Dictatorship of the Vengeful: The Rise of Civic Authoritarianism in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines

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This piece was published in the Spring Issue Print Edition (Volume 11)

“The real inversion takes place when, in their desire for a certain majesty, the masses join in the madness and clothe themselves in cheap imitations of power so as to reproduce its epistemology; and when, too, power, in its own violent quest for grandeur, makes vulgarity and wrongdoing its main mode of existence.”

— Achille Mbembe, “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” from On the Postcolony (2001)[1]


The crowd smelled him before they saw him. He reeked of the river, fetid and dank, as his flesh peeled from his bones.[2] Bobbing in the water, he gently resisted the tide. His pale knees poked from the water’s surface. Every so often, as the river sloshed, more details of his body were revealed: arms and legs bound by rope, head wrapped in packing tape, torso coiled with chains.[3] The crowd swarmed above, like the flies on his feet. Children jostled as they peered from the bridge. Then the coast guard arrived, the crowd overlooking, as they dragged his corpse onto a rescue raft. He had floated in the river for 36 hours. The body’s name was Ferdinand Jhon Santos, age 44.[4] But as the crowd scattered and carried on with their day, one questions if his identity really mattered. Did anyone mourn for him, beyond his family and friends? Did anyone wonder who threw him into the river? Or were the events of this humid afternoon like so many others in Manila’s slums? Ferdinand Santos was just one of thousands of corpses discovered under bridges, in alleyways, on sidewalks, in tricycles, and in their own homes that collectively testify to the real impact of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. As of June 2020, human rights groups have reported more than 27,000 anti-drug campaign deaths, an estimate at odds with government figures of around 8,000.[5] And even in the throes of a global pandemic, the offensive has only intensified. 

How does one come to terms with this mass slaughter of human beings? How has it been maintained for so long? What accounts for the crowd’s indifference to the corpse? Most of the scholarly explanations for Duterte’s surprise election in 2016 have focused on a range of political and economic considerations. They cite the traction achieved by Duterte’s law and order rhetoric, his calls for a federal form of government, and his proposed infrastructure revitalization plans as reasons for the strong support he received. However, while important, these factors alone furnish neither a complete nor a nuanced analysis of the Philippines’ rapid transformation from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian regime — indeed, they fail to illuminate Duterte’s powerful influence on the body politic. Something else is needed.

Explanations that draw on the psychology of Philippine voters would seem appropriate. But aside from brief comments on Duterte’s populist pull, little work has specifically examined why so many Filipinos have apparently acceded to the fatal violence of Duterte’s drug war. When scholars do consider psychological factors, they tend to focus on the state’s production of terror, with scant discussion of public attitudes and acts. 

This paper attempts to fill this gap by examining the psychology of accepting repression, that is, largely apart from the exercise of formal state power. In short, it seeks to explain how and why ordinary Filipinos have mobilized themselves to prop up and secure Duterte’s deadly regime. I will argue that a distinct, perennial, and human logic rationalizes these actions, and undergirds the celebration of what is, in effect, mass murder. To lay out this argument, I draw on both political theory and survey data. I first contextualize Duterte’s rise to power by briefly discussing the political and economic failures of post-Marcos democracy, which were exemplified by the outgoing President Benigno Aquino III. I then explore Duterte’s affective appeal through his use of populist pathologies and his demonstrations of vulgarity. In this second section, I foreground what I call “civic authoritarianism,” or the willful involvement of citizens in the state’s demonization and repression of targeted groups. Finally, I examine the most dramatic manifestation of “civic authoritarianism” produced by the regime — the public’s passive enabling of and active participation in Duterte’s drug war killings.

Section I: The fall of “good governance” and the rise of Duterte

To many around the world, and even in the Philippines, the 2016 presidential victory of Rodrigo Duterte was a surprise. Entering the race relatively late, the firebrand mayor was dismissed as a long-shot candidate, set against a powerful establishment machinery and boasting only local experience. Yet within months of beginning his campaign, Duterte managed to galvanize national zeal as his law-and-order rhetoric — particularly his scorched earth approach to drugs and crime — immediately set him apart from his opponents and past presidents. Leading up to election day, Duterte’s popularity soared and confused many pollsters. Why the support for these strongman proposals, and the abrasive personality? Neither his repeated flashing of his middle finger to the press, nor his cursing the Pope — a feat once unthinkable in the world’s third most Catholic nation — seemed to produce any negative impact. More than just anti-establishment, Duterte scorned civility and decorum, which further fueled his outsider appeal. In early May 2016, more than 16.5 million Filipinos handed Duterte 39% of the popular vote, an overwhelming win in the nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system.[6] Some observers, whether out of admiration or disdain, soon referred to the new president as “the Trump of the East.”[7]

Duterte’s victory shocked many in the West, given that the Philippines, since 1986, was a bastion of human rights and liberal values in a region often convulsed by dictatorships. Within months of the election, the political and ideological trajectory of the nation transformed, casting a dark shadow on its democratic institutions and damaging its social fabric. In short order, the Philippines changed from being one of America’s staunchest regional allies to being one of its most vocal critics, and regressed from the home of the People Power Revolution[8] to a site of renewed authoritarianism. In what Filipino sociologist Randy David calls “Dutertismo”, the new leader unleashe[d] a torrent of aggressive and resentful impulses not previously seen in our society, except perhaps in social media, [that target] the drug syndicates, criminals, and government functionaries who spend more time making money for themselves than in serving the public.[9]

At the helm of a populist revolt, Duterte may be, as Filipino academic Walden Bello charges, the most powerful president the Philippines has seen since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.[10] Other scholars go further, arguing that Duterte is already more powerful than Marcos ever was, since he commands a deep and diversified base, and has consolidated his grip over state institutions without instituting martial law.[11] What accounts for this radical departure from liberal democracy? From where does this “authoritarian nostalgia” stem? Did Duterte create this political culture from whole cloth? Or did he unleash it, a monster in waiting? 

As jarring as it is, Duterte’s rise cannot be understood in a vacuum. He is not, as many have posited, simply a political aberration, nor did the movement he inspired emerge out of nowhere. What Duterte represents — or better, what he challenges — must be situated within the broader context and history of the Philippines’ post-Marcos democracy. Populism, after all, responds to an existing political order, from the shifts of power within it to the institutions that maintain it. It is within this structure that populists are produced and from which they draw resistive strength.[12] Behind Duterte’s idiosyncrasies, then, exists a perennial, and distinctly primal, logic, one borne of a mélange of mass grievances towards a dysfunctional status quo. Put differently, Duterte deftly tapped into the resentments of people who felt alienated from and betrayed by their political system, which, indeed, in some key areas, like crime and corruption, even exploited them. To Duterte and his supporters, decades of liberal reformism after Marcos had offered nothing but elite bluster. From Corazon Aquino to Benigno Aquino III, the Philippine government consistently over-promised and under-served. In the minds of the masses, the entire system had to be dismantled and replaced with a genuine “people’s champion.” Enter Duterte, the wrecking ball of the establishment.

