During the term of former President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III, we criticised his government and his followers as being perpetually in campaign mode all throughout his term of office. His Yellow Camp would incessantly grandstand about his and his clan’s goodness and prayerfulness and every speaking engagement was seized as an opportunity to remind everyone that he is the son of “revered” national “martyrs”. This is what made Aquino and the Yellow Camp so repulsive. At the end of all that, Filipinos felt like they spent six years having their intelligence insulted at every turn.
Fast forward to today. The experience of being subject to Yellowtard propaganda for 30 years is something the supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte should reflect upon. Duterte has already spent one year as president. Perhaps it is time his supporters step up above campaign rhetoric and start behaving like critical supporters. The first step towards achieving that and elevating the quality of discourse is to see Duterte as a professional executive. It could begin by dropping this whole “Tatay Duterte” talk.
Duterte is a leader of a nation that aspires to modernise. But Filipinos cannot modernise their society if they continue to deify their government officials and routinely treat them like celebrities, saints, heroes, patriarchs, and, yes, father figures. The fact is, Duterte has a job to do. Being a “father” to Filipinos is not one of them. If Filipinos want to be treated like respectable adults, they will have to get over their need to call their president Daddy.
Today, unfortunately, it looks as if Filipinos may be suffering from an acute case of daddy issues on a national scale. With the way some Filipinos latch on to their political daddies, I sometimes wonder what those individuals’ real daddies were like when they were growing up. Were they such bad daddies that their grownup kids now seek new daddies? I see the biggest risk to Duterte’s currently-massive support base as being an inability of his followers to grow up and start speaking to the president in the same way a grown up of sound mind speaks to her parents — in the respectful but dignified manner with which adults regard one another. As a parent, I wouldn’t want to see my grown up kids speaking to me like the needy toddlers I broke my back to raise.
What Duterte needs today are not blind followers and cheerleaders. He needs partners in his journey to reform the Philippines, not a bunch of screeching kids in his back seat who need hugs every now and then to calm down.
The biggest criticism Duterte cops from his detractors today revolve around his unstoppable mouth, his inept lieutenants and handlers, and his tunnel-visioned view of what is good for the Philippines. So the biggest challenge to his supporters does not involve simply ratcheting up the slapstick rhetoric they dish out to the public today. Rather, they need to send out more intelligent messages — messages that stand a bigger chance of winning new supporters and less of the sort that simply kick existing supporters into a Taliban-like frenzy. You cannot do this by calling the president “Tatay Digong”.
Duterte’s supporters need to provide the president with the right perspective so that he conducts himself and manages his staff in a manner that secures the astounding political capital he enjoys today. The fact that his approaches are unconventional and, in some cases, counterintuitive all the more makes the sustaining of this political capital very important. In a democracy, you cannot implement painful and confronting change without that massive support base. Duterte’s supporters therefore need to evolve from being mere cheerleaders.
A cheerleader’s job is to shout out loud but nonsensical jibberish and dance around in short skirts to egg on their team. That style of “support” is not what will sustain Duterte’s political capital. This political capital needs to be protected by mounting focused effort along two fronts: (1) preventing existing supporters from disengaging or defecting and (2) by pulling in new supporters from the Opposition camps. The way some of Duterte’s most influential supporters are conducting themselves today does not contribute to achieving both ends. If we put ourselves in the shoes of, say, a Yellowtard and try to regard Duterte’s top-dog supporters from a Yellow lens, we begin to understand why, rather than see things a different way or at least open their minds to alternative points of view, Yellowtards tend to dig deeper into their trenches. It’s because, deep inside, Yellowtards see that Duterte supporters are no different to what they are.
There is also a third front: (3) protecting Duterte from himself. This last one is possibly the most formidable challenge — more so because none of his supporters seem to be up to the task of facing that challenge. Politics, specially in a “democracy”, is all about perception. Good intent is nice, but it will be crushed under the weight of bad public relations. Duterte must not underestimate the threats to his political capital presented by the crooked manner with which both local and foreign media portray him and his government, the way certain “human rights activists” invite foreign meddling into the Philippines’ domestic affairs, and the way incompetent secretaries, spokespersons, and staff erode the public’s confidence in his ability to lead and execute. But for him to recognise those threats, his followers need to remind him to, at least, get to know the enemy better. That way, he will be in a better position to address these political threats.
As we can see, it takes a lot of smarts to be a productive supporter of the president who contributes to protecting and building his political capital and strengthening his ability to fulfil his promises. Cheerleaders may be loud, perky, and pretty. But at the end of the day, many of them are dumb and one-dimensional. The challenge Duterte’s most influential supporters face is to evolve into evangelists and drop the pompom act.
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