Does Donald Trump have a new favorite strongman? Trump, who as a candidate basked in the approval of the authoritarian Vladimir Putin, has used his time in office to embrace tough guys around the globe, praising the growing power of an autocrat in Turkey, respecting the survival instincts of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and recently calling China’s unelected leader, Xi Xinping, “a very good man.” Now it’s the Philippines turn. In another spontaneous foreign policy initiative, Trump used a Saturday phone call to invite the country’s controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, for an official White House visit. Duterte played coy, sending a message back that he might be too busy to meet with the American president, and Trump’s naive diplomacy is likely to boomerang back against America.
Calling Duterte controversial is like calling the Titanic wet. Duterte relishes making transgressive comments to inflame his opponents and rally supporters. He has vowed to personally kill drug addicts, called them zombies unable to rejoin society, and once offered to eat the liver of a terrorist, if it was served with salt and pepper.
Duterte is also enormously popular at home, with an outsider image that has obvious appeal to Trump. The Philippine president has brought an almost messianic zeal to reforming Philippine politics and ending the corruption that has left the island nation of 100 million people economically stagnant for decades. Using populism and threats, baiting opponents on television and steamrolling opposition, Duterte has become the very model of the modern nationalist strongman Trump seems to appreciate instinctively.
The problem is what Duterte does with his power. He came into office vowing a ruthless war on crime and disorder in the islands, at different points suggesting he would kill 700,000 or even three million criminals. In practice, this policy has meant the wholesale death of drug addicts and petty criminals, more than 7,000 people killed just since last July 1. Most have been shot dead in suspicious police operations encouraged by Duterte, giving rise to claims of framed suspects and extrajudicial killing. About a third of the killings appear to be the work of clandestine death squads or loosely organized vigilante groups who are turning Duterte’s bloodthirsty rhetoric into action. In a righteous frenzy to impose law and order, Duterte has unleashed a demon on his own country.
The death squads aren’t just a matter of “bad optics” in Washington. I spent almost a month covering the killings in Manila. I visited about a dozen murder scenes throughout various Manila slums, and interviewed police officers and politicians around the islands. In jails and at the scenes of gruesome late-night assassinations, I saw evidence that points to state involvement in these mysterious murders. There are now confessions by numerous police officers or contract killers who said they carried out killings orchestrated by police and political leaders in support of Duterte’s campaign. Two men have separately testified to Duterte himself participating in an earlier wave of vigilante killings.
Maybe Trump thinks he can rub elbows with such men and come away clean. Certainly, the American president’s agenda is to win the Philippines, which under Duterte has made friendly overtures to China, back to its traditionally close relationship with Washington. This is naive, both because the Philippines isn’t going anywhere (it has literally the most pro-American public in the world, including in America itself) and because Duterte himself is one of the few Filipinos who hates America, and is an unlikely convert to Trumpism. A White House dinner will probably help the Filipino president look statesmanlike, but it will leave traces of blood.
One analogue would be Turkey’s Reycep Erdogan, who also got a congratulatory phone call from President Trump as soon as he won a major national referendum allowing him to consolidate power in his own office. Erdogan has used the excuse of the July 2016 coup attempt to purge almost 150,000 people from government jobs, including tens of thousands of teachers opposed to his increasingly Islamist cultural dictates. Thousands of secular army officers and common soldiers have been arrested, along with over 1,000 judges and lawyers who opposed Erdogan. Like Duterte, Erdogan has rallied his nationalist, conservative base by agitating against internal enemies. In the Philippines, that focus has been on the most disadvantaged people in society. Most victims in the wave of killings are poor laborers and slum dwellers caught up in the drug trade, often impoverished addicts and the low-level dealers, typically fellow addicts, who service them.
The American president, who has lent his name to an unfinished skyscraper in Manila, sees only the upside of having another populist friend. Duterte, allowing for cultural differences, has shown a rhetorical affinity with Trump, having variously labeled Barack Obama, Pope Francis and the head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission “sons of whores,” and berating his opponents and critics as morons, traitors and zombies, even joking about rape and comparing himself jovially to Hitler. The political appeal of a free-spouting political volcano like Duterte should be obvious. Duterte may wear blue jeans and talk about blood, but he speaks Trump’s language. Like the other strongmen, he makes Trump seem normal by association. Trump recognizes this, and seeks to frame himself in a world of like-minded men.
That’s the problem: though located at opposite ends of the spectrum, Trump and Duterte are on the same spectrum, and think alike. But the nationalist impulse always needs enemies. Duterte has fed his own popularity with the bodies of 7,000 people so far. Trump isn’t likely to get popularity, or anything else, if his Filipino friend does show up.
Patrick Symmes is the author of The Boys from Dolores: Fidel Castro’s Schoolmates From Revolution to Exile.
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