In his book Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington provides a compelling account for this gap in political efficacy. Writing about the postcolonial world, he contends that rapidly developing societies like the Philippines — or what Richard Heydarian calls “emerging market democracies” — are particularly vulnerable to political breakdown and/or autocratic takeover. In Huntington’s view, this occurs because social and economic modernization are neither synonymous nor simultaneous with political modernization. Rapid changes in standards of living e.g.,urbanization, industrialization, improvements in literacy and education, etc. “extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, [and] broaden political participation”, but they do not alone create “new bases of political association and new political institutions that can combine legitimacy and effectiveness” in tandem with these changes.[13] Such a lag in the development of public utilities and state infrastructure will, as Huntington maintains, engender social frustration and political disorder. Francis Fukuyama articulates a similar argument in Political Order and Political Decay about contemporary liberal democracies, “which have failed to supply sufficient public goods due to the rigidity of state institutions and/or their capture by narrow interest.”[14] These conditions thus ripen the appeal for a challenge to the existing political order, led by an aspirational middle class or a populist demagogue in favor of radical change. Paradoxically, as Huntington and Fukuyama note, the same social forces empowered by an economic boom may likely revolt against the system that created it.[15]

In many ways, the Philippines experienced this dysfunction prior to Duterte’s rise — in fact, such inefficacy fueled it. The preceding administration of Benigno Aquino III — the son of the first post-Marcos president, Corazon Aquino —was marked by high economic growth and relative political stability. However, these improvements turned out to be shallow in effect, leaving structural inequalities largely in place. This disconnect between rhetoric and reality is often unacknowledged by observers in the developed world, who tend to equate strong economic performance with effective, and even exemplary, governance as well as a flourishing populace. Such assumptions render Duterte’s call for national transformation puzzling, all the more given the high popularity of outgoing President Aquino.[16] In investigating these seemingly incongruous events, Philippine politics scholar Mark Thompson argues that the Aquino administration — and by extension, Philippine liberal democracy — was “systemically disjunctive.” In other words, liberal reformism as a political order was rhetorically appealing, but decades of its praxis revealed how unequal, callous, and impotent it was. 

When Aquino won the presidency in 2010, he had waged a moralistic campaign against the alleged corruption of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was charged with plunder and abuse of public office. Like his mother, Aquino projected himself as the embodiment of conscientious governance, vowing to take the straight path (Daang Matuwid) and regain public trust. This campaign narrative, and subsequent regime script, resonated with the Filipino electorate since a successful war against corruption was framed as the eradication of poverty (Kung walang kurap, walang mahirap). For a while, Aquino seemed to deliver. Under his administration, the Philippines shed its decades-long reputation as the “sick man of Asia”, with its booming economy showcased as a hallmark of liberal reform. In 2015, the Philippines became the fourth fastest growing economy in the world, and in 2016, the fastest among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).[17] The country also garnered international recognition as it leapt in economic development indices, such as competitiveness and openness, and was lauded by international credit ratings agencies, such as Fitch.[18] In fact, during Aquino’s last few years in office, Asia’s “new tiger economy”, as the World Bank remarked, witnessed a 6.26% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate — the Philippines’ highest in nearly half a century.[19]

Aside from its progress in macroeconomic policy, the Aquino administration also made strides in cracking down on corruption. In his first few years, President Aquino was credited with cutting red tape and quashing graft, efforts that bolstered public confidence in state institutions. According to Heydarian, Aquino allies in the Philippine Congress investigated and removed high-profile senators accused of corruption, and even spearheaded nearly successful efforts to impeach “Arroyo-era holdovers in the Supreme Court and the Ombudsman office — paving the way for a potential conviction of the former president.”[20] From 2011 to 2015, the administration’s anti-corruption efforts came to fruition, as the Philippines’ ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index rose from 129th (out of 177 countries) to 95th.[21] On the coattails of his high-approval ratings, Aquino was further rewarded with a wave of new allies in the 2013 midterm congressional elections. Such support was taken as a renewed mandate to root out corruption, a task which had seemed impossible. 

However, the apparently remarkable successes of the Aquino administration proved to be transient and hollow. Towards the end of his term, Aquino’s “good governance” credentials were hamstrung by scandals, and subsequently, erosions in public trust. Particularly damaging to the administration were revelations about the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a pork barrel vehicle used to dole out patronage to legislators who had helped pass reformist legislation and remove corrupt officials.[22] It was revealed, moreover, that these “soft project” funds often ended up lining legislators’ pockets instead of going to earmarked development. In follow-up investigations, only anti-Aquino officials were charged, which raised suspicions that the president was only after political enemies instead of pork barrel abuse. A similar pattern of hypocrisy emerged when the Supreme Court declared the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), the successor to the PDAF, partly unconstitutional in 2014. A discretionary fund that was supposed to “source out unspent resources from other agencies of the government”, the DAP came under fire as a “slush fund” used to buy political favors from legislators “in the form of additional pork barrel.”[23] In response to the Court’s decision, the president lashed out by refusing to advance any investigations into the Department of Management and Budget, the agency responsible for creating the DAP. Instead, Aquino vigorously defended his allies at the expense of a cynical and exasperated public — a shocking change of heart for an accountability and transparency champion. 

More poignant in the administration’s failings, however, was its callous and concentrated inaction. As Heydarian observes, “the faster the Philippines grew, the more obvious its poverty became.”[24] Hyperfocused on economic growth, the government failed to provide inclusive development and adequately fund public services. According to the IBON Foundation, a Philippine research non-profit, the Aquino administration oversaw a slew of austerity measures and public welfare neglect: affordable housing remained undeveloped, public education budgets shrank, public hospitals were forcibly shuttered, and privatized public utilities — such as power and water — delivered questionable quality at expensive rates.[25] In megacities like Metro Manila, a sclerotic infrastructure budget engendered a decay in public transportation, resulting in one of the worst traffic landscapes in Asia and what Filipino netizens dubbed “carmageddon.” Moreover, while international spectators marveled at Aquino’s massive wealth generation, ordinary Filipinos barely felt a bump. Such gains remained concentrated among the elite, whose collective wealth increased by 37.9% ($13 billion) from 2010 to 2011.[26] In fact, in 2013 alone, 76.5% of the Philippines’ newly created growth benefited the country’s 40 richest families.[27] Meanwhile, “Even as construction cranes topped Manila skyscrapers and the emerging beach town of El Nido unveiled plans for its newest five-star resort”, reports from the National Statistical Coordination Board found that 26.5% of Filipinos lived on less than one dollar a day, and that the first half of 2012 revealed no improvement in levels of national poverty since 2006.[28]

Broken promises, dashed expectations, and the palpable hypocrisy of “good governance” fed into a potent form of grievance politics that took hold in 2016. In many ways, the Aquino administration’s failures signified a boiling point for many Filipinos, who resented not so much the president personally, but the hollow and self-righteous liberalism he represented. Citizens were fatigued by decades of what Benedict Anderson called “cacique democracy” — the capture and control of the political system by the post-Marcos elite.[29] Within this milieu of liberal democratic discontent thus emerged Duterte. He offered a refreshing vision of radical change, but was also bent on enacting vengeance — against the establishment, against the elites, against the forces of criminality. And more, he seemed to embody, in word and deed, the sufferings of the masses.

As several scholars have remarked, Duterte’s deep, diverse, and dedicated base is unprecedented in Philippine politics. Even before he declared his candidacy for president, his name floated around in 2015 national surveys, with support never falling below 12%.[30] This nascent popularity stemmed from a national “roadshow” and “listening tour” he held in 2014 for his advocacy of federalism.[31] When he eventually launched his campaign in 2016, Duterte was late to the race. However, the delay proved to be an asset, as it bolstered his efforts to spurn political norms. Not only would Duterte be the first president from Mindanao — the southern region of the Philippines — he would also be the first local official, as mayor of Davao, to win the office.[32] Duterte harnessed this outsider persona to cast himself as the ultimate underdog: a simple provincial mayor with the courage to take on “Imperial Manila” elites. Moreover, Duterte streamlined an impressively strategic campaign, from mobilizing grassroots volunteers and netizens (as opposed to relying on traditional paths of patronage) to consolidating his “Change is Coming” mantra for law and order (against the mixed and abstract reformist messaging of his rivals).

