[OPINION] Duterte's sense of history

Listen to his speeches. They consist of rambling, unfinished sentences held together by a ramshackle syntax looping back to the same murderous obsessions and dark fears. They are difficult to get through not for their complexity but for their spectacular incoherence. He communicates by failing to communicate in any but the most fractured and elliptical way, stuttering between languages, slipping into jokes, non-sequiturs, ad hominems, threats, and a steady stream of invectives that provide affective juice to a semantically impoverished discourse. Hyperbole, paranoia, and self-pitying intimations of his own mortality go hand in glove with murderous rants and promises to kill and kill and kill... And his supporters lap it up.

For Duterte, then, historical time is like the time he ascribes to the lives of addicts he is fond of dehumanizing. Earlier presidents might frame history in mythical terms – paradise and wholeness, then the shattering fall, where confusion and darkness reigned, followed inevitably by a time of awakening and hope. Duterte will have none of this for he traffics only in vengeful nihilism.

His version of historical time is one of unending trauma, where experience outstrips expression. Unable to conceptualize social problems in relation to their social context, he descends into the compulsive repetition of their symptoms. And like addicts, he violently reacts to any criticism, especially from human rights advocates, by threatening to violate their human rights.

This is what is novel about Duterte: the past and the future for him are marked by the same thing: the traumatic experiences which he has never resolved but merely displaces onto his audiences – the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of an American Jesuit, the verbal and physical beatings from his mother, the violence he dealt with as mayor of Davao City confronting death squads from the left and the right; the Moro insurgencies; the gangster gunfights; and so on.

By becoming president, he has imposed on us this view of history as perpetual chaos where experience itself is under constant assault, punishing the very language with which to represent it. He has nationalized trauma as the dominant basis of political discourse as he forces us to see humanity through the inhuman eyes of those he has consigned to extrajudicial hell.

Perhaps, this is what makes it so difficult for critics of Duterte to develop a counter-narrative. It is not so much that the President has told a compelling story about the state of the nation. Rather, he has told many violent tales over and over again which can't be consolidated into a whole. They thus remain difficult to refute. It is like the man who tells the same old jokes and expects everyone to laugh like before.

We can also think about Duterte's view of history – his understanding of the past in relation to the future – by looking at the campaign slogans of past presidents. Marcos: "This Nation Can Be Great Again"; FVR: "Philippines 2000"; Estrada: "Erap Para sa Mahirap" (Erap for the Poor); Arroyo: "The Strong Republic"; Aquino: "Daang Matuwid" (The Straight Path) and "Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap" (If there's no corruption, there's no poverty).

Then Duterte: "Tapang at Malasakit" (Courage and Compassion) and "Change is Coming." The first slogan is not a program. It is not a vision. It is a set of moral attributes: bravery and compassion. But tapang – courage – against whom? Compassion for whom? The second slogan hints at drastic, even revolutionary changes and so would seem to be more in line with the mythologies of progress espoused by earlier presidents. In the end, though, I think it is fair to say that the first trumped the second.

Duterte's sense of historical time always returns to an ever-repeating present. Hence, his signature program, the war against drugs, is bound to be, as he himself admitted, ongoing, with no end point in sight. It is non-linear and non-redemptive. It isn't interested in any kind of temporal horizon or any of the usual bureaucratic benchmarks associated with "progress." It is indexed only to his own existence.

From Duterte's perspective, as long as he is president, there will always be a drug war because drugs will always be a problem. For every addict killed or every low- or mid-level drug lord put away, there will always be others emerging, hence making it necessary to continue the war ad infinitum. The drug war is an end in and of itself. Even in Davao City the war continues, albeit in more muted ways, to the extent that the drug economy continues to flourish. Indeed, without the drug war and the illegal trade in drugs, the drug economy would not be as profitable. But that is another story.

Duterte's pessimism then is, unsurprisingly, the source of his debased hope. The history of his presidency is coterminous with the history of the drug war, which in turn is the source of the drug trade's immense profitability. For without a drug problem, there would be no need for a drug war, and without such a war, there would be no drug profits. With Duterte then, there is no future except what you already have on hand. – Rappler.com

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.