The Vigilante President

How Duterte’s Brutal Populism Conquered the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Credit: Heads of State

In his final year in law school at a Catholic men’s college in Manila, Rodrigo Duterte shot a classmate who made fun of his thick accent. The young “Rody,” as Duterte was then known, was the son of a provincial governor on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Like many of the progeny of the Philippine political elite, he had enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He grew up surrounded by guns and bodyguards, flew his father’s plane when he was in his hometown, and hung out with the sons of local notables in his Jesuit-run boys’ school. In Manila, however, Duterte’s accent, typical of those from the country’s southern periphery, marked him as an unsophisticated provinciano. Hence the classmate’s teasing. 

“I waited for him,” Duterte would recall nearly 45 years later, when he was running for president and speaking before an enthusiastic crowd. “I told myself, ‘I’ll teach him a lesson.’” The classmate survived the shooting, he recounted, and presumably learned the lesson. And although he was banned from attending graduation, Duterte got his law degree. “The truth is, I am used to shooting people,” he said. The audience lapped it up.

It was a typical Duterte story, with Duterte cast not as the aggressor but as the aggrieved, resorting to a gun to defend his honor. Sure, he took the law in his own hands, but by doing so, he earned the grudging respect of his tormentor. The telling, too, was classic Duterte: boastful while also self-deprecating. It was crass, hyperbolic, transgressive. And its conclusion—“I am used to shooting people”—could be construed as a joke, a fact, or a threat. Its power, and its beauty, lay in its ambiguity. 

Throughout his campaign and his early presidency—and, indeed, his entire public life—the stories Duterte has told and the way he has told them have resonated among a broad public. So have the denim jeans, checked shirts, and aviator sunglasses. His projection of both

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