In particular, Duterte revealed himself to be a master of crisis politics. He portrayed the Philippines as an emerging narco-state, overrun by criminals and hampered by corrupt and feeble leadership. National attention was thus drawn to the mayor’s flagship anti-drug war proposal, which Duterte had implemented in Davao several years prior and sought to deploy on a national scale. While certainly controversial, the program’s commitment to purge drug users and dealers at the hands of the “Davao Death Squad” received broad acclaim among Filipinos following the city’s falling crime rates. As a result, Davao became a leading center for investment, one of the fastest growing cities in the Philippines, and according to several surveys, among its safest — a major leap from the 70s and 80s when it was “a site of internecine warfare between communists and right-wing groups.”[33] In one 2016 survey conducted by the Ateneo de Davao University, 99% of Davao citizens expressed approval of their former mayor’s record.[34]

Duterte’s iron-fisted stewardship of Davao also fed into a narrative of paternalistic politics, which resonated among Filipinos whose lives had long felt insecure. It is no wonder, then, that attendant to Duterte’s crisis politics was a growing “authoritarian nostalgia.” Gaining alarming ground in the vice presidential race — and eventually finishing  in a narrow second — was Bongbong Marcos Jr., the son of the former dictator. Exactly 30 years from his father’s ouster, he likewise tapped into rising public disaffection, invoking and whitewashing the martial law years as an epoch of decisive and effective leadership. Long gone, it seemed, were the memories of plunder and state terror that sparked the People Power Revolution.[35] At the height of the 2016 elections, a survey reported that 59% of respondents agreed to the burial of Ferdinand Marcos with “official honors” at the Cemetery of National Heroes.[36] While the rehabilitation of the Marcos era can be attributed to the family’s years of aggressive public relations, it is more glaringly a reflection of the Filipino public’s exasperation with the post-Marcos elite.[37] Such indignation produced powerful psychological effects, which Duterte exploited to push his saviorist image. 

Section II: Rootlessness and the “deep story”: Duterte’s populist pathologies 

To fully understand the reach and depth of Duterte’s populism — particularly its violent edge — it is not enough to look at political and economic conditions alone. Indeed, while policies and data illuminate national needs, they only reveal so much about societal conditions, much less explain political behavior. In examining what is visible and factual, these systems of analysis eclipse the symbolic, irrational, and even psychotic implications at the core of populist pathologies.[38] [39] Duterte’s popularity must then be supplemented by and complicated within the prism of charisma: emotion, spectacle, and ideation. It is within this affective terrain that Duterte not only exploits mass resentment, but creates and projects his own. And it is from it that the polity internalizes and acts, recalibrating to his revisions of reality. 

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes how demagogues inflame vicious desires and prejudices within the body politic. As Huntington would do later, Arendt grounds her analysis within rapidly developing societies, which generate private wealth but often neglect public welfare. However, Arendt views modernization as a particularly psychic threat, productive of far worse than political dysfunction. Premised on a system of expanding power and profit, so-called progress spawns a culture of rootlessness — the profound sense of alienation and dislocation among the neglected masses. Routinely marginalized by mainstream forces, these “isolated individuals” experience a “loss of the world”, for they are “not held together by a consciousness of common interest” and “lack that specific class articulateness.”[40] As Frantz Fanon similarly notes, such people are dismissed and discarded as “hordes of vital statistics, […] hysterical masses, […] faces bereft of all humanity, that mob, [and] those children who seem to belong to nobody.”[41] Shorn of political agency and meaningful social ties, these disaffected masses desperately seek an escape from their agonizing limbo. They yearn insatiably for a voice and for a community, and, in the absence of established or inclusive left-wing alternatives, find recourse in reactionary movements. While Arendt maintains that such efforts are “fictitious and [insecure] homes”, they nevertheless provide stabilizing and totalizing psychic havens for the fearful, resentful, and enraged — they help the rootless avoid “disintegration and disorientation.”[42] In laying claim to large reservoirs of social and moral energy, the ideologies of these movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency” that accommodates and entertains beyond reason and reality.[43]

As a result of their growing support, such movements — often led by a charismatic authoritarian — will attempt to overthrow and replace existing systems of power, harnessing and mobilizing mass hostilities in the siege. With remarkable prescience, Plato also warned of opportunistic demagogues, who emerge from the fray of oligarchic excess and the delay of democratic institutions. When the “state falls sick and is at war with herself”, the tyrant, “at the early days of his power”, will enmesh himself with the demos, seeking to become their champion: “he is full of smiles, and he salutes everyone whom he meets — he [makes] promises in public and also in private, liberating debtors and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone.”[44] The tyrant, however, only intends to serve himself, conditioning his promises of national salvation and collective empowerment on the masses’ allegiance to his will. 

Who, specifically, are these rootless masses? In what or whom do they find roots? What are the emotional, sensational, and ideational forces facilitating the tyrant’s rise? At the zenith of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, sociologist Arlie Hochschild travelled to the Deep South with these questions in mind for Americans. In particular, she was puzzled by how years of relative political stability and economic growth under President Obama could have engendered such profound rage and indignation towards the establishment. This paradox, notably, was the same one brought to reckoning following Aquino’s term. After interviewing 60 hardline conservatives, Hochschild came away with an understanding of a “deep story” that underpins and fortifies robust political convictions — it is an allegorical representation of how people locate their lives, organize their values, discover their communities, and understand their place within the political realm.[45] [46] Cursory in logic and schematic in form, a deep story foregrounds the visceraland affective: “you take the facts out of it, you take the moral judgements [out of it], and what you’re left with is what feels true.”[47] If rootlessness marginalizes the masses from the mainstream, then a deep story affords the disaffected their roots: a newfound sense of belonging directed against an unjust and uncaring “other.” As Hochschild notes, many of Trump’s supporters felt dislocated, and even effaced, by the forces of the political mainstream. From the dominance of elite secularists and Hollywood stars to the diffusion of liberal media and sanctuary cities, they increasingly became strangers in their own land […] They felt like they were there, but not seen. [Their] attitudes were a source of ridicule in the mainstream culture, and [their] region was seen as a backward region. They felt like [their] honor [was] being squeezed.[48]

Donald Trump, however, “embodied the most ineffable aspects of the [conservative] deep story.” That is, he reviled the political establishment, vowed to “drain the swamp”, and spoke of a national return. Promising to salvage them from years of marginalization, Trump offered his base visibility, and in particular, roots. But most of all, he became their secular sufferer, so to say, absorbing the masses and collectively taking them up in a crusade against the wicked elites.[49]

What, then, was the deep story of Duterte’s supporters? Was Duterte likewise seen by Filipinos as their unifying testament of struggle? Unlike previous Filipino populists, Duterte’s brand of populism cut across the electorate, energizing various regions and classes that felt disempowered.[50] As such, it can be suggested that there exist multiple deep stories within the “Dutertian” imagination, each “revolts from the periphery against an [incompetent] and uncaring center.”[51] To Metro Manila, Duterte promised a swift escape from oppressive land and air traffic. To Muslim and indigenous populations, he invoked his family background as an ethnic and linguistic minority. To the Visayan and Mindanao regions, he offered greater representation and resources against corrupt, “Imperial Manila.”[52]

Equally remarkable and rare, however, is the socioeconomic breadth in Duterte’s voter bloc. The wealthy and middle classes — referred to as class ABC — praised Duterte’s call for a brutal crackdown on drugs and criminality, believing it would improve their personal and business safety. According to a Social Weather Stations (SWS) exit poll conducted on election day, 45.9% of class ABC voted for Duterte, and 49.2% of those voters had had graduate-level education.[53] Moreover, the poor — known as classes D and E — were drawn to Duterte for his folksy aura, seeing in him a personified transition towards accessible and down-to-earth governance. After the second presidential debate, which voters considered the most watched and consequential of the three, surveys revealed that Duterte’s charisma and candor handed him the best performance — not only among class ABC (46%, 22 points ahead of the runner-up), but in striking conjunction with classes D and E (32% and 39%, respectively).[54]

While Duterte’s persona brings him into intimacy with the masses, it also divorces him from the conventions of his office. Unlike his predecessors, who spoke in elegant and measured prose, Duterte speaks coarsely and often slurs and rambles. In doing so, he jettisons stately trappings and shrinks the gap of association, bringing the podium to the people instead of orating from above. Tactless, imprecise, and often unscripted, his speeches serve to animate his rogue streams of consciousness. However, Duterte’s openness lies at the crux of the populist performance, of which he is fully aware and which he commands to his political benefit. His punishing language, for example, serves to punctuate his punitive governance. At the beginning of his campaign, Duterte warned Filipinos: 

