[OPINION] Chaos is Duterte’s key message

In one of the Cabinet meetings early on in President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, it was suggested that all key messages of the executive departments run through the Office of the President’s communications office. This was to give order to what the government was saying. It was a sort of centralized system so that one voice prevailed in various platforms and this would drown out peripheral noises.

The President’s reply came as a surprise to some: he rejected the idea outright. It was an instinctive response, saying it was better to have various messages. The outcome? The disarray would keep everyone, including his opponents, confused.  

More than a year-and-a-half into Duterte’s presidency, we have seen how this tactic has worked to his advantage. He floods us with mixed and changing messages, many of which are without context, his mind lurching from one subject to another in his long extemporaneous speeches and press conferences that are, in reality, monologues. Many of his statements are unchallenged in real time because it is not easy for reporters to interrupt the President.  

While Donald Trump takes to Twitter to vent, Duterte takes to the microphone to rant, leaving us in any of the following states: a) baffled about what he really meant; b) angry at his misogynist remarks, among others; c) jarred by his inconsistencies; and d) tired to the point of tuning out.

Overall, the effect is chaotic. While this may seem deliberate, part of a well-planned strategy to deflect from more pressing issues – his son’s alleged involvement in smuggling, his closest aide’s unusual interest in a multi-billion peso frigates deal of the Navy, and his bank accounts which did not match his salary as mayor – it simply arises out of the chaotic personality of the President. He has no boundaries, his thoughts bump into each other, resulting in incoherence. 

Meandering speech

A typical example of a Duterte speech was the one he delivered in February during the Manila Times Business Forum in Davao. Here’s how it went, based on the 10-page transcript.

Whew! His speech was interspersed with his usual curses and angry tirades.

This reflects how his mind works: there is no coherent plan, no map to chart out his thoughts. He focuses on events as they come, reacting to situations, what catches his fancy and gives him his sugar highs, combined with ideas he picked up from earlier meetings or conversations. In the process, he resurrects old angers and hurts, all of these self-propelled.

Media and the right balance

For the news media, this poses an enormous dilemma: do we have to report on his every statement, crowding the news with his words? This means that we have little or no time left to look deeper into the comings and goings in the Office of the President. How to get the right balance is a challenge we face.

Past presidents wanted to project disciplined messaging. They focused on policy and the big picture, notably Fidel Ramos, who repeatedly reminded the public about the country’s need to be globally competitive. He urged the country to look outward, was boring at times, but he tried to elevate the national discourse. 

In the case of Duterte, he has turned messaging upside down, stoking endless controversy and exposing his paltry policy vision. He governs using chaos, engages in a selective battle with oligarchs (those who have crossed him) and the media (which have subjected him to close scrutiny).

Chaos, coupled with instilling fear, which has been the standard modus operandi of Duterte – this is the essence of his strongman’s rule. The unfortunate thing is, our institutions are not strong enough to withstand his assaults. – Rappler.com