Memes about the Manila Bay beachfront did for my mental health what the white sand itself couldn’t. My corner of social media had a field day when supporters of the administration flocked to the baywalk; DDS, which originally stood for “Davao Death Squad,” then reframed as “Duterte Diehard Supporters” when the President came into power, was being parodied as “Diehard Dolomite Supporters.” Humor was our knee-jerk response because it was congruent with the absurdity we associate with the enduring existence of the DDS. We wondered how support for Duterte and disdain for the state of the country amid this health crisis can coexist in the DDS psyche.
But “DDS,” a term now more complex than its etymology, refers to no one in particular. It has been weaponized by critics but is not claimed by actual supporters. It garners anger that has no recipient. Who are the supporters of the President then, outside our echo chamber-born definitions of them?
To know more, I spoke to Bianca Ysabelle Franco, a postgraduate student of sociology at University of the Philippines Diliman and a research associate at the Development Studies Program of the Ateneo De Manila University. She guaranteed that this issue is not black-and-white. “Dr. Nicole Curato, my boss and mentor, argues that it’s because Duterte is able to relate to them; (he) is able to tap into ordinary Filipinos’ latent anxieties that weren’t addressed by previous administrations, such as criminality and illegal drugs.”
Researchers Joshua Uyheng and Cristine Jayme Mortiel pointed out that supporters view the populist leader as disjointed from the rest of the wider government. In Franco’s research on women whose close male kin were killed either in anti-illegal drug police operations or by vigilantes, she found out that these victims do not blame Duterte, but the police. “Nakita nila kung sino yung nag-pull ng trigger. Then they see this leader who gives them hope because he presents quick solutions to longstanding issues that they’ve been dealing with their entire lives,” she says. The killings are “like a lost command.”
While Franco’s work is primarily concentrated on urban poor and rural communities, she asserts that Duterte supporters being members of Class D and E — those commonly deemed “bobotante” — is a misconception. Citing the TV5-Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll after the 2016 presidential elections, SWS president Mahar Mangahas wrote that Duterte had a lead of 26 points over opposition Mar Roxas in Class ABC; he only had a lead of 17 points in Class D, and seven points in Class E. The numbers are similar in terms of educational attainment: “Even in recent surveys by Pulse Asia, 91 yung satisfaction rating (kay Duterte). This is across all socioeconomic statuses,” Franco adds.
Political analyst Julio Teehankee, in conversation with ABS-CBN after the 2016 poll results, called Duterte’s rise to power “elite-driven”: “It is not the revolt of the poor. It is the angry protest of the new middle class. They are the ones who are taxed the most and (were) financing Daang Matuwid. They are working hard for their families and the country and yet they are the ones who suffer from lack of public service.”
Uyheng and Mortiel also found that supporters view the President as having paternalistic patriotism, evident in Duterte being framed as a father figure. Interviews did reveal that some perceive him as a “strict parent to the country, and as any strict parent he is willing to reform and teach the people even though he will look bad.” This line of thinking is cultivated in the social institution of family, where, in a conservative patriarchal society, it is the father who yields the most power. Reframing authoritarian leadership as “parenting” makes it appear as if it is being done out of love and for the nation’s — the children, who usually do not know any better — own good. Duterte’s brashness is absolved, and dissenters are criticized for disobeying the father who only wants what is best.
Franco classified Duterte’s populist framing as one of the ways he actively maintains his support. “His entire personality resonates with grassroots communities, because they see themselves in him. Naka-ilang presidente na yung Pilipinas, and they may speak in Filipino, but do they speak the ordinary everyday language that you and I speak?” She cites other populists who enforced the same strategy, like Joseph Estrada, who was an actor with a penchant for hero roles before he became president, and Manny Villar, with his “Nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura?” spiel. “Alam kasing nag-aappeal ‘yon, to create an image of themselves that is reflective of majority of the Filipino population,” Franco explains. “When Bong Go posts a picture of the President, it’s always at his house. Ayaw niyang tumira sa Malacañang. There are always pictures of him eating in a local carinderia.”
Duterte, by appealing as a pro-people leader, claims to value and embody the ordinary Filipino, and any critic who maligns him can be seen as also offering offense to the Filipino people he represents. This creates a more distinct line between the in-group (supporters) and out-group (critics), a tactic often used by populists. Even with the realization that the President has failed to put his people first, it’s possible that supporters who have already pledged their loyalty hold on because they are afraid to lose the sense of belongingness they gained when the authorities drew sharper group boundaries.
When I asked Franco what we can do to combat this increasing political polarization, she said it takes more than posting on social media or fighting in the comment section. “If you want to engage, go to rallies, ipakita mo yung suporta mo sa mga pinaniniwalaan mo. Engage critically, not in such a way that would antagonize people who disagree with your political opinions,” she said. After all, this constant attacking amongst the two “sides” widens the disparity between them, which works to the advantage of the populist authoritarian. “His supporters are people who rationalize and negotiate their decisions, kasi they have reasons for doing so. It’s not like blind fanaticism. Makikita mo ‘yon when you actually speak to someone who supports the President.”
The alleged use of Facebook trolls to populate the platform with inauthentic support for the administration has the potential to not only suppress opposition and sway the undecided, but also restrict our view of the supporters as nothing short of idol worshippers. Calling them “Dutertards” or “bobotante” only antagonizes people who are victims of the same system that disenfranchise you and me. In an op-ed for The Globe Post, Franco wrote that Duterte’s popularity is not due to deception and manipulation. “The approval for Duterte is due to his ability to project the people’s aspirations, not because they have been deceived to do so.” It is not the fault of the Filipino people for believing that a leader would do what he promised to do.
Art by Kesa Obcena