I will not sit there as president, and just like any other regime, sabihin koiyan lang ang kaya ko [say, ‘that’s all that I can do’]. Pero pag nilagay ninyo ako [So if you put me in office]do not fuck with me. If I’m there, wala ng [no more] indecisive, indecisive. Putang ina, sumunod kayong lahat [Son of a bitch, you all better follow]When I say that you have to stop fucking the people’s money, stop it![55]

Such language, while crude, does not delegitimize Duterte. Rather, it projects his authority and sharpens his populism, underscoring the sincerity of his law-and-order mandate. In his politics of discipline, social conventions are beneath him; they fail to communicate urgency and to elicit fear in his rule. Duterte’s open disregard for statesmanship thus reflects the work of Achille Mbembe, whose writings on sub-Saharan Africa provide a useful lens for understanding the Philippines. Mbembe argues that in a postcolony, which has just struggled to reclaim its sovereignty, new leaders will exercise power to reassert the legitimacy of the state. While many regimes coerce or surveil to realize their authority, Mbembe observes that in Cameroon, the ruler and the ruled share an “intimate tyranny”, in which submission is induced instead of imposed.[56] Namely, the ruler employs vulgarity to speak, act, and live like the masses. As such, postcolonial modes of domination involve not just control, but conviviality — the liberation of the perverse from private use to its recognition and enjoyment in public. According to Mbembe, subjection to this symbolic authority legitimizes the ruler in ways difficult to achieve through coercion: by witnessing and internalizing the sovereign’s indecency, the polity responds by reproducing it.

Duterte’s obscenities pervade his storytelling, which he uses to assert his sovereign power. To the delight of his listeners and the humiliation of his critics, he names and shames as he engages in banter. Unmoored by topical relevance as well as norms of decency, Duterte recounts “stories about masturbation, jokes about rape, publicly kissing women and admiring their anatomy, making references to vaginal odor, and much more.”[57] For instance, at a 2016 campaign event, Duterte regaled his audience with a rape story. Recalling his time as mayor of Davao, he shared how a bloody prison siege had killed numerous hostages — one of whom was a female Australian missionary. According to Duterte, she, along with the other female prisoners, was repeatedly raped and tortured before she was killed. However, rather than draw from the audience expected rage or grief, Duterte steered them towards his necrophillic desire:

All the women were raped, so during the first assault, because they retreated, their bodies were used as shields. One of them was the corpse of the Australian woman lay minister. Tsk, this was a problem. When the bodies were brought out, they were wrapped. I looked at her face; son of a bitch, she looked like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, ‘they raped her, they took turns.’ Was I angry because she was raped? Sure, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have gone first! Son of a bitch, what a waste (sayang).[58]

In response, the crowd jeered at the mayor and snickered amongst themselves. According to Vicente Rafael, “It was [Duterte’s] failure to assert his claim on the woman’s body that was presumably taken […] to be the object of hilarity.”[59]The mayor was emasculated, and his authority undercut. However, Duterte inverted this private shame into one palatable for public reception, and was thus able to perform indignation to endear the audience to him. In freely divulging his masochism, he did not himself become subject to derision — he somehow escaped and recovered, while the corpse of the missionary could not. The audience’s laughter, even if from shock, thus surrendered to Duterte’s incivility. It formed a bond with his rhetoric, what they themselves would dare not say, and took from his authority permission to enjoy.   

Reports of this story drew sharp rebukes from feminists, human rights advocates, and the Australian and American embassies. However, this criticism seemed not to faze the mayor and, in fact, bolstered his public support. In breaking away from political correctness, Duterte personifies the populist pathology, discursively asserting himself as the layman’s champion while sundering himself from establishment elites. Just as he defies due process and human rights in his governance, here, too, does he speak with subversive free rein. As a result, his supporters, who “identify with his insurgent energy to upset conventions, [admire how he] escapes unscathed […] his aura seems to be magnified as he becomes even more emboldened with every insult and invective.”[60] Breaking taboos, Duterte has also taken on institutions once cherished or untouchable. When the Catholic Church warned of a return to martial law, he assailed its clergy as corrupt and pedophillic — charges often interlaced with his own story of abuse. When the United States linked his drug war to human rights violations, he called President Obama a hypocritical “son of a bitch”, adding, “you can go to hell” at the end.[61] When the European Union did likewise, he flashed his middle finger to the camera and casually said, “fuck you.”[62]

Refusing to be disciplined, Duterte revels in what Mbembe calls the “aesthetics of vulgarity.” He moves beyond convention and law, yet manages to impose his own. Effectively, then, his irascibility sets him apart even from earlier Filipino strongmen, such as Manuel Quezon and Ferdinand Marcos. As Rafael notes,

Quezon and Marcos were anxious to project a heightened sense of bourgeois masculinity in the service of a benevolent patriarchy in the way they appeared and spoke. They dressed impeccably in formal barong[embroidered male shirt] or tailored suits, and addressed the public in stentorian sentences, meticulously crafted and ponderously pronounced. Under late colonial and Cold War liberal conditions, they could still capitalize on middle-class conventions of respectability to hide from view the more brutal practices of their government.[63]

Duterte is thus a populist par excellence, disavowing genteel affectations for the unseemly and common. He upends hierarchies, overturns strictures, sutures the gap, and brings into light who and what was once silenced and shunned — “the high is brought down low, and the low is elevated.”[64] Vicariously rebelling through Duterte’s brazenness, the people thus feel emancipated, their deep stories affirmed and roots established. However, this defiant freedom is superficial, for it is only achieved through submission. The audience cannot reciprocate mockery or openly express their distaste. Duterte’s storytelling, like his governance, is entirely autocratic since shadowing conviviality is a repressive and violent regime. As Plato warned, the tyrant’s legitimacy comes from his performance of democracy. Whatever rebellion — whatever roots — Duterte offers is then only imaginary. 

It is easy to suggest, as many have, that the Philippines is reanimating the Marcos years. But the current president has put the nation on a far more perilous course. Not only has he, in short order, effaced the liberal democratic legacy of EDSA, but his populism has managed to convince Filipinos that there never was one to begin with. In the name of national return, Duterte has since weaponized this belief to unleash unprecedented forms of brutality and unfreedom — many carried out by citizens themselves. The last section of this essay expands on populist pathologies by examining the regime’s most alarming mobilization of terror: its drug war. Inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony i.e., domination through popular consent, I ask: how is authoritarianism driven by ordinary people, who willfullyparticipate in the violation of others?[65]  

Section III: Among the living dead: necropolitics and the Philippine Drug War

Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has fallen woefully short of his political and economic promises, from improving the nation’s infrastructure to instituting a federal system of government. However, the campaign pledge the president has consistently and tenaciously realized is his brutal war on drugs, known in the Philippines as Oplan [“Operation”] Tokhang. A Cebuano portmanteau for toktok (“knock”) and hangyo (“request”), Tokhang has become the process by which police place so-called “drug personalities” on a public list, visit their homes to dissuade them from illicit activities, and — should police warnings be ignored — gun them down, leaving their corpses on the streets.[66] These extrajudicial killings have emerged as the most dramatic manifestations of the drug war, sanctioned by the president’s orders and bolstered by his promises of impunity to the police.[67] And despite pressure from the international community as well as a pending case from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the anti-drug campaign has only intensified. A 2016 survey revealed that although 94% of Filipinos consider it “very” or “somewhat important” that drug suspects remain alive, 85% of the same respondents expressed approval towards continuing the drug war.[68] What explains this apparent contradiction? How does one come to grips with the psychic hold of necropower? I first introduce the state’s role in producing and instilling fear.

