They admired each other. And Duterte had a standing invitation to visit Washington during Trump's administration, but he never got around to it because he doesn't like traveling. And he didn't want to go to the US. He didn't care about a standing invitation. But Trump visited the Philippines, if you remember, and met with him, And they got along really well in the way Trump got along with a lot of authoritarian types, and you see so many of the same traits
Robin Lindley: Yes. The hatred of the press, the bombastic language, ignoring human rights and the rule of law, misogyny.
Professor Vicente Rafael: The both have a real hatred of women, especially women who are criticizing, as well as a real penchant for encouraging violence.
Robin Lindley: And you see Duterte in the context of the myth of a benevolent dictator and how a dictator’s promise of benevolence inevitably turns to brutality.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. The idea of the benevolent dictator was introduced by us when the United States colonized the Philippines. They did so under the guise of what President McKinley called “benevolent assimilation.” He said that the Americans were coming to the Philippines not to terrorize and colonize, but to uplift, and to civilize and to Christianize— because most people were Catholics, and he thought, that's not Christian.
Robin Lindley: I don't think most Americans know about the American-Philippine War from 1899 to 1901 or so. And hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died, mostly civilians, in that horrific conflict.
Professor Vicente Rafael: There were 250,000 deaths. And if you add people who died from starvation and illness because of the war, you're looking at 500,000 people. It was a very violent conflict and nothing about it was benevolent. And in some ways, as I argue, the United States set the pattern for dictatorship in the Philippines and for the following years, because what is colonialism if not authoritarianism by other means. And the death squads and extra judicial killings, all that, were introduced by the US military.
Robin Lindley: In school, most of us American kids were taught that colonial European powers and America brought civilization to underdeveloped countries, but there was no emphasis on the role of subjugation of people who lived in colonies.
Professor Vicente Rafael: The routine use of death squads or extrajudicial killing goes back to the Spanish colonial period and then to US empire. But of course, in the United States, if you were Black, that's not news for you. There’s the history of the Ku Klux Klan and the local police forces acting like death squads to kill people, to lynch people. And you have to remember the US empire is very much a racial empire. The targeting of Filipinos bore an enormous resemblance to the targeting of Native Americans and the targeting of Black Americans. And the tactics used to keep them in line had many interesting similarities,
Robin Lindley: We have a history of excluding “outsiders” in the US. Our constitution was drafted by our founders for insiders—white males—and didn’t take into account Native Americans or people of color or women. It seems that Duterte created and demonized a class of “outsiders” in the Philippines. He said, these people don't belong here. They're outsiders. They’re criminals and drug addicts.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. They've had to fight for their place so you dehumanize some group, and in Duterte’s case, it's drug users and drug dealers. People charge that Duterte has committed all these human rights violations. And he was very fond of saying, “I don't care about human rights. I care about human lives.” But of course, what he doesn't tell you is which lives. Human rights embrace a much more expansive notion of human lives, whereas his idea is to only care for the people “who like me, who vote for me. My constituents. Those are the human lives I care about, so I don't care about human rights.”
Robin Lindley: When Duterte campaigned for president in about 2015 or so, wasn’t he talking openly about killing drug addicts and dealers?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Absolutely. In fact, people were voting for him because he was promising violence. His favorite campaign line that always got a lot of applause was, “If you elect me, I can promise you that the fish in Manila Bay are going to grow fat because that's where we're going to dump all these scumbags, and the funeral parlors will become very wealthy because we are going to be sending all these dead criminals to them.”
Robin Lindley: How were people responding to Duterte’s self-proclaimed brutality and cruel humor during his campaign? Weren’t you in the Philippines then?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. I was very frightened, not only because of what he was saying, but frightened because I knew what his record was. He had been mayor of Davao and a lot of people died. He would brag about that, but people would say, there's nothing wrong with that. Look at his city. His city seems to be orderly. The criminals are on the run. And it’s clean and it’s got businesses coming in. It's considered one of the “safest” cities in the country. So, if he can do that for a Davao, he'd probably do that for the Philippines.
Robin Lindley: So, as a mayor, Duterte was involved with extrajudicial killings?
Professor Vicente Rafael: No question. Not only that, he bragged about it. He had his own TV show that aired every Sunday morning, so instead of going to church, people tuned in. On the show, he would sit there and threaten his enemies. He would threaten criminals. He would use profanity on TV. And he would say so and so is a horrible person, and he really should be killed. And two days later, that guy's body would turn up somewhere. He’d make the threat on TV.
