Filipinos are sharply divided over Rodrigo Duterte. They like him or they hate him. He is either one’s friend or foe, a paladin or a fiend.
I myself am perplexed. Some friends and relatives call him crazy, a madman. But can a madman likewise be clever and, for that matter, be intelligent? An indicator of Duterte’s astuteness is outgoing President Noynoy Aquino’s statement, captured in an interview with Rappler’s Maria Ressa (June 8, 2016): “Very masterful way of campaigning. Am I running? Am I am not running? And all the attendant [things]. We really have to hand it to him; them.”

Duterte without a doubt is difficult to read. I didn’t take Duterte literally when he said that he’d stop crime in six months or that he’d ride a jet ski to the Spratlys and plant the Philippine flag there to assert Philippine territorial sovereignty. Still, many took his word. But what was behind such statements, which on the surface sound ludicrous?

That Duterte is inexplicable and unpredictable led me to search for something to understand him. Voila! Mario Puzo’s The Godfather provides a key to figure out Duterte.

I have always used The Godfather as a guide for strategy. It illustrates abstract game theory in dramatic, corporal, and colorful, if not bloody terms.

Truth is, even granting that Duterte is a lunatic, he plays very deep games. Everyone who monitors Duterte, including those who either rabidly support him or those who wildly oppose him — the Mocha Usons or Cynthia Patags among us — should read The Godfather.

I re-read The Godfather, and this time, I scribbled quotations. I share some of the quotations below, to gain insights into Duterte — his beliefs, his behavior, his environment.

I minimize my annotations, to let the reader make her own conclusions.

The Godfather’s beginning already answers the question why aggrieved people run to the Godfather or to a Duterte.

“Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

“The judge, a formidably heavy-featured man, rolled up the sleeves of his black robe as if to physically chastise the two young men standing before the bench. His face was cold with majestic contempt. But there was something false in all this that Amerigo Bonasera sensed but did not yet understand,

“‘You acted like the worst kind of degenerates,’ the judge said harshly. Yes, yes, thought Amerigo Bonasera. Animals. Animals. The two young men, glossy hair crew cut, scrubbed clean-cut faces composed into humble contrition, bowed their heads in submission.

The judge went on. ‘You acted like wild beasts in a jungle and you are fortunate you did not sexually molest that poor girl or I’d put you behind bars for twenty years.’ The judge paused, his eyes beneath impressively thick brows flickered slyly toward the sallow-faced Amerigo Bonasera, then lowered to a stack of probation reports before him. He frowned and shrugged as if conceived against his own natural desire. He spoke again.

“‘But because of your youth, your clean records, because of your fine families, and because the law in its majesty does not seek vengeance, I hereby sentence you to three years’ confinement to the penitentiary. Sentence to be suspended.’

“Only forty years of professional mourning kept the overwhelming frustration and hatred from showing on Amerigo Bonasera’s face. His beautiful young daughter was still in the hospital with her broken jaw wired together; and now these two animales went free? It all had been a farce.

“All his years in America, Amerigo Bonasera had trusted in law and order. And he had prospered thereby. Now, though his brain smoked with hatred, through wild visions of buying a gun and killing the two young men jangled the very bones of his skull, Bonasera turned to his still uncomprehending wife and explained to her, ‘They have made fools of us.’ He paused and then made his decision, no longer fearing the cost. ‘For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone.’”

In the Philippines, we have many Amerigo Bonaseras, law-abiding citizens but victims of corrupt institutions (the judiciary, the police, and others), who will not hesitate to have a godfather who will deliver a different kind of justice (extrajudicial).

For the Bonaseras, justice is also about vengeance: “vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.” And this is exactly Duterte’s belief: capital punishment is less of deterring crime but more of enforcing retribution.

And on page 47 of The Godfather (reprinted in Arrrow Books, 1998), a reader will find a paradoxical observation about the Godfather from Kay. Kay is the nice and innocent sweetheart (and later wife) of Michael Corleone, the youngest son of Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather.

“Kay said thoughtfully, ‘Are you sure you’re not jealous of your father? Everything you’ve told me about him shows him doing something for other people. He must be good-hearted.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Of course his methods are not exactly constitutional.’”

So here is a Godfather — seen by his community as someone who is good to people, reasonable, and just, but who resorts to “methods that are not exactly constitutional.” Is that Duterte?

Another passage (on page 79) illustrates how difficult it is to read the Godfather’s mind. That even one most close to home, his consigliere, has to process and scrutinize his statement at different levels before being able to determine what exactly the Godfather wants.

The Don “had asked Hagen one final question. ‘Does this man [Jack Woltz] have real balls?’

“Hagen considered exactly what the Don meant by this question. Over the years he had learned that the Don’s values were so different from those of most people that his words also could have a different meaning. Did Woltz have character? Did he have a strong will? He most certainly did, but that was not what the Don was asking. Did the movie producer have the courage not to be bluffed? Did he have the willingness to suffer the heavy financial loss delay on his movies would mean, the scandal of his big star exposed as a user of heroin? Again the answer was yes. But again this was not what the Don meant. Finally Hagen translated the question properly in his mind. Did Jack Woltz have the balls to risk everything, to run the chance of losing all on a matter of principle, on a matter of honor; for revenge?

“Hagen smiled. He did it rarely but now he could not resist jesting with the Don. ‘You’re asking if he is a Sicilian.’ The Don nodded his head pleasantly, acknowledging the flattering witticism and its truth. ‘No,’ Hagen said.”

Again, isn’t that Duterte? Not even his closest advisers can easily decipher his words.

And this statement from the Godfather, chastising his eldest son, (page 91) is a classic:

“Santino, never let anyone outside the Family know what you are thinking. Never let them know what you have under your fingernails.”

On page 118, a similar message is conveyed; this time said by Santino.

“Sollozzo came to us with a proposition on drugs. The old man turned him down. But during the meeting I shot off my mouth a little, I showed I wanted the deal. Which is absolutely the wrong thing to do; if there’s one thing the old man hammered into me it’s never to do a thing like that, to let other people know there’s a split of opinion in the Family.”

Here, we learn how powerful information is and how one baffles and misleads the enemy by not signaling a trace of sensitive information.

All this leads me to ask: Do we exactly know what is Duterte’s ultimate attitude vis-à-vis his relationship with Bongbong Marcos and family? With Leni Robredo? With Gina Lopez and miners? With the Left and big business? With China and the US?

Take Duterte’s statement that he doesn’t want to go to war with China. It’s very rational. As one of the Godfather’s enemies said, to everyone’s concurrence (page 111): “I don’t like bloodshed, I’m a businessman and blood costs too much money.” (Ultimately, though, blood was spilled.)

Still and all, following The Godfather, Duterte never lets us know what he has under his fingernails.

And let’s be aware of how the Godfather wants to position himself in games of strategy (page 291): “He claimed that there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues.”

For those who ridicule Duterte for his antics, for those who think Duterte will self-destruct, for those who believe he will not last his term for political reasons, better watch out.

He’s Machiavellian. He’s Don Corleone.

That he’s Machiavellian and therefore rational and cold does not mean that he has no emotions. Here’s an insight from Michael Corleone (pages 189-190), which Senator Antonio Trillanes and those people in the Liberal Party involved in the dirty tricks must take heed:

“‘Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. If a bolt of lightning hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That’s what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal… I take that broken jaw personal; damn right, I take Sollozzo trying to kill my father personal.”

And for the rest of us who are supporting or opposing Duterte, my piece of advice is drawn from what the Godfather would say: “Don’t move too fast.”

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.