In his 1973 lecture series “Society Must be Defended”, Michel Foucault contends that public torture and public execution activate a “spectacle of the scaffold”, in which the body of the accused is marked as both socially excluded and a testament of the sovereign’s exercise of power. Ritualistic and excessive, the public administration of death is meant to humiliate the accused: 

In this system, the infraction is no longer something to be redressed […] but rather something to be emphasized [and] fixed in a sort of monument, even if it is a scar, an amputation, or something involving shame or infamy […] [T]he visible or social body must be a blazon of the penalties, and this blazon refers to two things: one the one hand, to the offense, of which it has to be the visible and immediately recognizable trace; […] and on the other hand, to the power that imposed the penalty and that, with this penalty, has left the mark of its sovereignty on the tortured body. It is not just the offense that is visible on the scar or the amputation, it is the sovereign.[69]

Through real consequences, the sovereign wields a symbolic authority, arousing within the public conscience a fear of what similar transgressions would entail. The state objectifies the enemy body in order to materialize and measure the regime’s power. For instance, when asked about the progress of his anti-drug campaign, Duterte remarked, “The ones who died in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that is beautiful. We could just kill another 32 every day, then maybe we could reduce what ails this country.”[70] Having been neither investigated nor convicted, the victims of Duterte’s drug war thus consolidate a performed sense of justice, laying bare the capacity of the state in eliminating putative threats to society. This idea is further refined by Allen Feldman, who contends that the inflicted body becomes a medium of political text just as much as it is a result.[71] In the drug war, this is achieved in two ways: through the public listing of drug suspects, and through the placement of cardboard signs on corpses that bear and humiliate their crime — the most common inscription: Pusher ako, wag tularan [I am a pusher, do not copy me].[72]

 In its swift and vicious execution, Duterte’s drug war is certainly one of the most graphic exhibitions of inhumanity in our time. However, as Hochschild emphasized, even the vilest of convictions and monstrous of acts betray a perennial condition — a deep story — that only needs to be intensified to unleash the unspeakable. The remainder of this section focuses on how the drug war’s brutality stems from an array of drug pathologies extant among the body politic. These already pervasive “drug addict” caricatures are what Duterte exploited to buttress high and sustained support for his campaign purges. As such, the state is not the sole actor of repression; it is, here, an instrumentality, collaborating with and channeling the beliefs of citizens who aid and participate in the repression. I call this phenomenon “civic authoritarianism.” 

In a lecture at Yale University, Judith Butler discusses how the state actualizes this notion by dehumanizing certain populations into enemies, treating and pursuing them as “non-grievable lives.”[73] Seeing its operation within the realm of police brutality, Butler asks, 

Does the policeman who [shoots to kill] imagine that the person about to die is actually about to attack? Or that his own life is endangered? Or is it simply that this life is one that can be snuffed out because it is not considered a life, never was a life, does not fit the norm of life […] hence it does not register as a grievable life, a life worth preserving?[74]

Brought to bear against the drug war, non-grievable lives are formalized through drug addicts, who Duterte makes no qualms about in the extent to which they must be punished, from “You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you” to “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them”[75] Met with applause, Duterte further demonized a group already despised within the Filipino consciousness. To many Filipinos, drug addiction is believed to transform users into something inhuman and monstrous. This characterization stems from the (mis)perception that shabu, or crystal meth, thoroughly destroys the body and mind, possessing addicts to commit uncontrollable acts of violence.[76] Supposedly unable to defer their desire, users completely surrender their mental and moral faculties as they rape children and murder innocent people; in fact, “Their brains supposedly shrink, placing them beyond rehabilitation.”[77] It is no wonder, then, that in response to criticisms from human rights groups and the UN about his drug war, Duterte rejoined, “What crime against humanity? In the first place, I’d like to be frank with you. Are they [drug users] human?”[78] Alienated from society, drug addicts and dealers are thus stripped of innocence and devoid of human rights since they pose an existential threat to those around them. For Duterte, the only clear and just solution is their annihilation. 

In her 2014-2016 ethnographic study of Leyte, a rural island in the Southeast Philippines, Nicole Curato observed how civic authoritarianism was operationalized in her interviews and direct observations with residents, who evinced a “latent anxiety [towards] drugs already existing in the public sphere.”[79] She defines this latent anxiety as a pervasive, yet quiet, distress within the body politic, “folded into everyday realities in both privileged and slum communities. It is present but not central, mundane but still worrisome, publicised but not politicised.”[80] For instance, while Curato maintains that drug use was aberrational in the Leyte community, the stigma of addiction violated cherished norms of respectability, carrying with it serious material consequences. In middle-class neighborhoods, mothers with young children could be evicted from their homes if they were found to have possessed drugs. In slum communities, drug addicts — typically young men — were seen as wife beaters and absent fathers, and thus were unable to participate in government-sponsored livelihood programs. However, Curato notes that even while drug users were seen as menacing to social relations, their disruption to the community “was not central enough to warrant the sustained attention of the state”, which instead offered perfunctory and privatized solutions e.g., resolution vis a vis neighbors, the local parish, NGOs, or the barangay (village) captain.[81] The inauguration of Duterte’s penal populism hence signaled a turning point, animating and escalating the moralization of drugs as well as promising a final resolution to this latent anxiety.[82]During the height of the campaign, when Curato asked a “usually soft-spoken and tentative young mother of four” her thoughts on Duterte’s violent tactics, the latter “confidently replied, ‘That’s just right!’”[83] Sure enough, this moral judgement found translation in 2016 national survey results: from January until the presidential election in May, illegal drugs consistently emerged as the prime issue in the country — a dramatic departure from 2015 polls that listed inflation, jobs, and health as the top concerns among Filipinos.[84] [85]

The moralization of drugs is evident in urban areas as well, particularly in Metro Manila, where value judgements are entangled with spatial organizations of class. In his 2009-2014 ethnographic research of the capital’s middle class and poor, Marco Garrido saw civic authoritarianism through each class’ imagined construction of and visceral relation to the other.[86] Garrido first notes how Metro Manila’s slums and “bourgeois enclaves” (condominiums, exclusive malls, commercial centers, etc.) are often contiguous or in proximity. As a result, the middle and working classes intensely interact within the city. But instead of encouraging class sociality, this spatialization has sharpened socioeconomic boundaries, facilitating and surveilling differential access to employment opportunities, state investments, educational resources, and urban spaces. Garrido reveals how this disparity is enforced and reproduced through fraught moral evaluations levied against the other class, particularly its role in perpetuating disorder. The poor understand disorder as associative of the rich, the corrupt and prejudicial elites who scorn them as dregs of society. Especially relevant, however, is the middle class assessment of disorder, which castigates the urban poor as vectors of encroachment, drugs, and crime. This characterization accounts for why “The people killed [in the drug war] are overwhelmingly drawn from the poorest section of [Philippine] society”, which has “hardened perceptions that this is a war on the poor.”[87] In an elite political environment that routinely appeals to middle class voters, such marginalization of poor narratives is unsurprising. 

Garrido further explains how various socialization factors within the ecology of Metro Manila — such as higher education, professional occupation, international travel, and neoliberal restructuring — have conditioned this anti-poor sentiment among a rising middle class.[88] They point to model cities like Davao or countries like Singapore as “pockets of discipline” wherein criminal vagrants, and the urban spaces accommodating them, are effectively brought to heel.[89][90] Importantly, they see these utopias within reach — what Foucault called “counter-sites” —  as visions of what the Philippines could one day become.[91] And they trust strongmen like Duterte to impose these pockets of discipline, even if they come at a great human cost.[92] For this reason, the middle class has, as Garrido suggests, been “waiting for Duterte.”[93]

Within three hours of the president’s inauguration, corpses began populating the streets of Manila’s slums, which have since served as the predominant sites of the drug war’s carnage and mourning. With unremitting intensity, these nightly killings have morphed the public’s latent anxieties into both passive enabling of and active collaborations with the police.[94] First, the passive. In December 2016, the priests of Baclaran Church — a popular parish in Metro Manila — mounted a large photo exhibit of recent killings along the church’s entrance, intended to rebuke the regime’s brutality and scandalize people into resistance.[95] However, passersby seemed indifferent or oblivious to the display as they casually made their way to mass. Some glanced at the photos, at times “remarking something to the effect that ‘they probably were addicts and deserved to die’”, while others “seemed to think that such exhibits aided the war on drugs, seeing them from the perspective of the police: ‘Para matakot ang mga durugista’ [‘so that drug addicts would be frightened.’]”[96]

Whether they were numb or unmoved towards the recurring reality of death, people seemed incapable of registering, much less generating, any sense of compunction or trauma. If they did, they kept it firmly to themselves, terrified of what open expressions might entail on their own bodies and lives. According to Vicente Rafael, the moral implications of the photos had failed to “furnish a civic space of belonging through grieving”, as the community collapsed under a governance of willed dissociation.[97] In fact, residents came to believe that the execution of perceived criminals yielded safer neighborhoods — at least the petty thieves hassling store owners were gone, at least the loiterers had disappeared, at least the gangs had vanished. One of the most poignant accounts coming out of the drug war was when a mother, having discovered her employed and college-attending son was killed, grieved out of regret that her other son, a drug addict, was not dead instead. Thus emerges a moral rationalization, what Rafael calls an “economy of substitution.”[98] Whatever it takes, whomever it takes, as long as justice is apparent. 