It wasn't like people were ignorant of his record. Everybody knew what he would do, and people voted, and he did exactly what we all thought he would do when he became president.
Robin Lindley: You open the book with a chilling scene: the only time you met Duterte at a family gathering. Can you talk about that experience?
Professor Vicente Rafael: I have to admit, I was a little nervous. I was at mother-in-law's funeral. Duterte came because my mother-in-law was quite a very well-known public figure. She was a diplomat, a state senator, and she was also the sister of a former president of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos who also had a certain bit of fame because he had turned against Marcos during the uprising of 1986.
And so Duterte came to pay his respects. It was a little nerve-wracking to have him around, but it was actually a seminal moment in thinking about this book because I decided I had to write about this moment and how he produced these vastly contrasting effects. I didn't even want to shake his hand because I kept thinking of all the blood that must have gone through that hand.
But he goes out and all these people at the funeral were cheering him on. He was like a rock star, and people wanted to get selfies with him. They were all thrilled. And this was actually quite common. Every time he went out in public, people would clap, they would cheer. I thought something is going on here that I have to figure out. Why is a confessed mass murderer so popular? So that's why I wrote the book.
Robin Lindley: So, you shake his hand and guests there are doing a sort of fascist fist salute. Did your family feel imperiled at all?
Professor Vicente Rafael: They were a little nervous. In fact, my brother said, do you mind not putting our names in the acknowledgements for the book? And there were many people who asked me to not add them to the acknowledgements. And I said that's fine.
But the thing with Duterte is that he is very brutal, but he didn't have the massive national security state that you would associate with other dictators. Instead, he relied on local officials to get the information he needed to go after individual drug dealers, drug users, and left-wing folks. So, he operated through local rather than through a national network. That’s a contrast to someone like Marcos.
Robin Lindley: How do you see Duterte versus Ferdinand Marcos? Wasn’t Marcos was using the military for extrajudicial executions while Duterte relied on local police and local officials but not the military?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Correct. With Marcos, the military pretty much served as his own private army. And remember, there was a quite a gap between Marcos, who was dethroned 1986, and Duterte who came to power in 2016. By then, the military itself had undergone considerable transformation. They became more professionalized and more deeply politicized. They tended to operate within a much more constricted sense of what they are supposed to do. The radical figures in the military had mellowed or had left or had been killed. So, you had a military that was much more careful in following the constitution and following civilian authority, rather than launching coup attempts and so forth as they did during the Marcos era and immediately after Marcos under Cory Aquino.
When the Duterte came into power, he was actually nervous about the military. He wasn't sure if he could trust them, and the generals were not entirely sold on him. And another reason is because Duterte had become very partial to China and against the US. He didn't like the United States much, and this anti-US stance didn't sit too well with the generals because the generals liked the US. They had been trained in the US, and they spoke English, and they had been supplied with American weapons. So, they were partial to the United States. They weren't sure about this guy who seemed to be very anti-American, so Duterte couldn't depend on them. Instead, he depended on the local police and on the local officials. And that was a difference from Marcos.
The killings under Duterte were always carried out locally from community to community, and always involved close relationships between the local officials and the local police. The problem with that, of course, is that the local police themselves were often very much involved in the drug trade. They would raid drug lords and take the drugs, flip them around, and sell the drugs themselves.
Robin Lindley: And it struck me, as you wrote, that the police were getting kickbacks from places like funeral homes that handled the bodies of those they killed.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes, All the time. I think part of it has to do with the fact that, in many third world countries, law enforcement makes very little money. In fact, the typical cop makes about as much money as a domestic driver. It's not a lot of money, and they have families, they have mistresses, they have all these people they need to support. And so, they need to make extra money. How are they going to make extra money? They turn to all kinds of illegal activities: the drug trade, extortion, number games--all kinds of activities where they can collect extra money. So, being a police officer in the Philippines necessitates working both sides of the fence--going after criminals, but becoming a criminal yourself.
Robin Lindley: And pro-Duterte civilian vigilantes also act as death squads.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Absolutely.
