It’s often said that bullies are the biggest cowards, and Rodrigo Duterte is a stellar example.
Sometimes a leader’s most important job is leading people where they don’t want to go. That was the theme of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and many historians have made the same point. For a reminder of how following the populace rather than leading it can be disastrous, turn your attention to the Philippines, where the polls in the presidential election closed not long ago. As I write, Rodrigo Duterte is reported to be well ahead with two-thirds of the votes counted, and if you haven’t been following this race, you won’t believe how he has become the likely victor.
Remember that the Philippines have been a democracy since 1986, when Corazon Aquino, mother of current President Benigno Aquino III, was elected president. By law, he can’t run for re-election, and he urged the other candidates to unite against Duterte, but they refused; Duterte needs only a plurality to win. At his campaign rallies, which in some cases attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters, he essentially promised to end democracy – to declare “a revolutionary government” – if congress thwarts his will. He bragged about overseeing the killing of hundreds of alleged criminals, without trials, as mayor of the the city of Davao, and he promised to kill thousands more – to “fill Manila Bay with their bodies” – to impose order if elected president.
In his heavily Catholic country he called Pope Francis “the son of a whore,” and he routinely dismisses critics in language you will not read on Fortune.com. He made a joke about an Australian nun who was raped and killed in the Philippines; when the ambassadors of Australia and the U.S. objected, he told them to “shut up.” He angrily denied media reports that he had a secret bank account filled with wealth from payoffs until a journalist proved its existence by making a deposit. He then admitted it, shrugged, and made a joke.
His followers love all of it. The more he insults everyone in power and promises to blow up the system, the more popular he becomes. The Philippine economy has been growing smartly, but millions of Filipinos remain grindingly poor, and rampant crime makes their lives miserable. They’re desperate for a candidate who talks like them and promises the magic of a sudden solution to their problems, and never mind the niceties of how he’d do it. His supporters are not a majority of Filipinos; polls show that they’re only about 30% of the voting public. But under the rules, that may be enough.
Duterte gave them exactly what they wanted, and he is probably the Philippines’ next president. But his tough-talking campaign strategy was the opposite of courage. It’s often said that bullies are the biggest cowards, and he’s a stellar example.