This radical reshaping of how people treat death and see life has largely been facilitated by the drug war’s active civil participation. Much of this has to do with how the victims are targeted. In what has been criticized as a considerably arbitrary process, local officials have compiled and publicized watch lists of suspected drug users and dealers. Often informed by community rumors and unsolicited tips, inclusion is largely unvetted. The lists do not appear to discriminate between past and current “drug personalities”, nor between addicts, users, and financiers. Yet nearly all those indexed have later been found dead, described in police reports as nanlaban, meaning they fought back. This reasoning, which implies that police officers killed in self-defense, remains dubious since the vast majority of investigations have been declared inconclusive. It also clashes with remarks from neighborhood watch leaders, who are enthused and convicted by the drug war’s brutality: “We need to make them fear for them to stop using drugs,” one says. “It is effective, this fear of being killed.”[99] From another local official: “Everyone wants peace […] What is hard is how can you give them peace if they continue to be drug users? What kind of peace will you give to them? It must be death.”[100]

This outsourcing of surveillance to civilian volunteers has effectively shored up the legitimacy of the drug war. In another example, a Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) program called MASA MASID [Masses Observe] has recruited civil society actors and faith-based organizations to “heighten community involvement” in the anti-drug campaign.[101] In what may be the starkest manifestation of civic authoritarianism, these MASA MASID Teams have set up local hotlines to encourage residents to report drug-related incidents and drug addicts in their communities. Moreover, volunteers have handed out “drug-free households” stickers to demarcate the “drug-cleared” from the “drug-suspect”, essentially democratizing and intensifying the role of policing. Such mapping out of households thus renders visible the social humiliation tethered to drugs, not to mention the fatal character of “drug watch lists” in the targeting of undesirable others.

Particularly remarkable is that the police have also colluded with vigilante squads, licensed by Duterte to “‘go ahead and kill them yourself […] if you know any addicts.’”[102] [103] Riding in tandem on motorcycles, these masked or hooded assassins have been subsidized by the state to obfuscate links to the police, with billions of pesos earmarked — without oversight — towards what have been suspected are “kill bonuses.”[104] According to the Ateneo Policy Center, as of 2018, more than 1,907 (38%) of the dead were killed by these assailants.[105] And alongside this financialization of Tokhang is the commodification of the corpses themselves. Journalists have furnished reports, for instance, into the theft of victims’ belongings during arrests and killings. Moreover, funeral parlors, which have seen a boom in their business, have paid police tens of thousands of pesos in commission for every body they bring in.[106] Each corpse can cost as much as P50,000 ($950) to claim, process, and clean — an exorbitant sum for the mostly indigent families of victims.[107] Loved ones then either abandon the body or force themselves into debt, fundraising by gambling with each other during wakes. Animated by poverty and a sluggish and corrupt judiciary, the machinery of necropower is seen here restlessly at work, profiting from the accumulation and circulation of the dead. While the authoritarian state purges, the capitalist necro-economy exploits, harnessing the corpse as its labor power. 

To the objective observer, it is almost impossible to imagine that Duterte has improved the national condition. But perhaps justice is a more suitable lens, albeit an abstract and unusual kind. Duterte remains popular among many Filipinos precisely because he is destroying the “social enemy”, reconstituting authority even at the cost of instilling fear. The nightly killings of “drug personalities” thus replenish a mystified trust in an elusive order: at least someone is in charge, finally someone is being punished. Summary executions are, to many, the most visible forms of due process they have ever seen. As Rafael notes, “Where people live on the edge of catastrophe — where that edge defines the very space of civic life […] is it any wonder that [people] see images by not seeing them, by dissociating what they apprehend from what they comprehend?”[108] Desperation and survival, passivity and vigor, vengeance and terror, the dissolution of sociality — Duterte’s regime has left much in its wake. But it has also captured a paradoxical inclusion, a security and hope not as easily seen. This psychic imprint will be Duterte’s legacy.


As this paper demonstrates, political and economic accounts cannot fully explain the populist rise of Duterte. While they can describe the history and structure of institutions and the consequences of policies, they fail to elucidate the perverse and brutal behaviors within Philippine political life — from the public’s conviviality with Duterte’s vulgarity to its passive and active collaborations in mass murder. To claim that Duterte rose to power simply because liberal democracy was “systemically disjunctive” is to overlook his deeply affective and moralized appeal. The president’s grip on the polity can thus only be captured by psychology. Hyperaware of Filipinos’ distrust of government, Duterte offered strong and effective leadership, sealed by a clear and firm message of delivering law and order. He saw the rootlessness Aquino engendered as inequality and corruption grew, and tapped into the deep stories of Filipinos united in dislocation and rage. However, as much as Duterte claimed he was the people’s champion, he ultimately exploited their indignation, harnessing and pivoting mass grievances to violently scapegoat drug users and dealers. He deployed the police to strike fear through grisly murders, and set examples of his power by humiliating the corpses.

But what this paper seeks to unearth is the uncanny rationalization, and even celebration, of the drug war’s carnage among ordinary Filipinos — neighbors, coworkers, parishioners, and citizens who failed to bat an eye as their countrymen were slaughtered before them. Describing this phenomenon as “civic authoritarianism”, this paper has revealed how Duterte did not introduce an entirely new animosity towards drugs and criminality. Rather, he amplified an already pervasive caricature of drug addicts as violent, inhuman, and dispensable forms of life. This narrative exploitation was captured across geography and class, inspiring people towards passive enabling of and active collaborations with the extrajudicial killings. Such phenomena, in effect, disrupt popular portrayals of how citizens respond to an authoritarian state; how they demand from, challenge, and usurp the political order. Over and against those in the People Power Revolution, the majority of Filipinos today are not actively militating against repression. There has not emerged a national democratic awakening, much less a movement that could soon face down the regime. With civil society in lock step with the state, resistance has been rendered nearly impossible — and democracy, like the legacy of 1986, banished into obscurity.

As such, this paper seeks to not only complicate understandings of Duterte’s drug war, but to make use of political theory to demystify our populist moment. Indeed, as liberal democracy retreats around the globe, one is compelled to interrogate the contradictions of its legitimacy, discerning its appeal from the real impacts of its application. Who is and is not seen in a “pluralistic” society? Who is and is not included in an “egalitarian” state? As a result, which groups are subject to domination and capital? Which groups reproduce and benefit from the conditions of the oppressed? In a system designed to lift every voice, who is pushed onto the margins of political life — and what forces are at work centering their narratives and needs? These are the questions Duterte asked the masses, and to which they rallied behind him in zealous response. Yet if only the conditions behind populism were recognized sooner and the power and depth of populist rhetoric more subdued, a genocide could have been thwarted before it even began.

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Reyes, Danilo Andres. “The Spectacle of Violence in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 2016, 117. 

Salaverria, Leila. “Duterte Insists Shabu Can Cause Brain Damage.” Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 11, 2017. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/895885/duterte-insists-shabu-can-cause-brain-damage.

“SWS: 78% of Filipinos Fear Becoming Victims of EJK.” CNN Philippines, December 19, 2016. https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/12/19/sws-78-percent-fear-EJK.html. 

Teehankee, Julio. “Duterte’s Resurgent Nationalism in the Philippines: A Discursive Institutional Analysis.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 2016, 72. 