Robin Lindley: In addition to targeting drug users and dealers and “criminals,” did Duterte also order killings or other violent actions against political rivals? I realize he humiliated political foes in the vein of Trump, but did Duterte use violence against his opponents such as communists and Muslim groups?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Absolutely. Let's start with Muslim groups. Muslims in the Philippines are about five percent of the population, and they're mostly concentrated in the south. And there's a long history that goes back to Spanish imperial period of conflicts with “the Moros,” as they called themselves. They refused to submit to colonial rule and they asserted their sovereignty for centuries in the face of Spanish, and then American, and then Filipino Christian rule, and so they've always been targeted by governments, whether it was the Spanish colonial government, the American colonial government, or the Filipino Republic.
The Muslims always have been seen as outsiders and enemies who have been targeted. For example, in the American colonial era, when the Muslim groups would resist them, the American military would massacre them under folks like John Pershing, Leonard Wood, and others who commanded the American forces and who eventually became very popular in the United States. They would say things like,” it's good to massacre these people once in a while to teach them lesson,” because there was this idea that violence is the only language they understand, and if you're not firm with them, they think you're weak. So once in a while, there were mass killings. For the Americans, the massacres were pedagogy to teach a lesson. And, independent Philippine governments followed that pattern after the Americans left.
And people tend to think, for example, that martial law atrocities under Ferdinand Marcos were limited to North Manila. Actually, the earliest atrocities were committed in the South against the Muslims. Marcos killed over 300,000 of them. He would unleash the military who would attack villages, then burn and destroy and rape and plunder. And a lot of this destruction has never been acknowledged. Even human rights groups would tend to focus on abuses of Christian groups, but not on the non-Christian groups such as Muslims.
And Duterte came from that part of the country and he’d always brag, “I'm part Muslim myself, and my mother was part Muslim, and I know how to deal with them.” But that didn't stop him from killing these people either.
Robin Lindley: I was hopeful when Cory Aquino replaced Marcos as president, but I didn't know much about her term in office. You write that, in addition to some reforms, she also unleashed extra-judicial violence and was executing perceived foes.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Absolutely. She was confronted with a rightwing military, and with left-wing communists and she figured this was the only thing she could do. And so, she did it, but she got bad advice among other things.
Robin Lindley: Has life ever been stable for anyone in the Philippines?
Professor Vicente Rafael: It depends on if you're wealthy, if you live in one of these exclusive enclaves. But if you're not so rich, and if you're struggling, it's difficult for you.
Robin Lindley: Duterte’s humor is striking. As he incites violence, he also openly and brazenly shares what you call “phallocentric humor” with profanity, threats, rape jokes, and demeaning of women. What does he get from this sort of spectacle?
Professor Vicente Rafael: If you look at the videos of him doing this, the audience is just totally enthralled. They love it. They're laughing, they're cracking up, because they see him. His jokes are not just about, for example, women or rape. He'll also joke about himself. He'll joke about how large his penis is or all kinds of other things. And, the audience feels he's an interesting guy.
He literally and figuratively exposes himself. And so, he shows himself to be somebody who's just like everybody else. It’s like we're just sitting around and having a round of drinks and shooting the breeze and can talk about anything. And the people love that common touch.
But there's a flip side to that. The common touch has a dark lining to it, because he can joke about you and he can joke about other people, but don't you dare joke about him. Nobody does that, because if they did, they would be in trouble. But but he was always like this. I have friends who have met him. The first thing he'll tell you, and he doesn't even know who you are; “I've killed a lot of people. What do you think of that?” He seems like the uber-bully.
Robin Lindley: That’s chilling. In another twist, he talks about a priest who abused him when he was 14.
Professor Vicente Rafael: He shares that memory and it's almost like he's bragging about God, because the whole point of that story is to say I was abused, but guess what? I turned it around. I got over it, and I went off and abused others.
Robin Lindley: And he boasts about his personal acts of violence. Didn't he shoot a law school classmate?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. He was making fun of Duterte’s provincial accent, and Duterte said, “I taught him a lesson. I shot him. I didn't kill him, but guess what? He never made fun of me again.” It's his outlook: violence fixes everything. You must be a tough guy and, if you're a tough guy, people will believe you. People will follow you. And most important, people will be scared of you. And that's what political power is all about.
Robin Lindley: He also encourages the display of gruesome photographs of the corpses of supposed drug dealers and users who suffer extrajudicial executions by police and vigilantes. You include some vivid images of the dead in your book.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. And Duterte is proud of those murders and he wants these pictures displayed.