“The Drug Killings: Who, What, Where, When, How?” The Drug Archive. Ateneo School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, 2018. https://drugarchive.ph/post/26-the-drug-killings-who-what-where-when-how-master.

“The Philippines’ Duterte Incites Vigilante Violence.” Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2017. https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/19/philippines-duterte-incites-vigilante-violence.

“The Psychotic in Public Life: Human Nature and the Political Justification of Brutality.” YouTube. University of Maryland Department of Government and Politics, August 4, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQpg3vbCmOQ.

Thompson, Derek. “The Deep Story of Trumpism.” The Atlantic, December 29, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/12/deep-story-trumpism/617498/.

Thompson, Mark. “Bloodied Democracy: Duterte and the Death of Liberal Reformism in the Philippines.”Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 2016, 43–44. 

Warburg, Anna, and Steffen Jensen. “Policing the War on Drugs and the Transformation of Urban Space in Manila.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2018, 10. 

“Why Intelligence Funds Require Scrutiny.” Rappler, December 18, 2017. https://r3.rappler.com/move-ph/issues/budget-watch/191579-duterte-confidential-intelligence-funds-2018-budget-part-2. 


[1] Achille Mbembe, “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” from On the Postcolony, 133 (2001).

[2] Lynzy Billing and Regine Cabato, “‘This is Manila’”, The Washington Post (2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/world/philippines-manila-body/.

[3] Billing and Cabato, “‘This is Manila.’”

[4] Billing and Cabato, “‘This is Manila.’”

[5] Rebecca Ratcliffe, “Philippines War on Drugs May Have Killed Tens of Thousands, Says UN”, The Guardian (2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/04/philippines-police-may-have-killed-tens-of-thousands-with-near-impunity-in-drug-war-un; “‘License to Kill’: Philippine Police Killings in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’”, Human Rights Watch (2017), https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/03/02/license-kill/philippine-police-killings-dutertes-war-drugs.

[6] Duncan McCargo, “Duterte’s Mediated Populism”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 189 (2016).

[7] Emily Rauhala, “‘Trump of the East’ Could be the Next President of the Philippines”, The Washington Post (2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asias-version-of-donald-trump-may-be-the-philippines-next-president/2016/05/06/f2c30f12-120b-11e6-a9b5-bf703a5a7191_story.html.

[8] The People Power Revolution of 1986 was a series of popular demonstrations against 14 years of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. With the support of a mutinous military and the Catholic Church, millions of Filipinos gathered in the streets of Manila in a sustained and nonviolent campaign to force Marcos’ ouster. After the president and his family fled to Hawaii, protesters stormed and looted an empty Malacañang, the Presidential Palace of the Philippines. The four-day resistance signaled a momentous transition towards a liberal democratic regime, and inspired similar popular pro-democracy movements around the world. In 1987, the matriarch of the People Power Revolution, Corazon Aquino, assumed the presidency, and helped draft and enact the new Philippine Constitution.

[9] Randy David, “‘Dutertismo’”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2016), https://opinion.inquirer.net/94530/dutertismo.

[10] Richard Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, 7 (2017).

[11] Gil Cabacungan, “Most Powerful PH Leader Since Marcos”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2016), https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/789789/most-powerful-ph-leader-since-marcos.

[12] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, 542–563. (2014).

[13] Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, 5 (1968).

[14] Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte, 28.

[15] For more refutations of neo-modernization theory, see Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay (2015).

[16] Aquino’s share of total votes in the 2010 Philippine presidential election (42.08%) exceeded that of Duterte’s in 2016 (39.5%). Moreover, he entered office with a 74% net trust rating among Filipinos, three times higher than that of his predecessor and 20% higher than that of Duterte. Aquino also stepped down with a “very good” net trust rating of 50% — higher than any of his predecessors at the end of their administrations. For more details, see Kristine Sabillio, “Aquino admin’s last net satisfaction rating ‘very good’ – SWS”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2016) and Mahar Mangahas, “Baseline trust ratings of Duterte and Robredo”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2016).  

[17] “PH is fastest growing economy in Asia, expands by 6.9% in Q1”, CNN Philippines (2016), https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/05/19/philippines-fastest-growing-economy-asia-gdp-q1.html,

[18] Mark Thompson, “Bloodied Democracy: Duterte and the Death of Liberal Reformism in the Philippines”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 43 (2016). 

[19] “Philippine Economy From Marcos to Aquino (1972-2015)”, Business World and Philippine Statistics Authority (2016).

[20] Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte, 26.

[21] Thompson, “Bloodied Democracy”, 43.

[22] Thompson, “Bloodied Democracy”, 44.

[23] Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte, 29.

[24] Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte, 28.

[25] “Elitist Politics and Economics: the Real Aquino Legacy”, The IBON Foundation (2016), https://www.ibon.org/elitist-politics-and-economics-the-real-aquino-legacy/.

[26] Jillian Keenan, “The Grim Reality Behind the Philippines’ Economic Growth”, The Atlantic (2013), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/the-grim-reality-behind-the-philippines-economic-growth/275597/.

[27] Cielito Habito, “Economic Growth for All”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2012), https://opinion.inquirer.net/31439/economic-growth-for-all.

[28] Keenan, “The Grim Reality Behind the Philippines’ Economic Growth.”

[29] Benedict Anderson, “Cacique Democracy and the Philippines: Origins and Dreams”, New Left Review (1988), https://newleftreview.org/issues/i169/articles/benedict-anderson-cacique-democracy-and-the-philippines-origins-and-dreams.

[30] Ronald Holmes, “The Dark Side of Electoralism: Opinion Polls and Voting in the 2016 Philippine Presidential Election”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 20 (2016).

[31] Holmes, “The Dark Side of Electoralism”, 20.

[32] Mindanao is one of the poorest islands in the Philippines. Notwithstanding Duterte, all past presidents of the Fifth Republic of the Philippines (post-1986) have come from Manila or other wealthy regions of the country. 

[33] Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte, 35.

[34] Alex de Jong, “The Philippines’ New Strongman”, Jacobin (2016), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/05/philippines-duterte-populism-marcos-neoliberalism.

[35] Also known as EDSA, named after the collection of streets in Manila where anti-Marcos protests took place.

[36] Gerry Lirio, “Is Philippines Ready for a State Burial for Marcos?”, ABS-CBN News (2016), https://news.abs-cbn.com/halalan2016/focus/03/13/16/is-philippines-ready-for-a-state-burial-for-marcos.

[37] For more insight on the Marcos family’s systematic efforts to rehabilitate their public image as well as their vigorous return to national politics, see Lauren Greenfield, The Kingmaker, Evergreen Pictures (2019).

[38] University of Maryland Department of Government and Politics, “The Psychotic in Public Life: Human Nature and the Political Justification of Brutality”, YouTube (2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQpg3vbCmOQ.

[39] For more discussion on populist pathologies, see Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (2005) and Margaret Canovan, “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy”, Political Studies, 2-16 (1999).

[40] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 311 (1951).

[41] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 41 (1961).

[42] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 381. 

[43] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 353.

[44] Plato (translated by C.D.C. Reeve), The Republic, Book VIII (2004).

[45] Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016).

[46] Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, 135-139. Hochschild imagines the conservative deep story as a long and static pilgrimage line, occupied by hundreds of millions of mostly white and native-born Americans. The queue leads up a precipitous hill, and atop it resides the American Dream. The people behind these Americans, who are identified as minorities, hector at those in the front, calling them “bigoted, “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobic”, etc. Suddenly, the leader at the top of the hill waves at the people in the back of the line, prompting them to pass the white Americans ahead. To the front-liners, such expedience is profoundly unfair, and it makes them resentful, humiliated, and afraid. In their view, not only has order been abandoned for arbitrary preference, but this injustice has become understood as a moral norm. 

[47] Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, “A Conversation with Arlie Hochschild”, YouTube (2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klbtDCQ3bM4.

[48] Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

[49] Derek Thompson, “The Deep Story of Trumpism”, The Atlantic (2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/12/deep-story-trumpism/617498/.