Robin Lindley: And rather than appall most people or cause resistance to what Duterte was doing, it seems the grisly photos routinized the violence and Duterte remained very popular. Why is that?
Professor Vicente Rafael: And it's not just in the Philippines, but anywhere you end up normalizing the violence by exposing it, by making it plain.
I was thinking about this today with the school shootings in this country. And people respond that they can't do anything about it. And what that does is make us believe that the victims aren't human anyway. They're outsiders. It’s the idea of normalizing school killings and massacres in the name of “protecting” the Second Amendment right.
In the Philippines, it was something like that too. They had these people who were criminals, and they were garbage. And so, killing them was actually an exercise in social hygiene, in cleaning up. So, it's not really murder, but just bringing order to chaos. And people like that about Duterte.
When I would go back to the Philippines and asked people about Duterte, these cab drivers and these greeters would say “He's great. I can go home at 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and I don't have to worry about these sleazes anymore because they're all dead or they've all run away. So, I love Duterte.”
Robin Lindley: But doesn’t that reflect public numbness or acceptance of these killings?
Professor Vicente Rafael: It's not so much public numbness, but a particular notion of justice. This is what justice is about. Justice is about revenge. Justice is about settling things without having to depend on courts because courts take time. You could be sitting in court for a year before you're tried. Or someone could just simply bribe the judge and be set free. But this is instant justice that some people find gratifying and there's a certain pleasure in seeing these things happen. People will say it’s too bad that people are dead, but they’re probably better off.
In my book, I write about the family whose son was killed in an extrajudicial execution. When they were interviewed, I asked what they thought about his killing? The mother said, “I'm really broken up about this. But we warned him again and again. He’s going stop using drugs now. He's dead. It was coming. And now we just have to get over it. They took care of that. It's very sad, but it's also understandable in some ways.”
Robin Lindley: An alarming level of acceptance. It’s heart wrenching. Can you talk about your research process? I realize you travel and you interview many people to get firsthand information as well as doing exhaustive archival research.
Professor Vicente Rafael: For my earlier work, like my first book was about the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a lot of archival work, like traveling to libraries and so forth. And a lot of my other books involved that work.
But with this book on the contemporary period, my archive was more in the way of newspapers, media reports, and interviews with people. It's a different archive than I was using.
It's pretty tough to work on contemporary issues. The closer you are to the present, you have to be able to adjust and shift your research. I do a lot of historical background research on areas that I already know, and I can draw from my earlier work, as on the American colonial period, the Spanish colonial period, and so forth. But for the contemporary period, I use a lot of contemporary media.
Robin Lindley: It’s a gift for readers that you can discuss current events in a historical context.
Professor Vicente Rafael: You may think an event is out of the blue and doesn't relate to our history at all, but in fact it's a contemporary concern that has a long history. For example, you can't understand the return of the Marcos family with the 2022 election of Ferdinand Marcos’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., as president. As I've argued, you can't understand his election without understanding the colonial background that allowed oligarchs to control the country. You have what I call an oligarchic authoritarianism that rules the country. And, I think it has many similarities in different parts of the world. You ask yourself who's the ruling class? Who gets to call the shots? Who gets to determine, insiders, outsiders, laws, et cetera.? The ruling class, of course, and the rich people, and so forth. So, it’s not surprising that Bongbong Marcos, the president now, is a gentler authoritarian Duterte.
Robin Lindley: Are things changing in the Philippines since the election of Bongbong Marcos in 2022?
Professor Vicente Rafael: I think you have many of the patterns from under Duterte that are still in place. The drug war, for example, still goes on, but it just doesn't get as much attention and the bodies aren't as blatantly displayed. You could say the killings are a bit more discreet, but they're still going on and the involvement of cops and local officials is still the same.
And activities like corruption have actually ratcheted up, but it's a bit more hidden, more subtle. And Bongbong, the current president, isn't given to grand displays of obscenities and revenge and so forth. He is more laid back. His wife is from one of the richest families in the Philippines and she is very much behind the scenes but has a lot of control over the policies Bongbong puts forth. She's a lawyer, and she's very mellow, but she's no less rapacious than the rest of his family. That reminds me of the elder Marcos who also was involved in corrupt acquisition. The family is still very much into that. So, in many ways things haven't changed except that the tone of the authoritarian rule has ratcheted down.
Robin Lindley: As you wrote, under the Philippine Constitution, Duterte was limited to one term as president. What's happened with him since he left office last year?
Professor Vicente Rafael: He said that he was exhausted, and he was tired, and he didn't want to get involved in politics anymore once he stepped down. He’s back living in Davao, as far as I know. From the reports we get, he's at his very modest house in the middle of the city where he spends his time hanging out with his grandchildren. He hasn't been very public. He's made a few public appearances but he’s basically retired. His daughter Sarah, of course, is vice president, and she has basically taken over the family political concerns. His eldest son Paolo is in Congress, and the other son is mayor of Davao. So, they're all still in politics, but the old man himself is just retired and not doing much.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that update Professor Rafael. Duterte has been accused of human rights violations and war crimes. Is the Philippines part of the International Criminal Court?
Professor Vicente Rafael: They signed onto the Rome agreements, but then withdrew when the court started investigating Duterte. It sounds like they're about ready to charge him and the Philippine government has made it clear that it won’t cooperate. It will be very difficult to conduct these investigations if the government is not cooperating. I don't know if the court can do what it did with Putin by charging him. They may be able to do the same with Duterte, but even if you charge him, how do you enforce it? It sounds like he's not going to travel around much. He could get arrested if he does.
Robin Lindley: Is there a democratic opposition in the Philippines that would want to see Duterte held accountable for human rights violations.
Professor Vicente Rafael: Yes. There is a democratic opposition and they were very active during the last election. Leni Robredo was the public face of this opposition. She ran for president and there was a lot of enthusiasm among liberals, but she eventually lost by a landslide. She's now moved on with her own NGO, mostly focused on improving people's livelihoods
But the democratic opposition, unfortunately is relatively small and relatively weak. It’s very difficult to figure out what the future looks like for them. When they fielded candidates in the last election, they were totally shut out of the Senate and from the presidential and vice-presidential races. So, it’s difficult to sustain that opposition.
Robin Lindley: In The Sovereign Trickster, you concede that much of the book is pessimistic, but you found a glimmer of hope in the collective generosity of community pantries in the Philippines. What did you learn?
Professor Vicente Rafael: It’s a tough story for the world with the rise of authoritarianism. I think it's like everywhere else where the overall picture looks pretty bleak. But within that there's always glimmers of local resistance, and you never know which of these local resistance actions will grow and take over and grab people's imaginations.
In the meantime, you have things like these community pantries, and you have people who do NGO work, for example, who try to help local communities. You have lots of artists who are also activists who use their art to involve people, whether it's theater, whether it's painting, whether it's music. There's a lot of local level organizing, and that can be really powerful. There are still labor unions but these unions are unlike in the US. As the US is having a moment with labor unions, in the Philippines, labor unions tend to be associated with the Communist party, and there’s always the threat of death when you're associated with the Communist Party.
Robin Lindley: And how do you see our future in the United States now when democracy here is under threat?
Professor Vicente Rafael: Well, let me ask you this. When was democracy never under threat?. Can you think of a moment? Even in moments when an expansive democratic society was possible as with the New Deal and FDR? Many studies of the New Deal now show how exclusionary it was and how many people, especially Black people and Native American people, were excluded from those programs.
It’s always the case that democracy is endangered. We have a republican constitution and elections, but whether or not that republicanism ends up producing democracies is another story, especially in a place like the United States, which is so implicated in empire. It's hard to think of a United States that was not imperial from the very beginning. In a class I'm teaching now on the American Empire, that's one of the main themes. Right from the very start in 1776, the American Revolution was as much about getting rid of one empire and starting another. And it's always been that way. And with that, can you truly say that the United States has been a democracy?
What is the place of democracy in this country? It's always problematic. And if it's problematic here, can you imagine how problematic it is in other parts of the world, including the Philippines?
Robin Lindley: Thank you very much Professor Rafael for this lively discussion of your book and the history of the Philippines. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and generosity. And congratulations on your illuminating and compelling new book on Philippine President Duterte, The Sovereign Trickster. Best wishes.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, illustrator, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, visual culture, and art.
Robin Lindley's interview with Vicente Rafael was originally published on the History News Network on April 23, 2023