[50] Other notable Filipino populists include former President Joseph Estrada and former Vice President Jejomar Binay, both of whom employed class-based appeals and championed pro-poor policies. However, their agendas were largely thwarted by the liberal reformist establishment, which accused them of plunder and corruption, respectively.  

[51] Heydarian, The Rise of Duterte, 36.

[52] Duterte aimed to give local governments greater political autonomy and fiscal resources by instituting federalism, which would amend the Philippine Constitution by abolishing its unitary system of government. As a result, power, money, and resources would devolve from Manila to various regions of the country.

[53] Julio Teehankee, “Duterte’s Resurgent Nationalism in the Philippines: A Discursive Institutional Analysis”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 72 (2016).

[54] Holmes, “The Dark Side of Electoralism”, 35.

[55] Maria Ressa, “Duterte, his 6 contradictions and planned dictatorship”, Rappler (2015), https://www.rappler.com/nation/elections/duterte-contradictions-dictatorship.

[56] Mbembe, “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” from On the Postcolony, 128.

[57] Vicente Rafael, “The Sovereign Trickster”, The Journal of Asian Studies, 153 (2019).

[58] UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), “Duterte — the Aesthetics and Politics of Authoritarian Vulgarity”, YouTube (2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcup396x9us.

[59] UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS).

[60] Rafael, “The Sovereign Trickster”, 153-154.

[61] Richard Paddock, “Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines’ Leader, Says Obama ‘Can Go to Hell’”, The New York Times, (2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/05/world/asia/rodrigo-duterte-philippines-barack-obama.html.

[62] Pia Ranada, “Duterte gives middle finger to EU lawmakers again”, Rappler (2016), https://www.rappler.com/nation/duterte-curses-european-union.

[63] Rafael, “The Sovereign Trickster”, 156-157.

[64] UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS).

[65] Antonio Gramsci (translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith), “(i) History of the Subaltern Classes; (ii) The Concept of ‘Ideology’; (iii) Cultural Themes: Ideological Material” from The Prison Notebooks (1971).

[66] For more insight on the police’s role in the drug war, see Frontline PBS, “Duterte’s Drug War”, YouTube (2019).

[67] Bea Cupin, “Duterte to PNP: ‘Do your duty and I will die for you”, Rappler (2016), https://www.rappler.com/nation/duterte-pnp-duty-die-for-you.

[68] “SWS: 78% of Filipinos fear becoming victims of EJK”, CNN Philippines (2016), https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/12/19/sws-78-percent-fear-EJK.html.

[69] Michel Foucault (translated by Graham Burchell), The Punitive Society: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1972-1973 (2015).

[70] Nestor Corrales and Leila Salaverria, “‘That’s Good,’ Says Duterte on Killing of 32 Bulacan Druggies”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2017)., https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/923267/president-rodrigo-duterte-drug-war-bulacan-one-time-big-time-operation.

[71] Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (1991).

[72] Danilo Andres Reyes, “The Spectacle of Violence in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 117 (2016).

[73] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009).

[74] Yale University, “Judith Butler, ‘Legal Violence: An Ethical and Political Critique’”, YouTube (2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coBcQajx18I&t=1509s.

[75] Human Rights Watch; Oliver Holmes, “Rodrigo Duterte vows to kill 3 million drug addicts and likens himself to Hitler”, The Guardian (2016), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/30/rodrigo-duterte-vows-to-kill-3-million-drug-addicts-and-likens-himself-to-hitler.

[76] Gideon Lasco, “Just How Big is the Drug Problem in the Philippines Anyway?”, The Conversation (2018), https://theconversation.com/just-how-big-is-the-drug-problem-in-the-philippines-anyway-66640.

[77] Leila Salaverria, “Duterte Insists Shabu can Cause Brain Damage”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2017), https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/895885/duterte-insists-shabu-can-cause-brain-damage.

[78] Marlon Ramos, “‘Junkies Are Not Humans’”, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2016), https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/810395/junkies-are-not-humans.

[79] Nicole Curato, “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 98 (2016).

[80] Curato, “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope”, 99.

[81] Curato, “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope”, 100.

[82] While I focused on Curato’s analysis of Duterte’s “politics of anxiety”, Curato also explores Duterte’s “politics of hope”, which mobilized citizens during the 2016 presidential campaign to exercise democratic agency through donating, rallying, selling campaign paraphernalia, and voting en masse. I did not elaborate on the “politics of hope”, however, since it was mostly activated by Duterte’s promises to deliver basic public services and eliminate corruption; the appeal of the war on drugs and criminality is centered principally around the “politics of anxiety.”

[83] Curato, “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope”, 101.

[84] Holmes, “The Dark Side of Electoralism”, 32.

[85] “June 2015 Nationwide Survey on Urgent National Concerns”, Pulse Asia Research (2015), https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3b9qPFV1cRDcHBxa0J0Yzhid2c/view.

[86] Marco Garrido, “Waiting for Duterte”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (2019), https://www.ijurr.org/spotlight-on/political-geographies-of-right-wing-populism/waiting-for-duterte/ from Garrido’s book The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila (2019).

[87] “‘If You Are Poor, You Are Killed’: Extrajudicial Executions in the Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs’”, Amnesty International (2017), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/01/philippines-the-police-murderous-war-on-the-poor/.

[88] Garrido, “Waiting for Duterte.”

[89] Garrido, “Waiting for Duterte.”

[90] For more insight on class appeals to law and order rhetoric, see “Populist psychology: How class division empowers autocratic leaders | Michele Gelfand | Big Think”, YouTube (2018). 

[91] Michel Foucault (translated by Jay Miskowiec), “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1967).

[92] For more discussion on the Filipino middle class’ support for Duterte, particularly its break from traditionally backing democratic candidates, see Adele Webb, “Why are the Middle Class Misbehaving?: Exploring Democratic Ambivalence and Authoritarian Nostalgia”, Philippine Sociological Review (2017).

[93] Garrido, “Waiting for Duterte.”

[94] For more insight on the extrajudicial killings, see extensive and up-close investigations in “The Impunity Series” from Rappler (2017) as well as data and ethnographic analyses in “The Drug Archive” from the Ateneo School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle Philippines, the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (2018).

[95] “Graphic Exhibit on Alleged Extrajudicial Killings Held in Popular Catholic Shrine”, CNN Philippines (2016), https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/12/21/graphic-exhibit-on-alleged-extrajudicial-killings-held-in-popular-catholic-shrine.html.

[96] Vicente Rafael, “Photography and the Biopolitics of Fear: Witnessing the Philippine Drug War”, positions: asia critique, 919 (2020).

[97] Rafael, “Photography and the Biopolitics of Fear”, 919.

[98] SOAS University of London, “Humanizing the Inhuman: Photographing Death in Duterte’s Drug War”, YouTube (2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hunBy0MtVb0&t=2860s.

[99] Anna Warburg and Steffen Jensen, “Policing the War on Drugs and the Transformation of Urban Space in Manila”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 10 (2018).

[100] Warburg and Jensen, 11.

[101] Jayson Lamchek, “A Mandate for Mass Killings?” from The Duterte Reader: Critical Essays in Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency, 210-213 (2017).

[102] “The Philippines’ Duterte Incites Vigilante Violence”, Human Rights Watch (2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/19/philippines-duterte-incites-vigilante-violence.

[103] For more insight on vigilante killers in the Philippine drug war, see The Nightcrawlers, National Geographic Documentary Films (2019).

[104] “Why Intelligence Funds Require Scrutiny”, Rappler (2017), https://r3.rappler.com/move-ph/issues/budget-watch/191579-duterte-confidential-intelligence-funds-2018-budget-part-2.

[105] “The Drug Killings: Who, What, Where, When, How?”, The Drug Archive (2018), https://drugarchive.ph/post/26-the-drug-killings-who-what-where-when-how-master.

[106] Sheila Coronel, “Murder as Enterprise: Police Profiteering in Duterte’s War Against Drugs” from The Duterte Reader: Critical Essays in Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency, 167-198 (2017).

[107] Rafael, “The Sovereign Trickster”, 149.

[108] Rafael, “Photography and the Biopolitics of Fear”, 922.