US President Donald Trump’s recent friendly phone conversation with Rodrigo Duterte, during which he invited the Philippine president to the White House, raised questions about his penchant for closeness with strongmen.
Even though Duterte was noncommittal, saying he might be too busy to stop by anytime soon, this didn’t stop the enthusiastic American president from saying he is looking forward to visiting the Philippines for the East Asia Summit in November.
Rights groups accuse the Duterte administration of orchestrating and condoning extrajudicial killings by police and vigilante groups. The campaign is estimated to have killed over 7,000 people in the president’s first ten months in power.
In response to suggestions that Trump was downplaying this record of human rights violations, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said praise for the Philippine president was needed to ensure he would partner with other US allies in Asia to address the nuclear threat from North Korea.
But given the Philippines’ lack of proximity to – or involvement in – the North Korean conflict, this appears to be little more than a ruse to distract from Trump’s warm words for Duterte’s violent “war on drugs.”
The right stuff
This is the second time Duterte and Trump have spoken. The first telephone chat took place on December 2, 2016, shortly after Trump’s surprise victory in the US presidential elections.
In recounting that conversation, Duterte claimed Trump had promised to repair the “bad relations” between the Philippines and the US that had resulted from the Obama administration’s criticism of the Philippine president’s deadly crackdown on drugs.
Duterte claimed that Trump had said he was “doing great” in his drug war and that “if you listen to how Trump talks to me now, I have already turned into a saint.”
This was very different to former US president Barack Obama, who Duterte said had portrayed him as a murderer. The Philippine president had returned the compliment by telling the former US chief executive to “go to hell.”
Similar to the Chinese leadership (led by “red princelings”, such as President Xi Jingping, the son of a high-ranking Chinese national official), which has worked closely with Ivanka Trump and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to – apparently successfully – improve US-China ties, Duterte has looked to combine business with politics for dealing with the new US president.
And he was ahead of the curve. Just days before Trump’s victory last November, he appointed Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, Jose EB Antonio, the chairman of Century Property, developer of the recently built Trump Tower in Metro Manila’s business district Makati, as his “special envoy to the US to enhance business ties” between the two countries.
This led some Filipino analysts to speculate that Duterte had predicted Trump’s victory. In any case, it’s another example of a troubling Trump business deal with a “foreign power-player.”
Duterte has been dubbed the “Trump of the East”, a label often rejected due to differences in the cultural context and global power of the two countries.
But both “Digong” Duterte and “the Donald” Trump have abandoned polite political discourse in favor of “backstage rhetoric” that’s often offensive and sometimes vulgar. Unfortunately, this underlines their supposed authenticity to their supporters.
Due to their similar political discourse, both can also be labelled “right” populists by whom “the people” – simple and good – are contrasted with a corrupt elite. And the latter is portrayed as coddling a minority group or groups seen to be a cause of societal ills.
Right populism plays on people’s fears and prejudices while “left populism” (Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in England; Spain’s Podemos political party) calls out social injustice and demands greater regulation of capitalism.
But despite Duterte’s strong nationalism and ties to the Philippine left, the president has mobilized a mass constituency through the media, particularly social media. And with the use of radical rhetoric portraying a corrupt elite that panders to drug dealers and addicts.
Unlike Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, and other “rich country” right populists, however, Duterte, who in this sense is more similar to the leaders of other developing countries, is not opposed to migration and is not anti-globalization.
After all, the Philippines has relied heavily on remittances from millions of Filipino workers abroad and on foreign investment (particularly in business processing and call centers) to fuel its recent rapid economic growth.
Following a pattern
Duterte is, in essence, promising “order over law”, a seductive message in a country with weak political institutions and endemic corruption. Unlike in the United States, where the courts and even a Republican-controlled Congress have proved recalcitrant, leading to the – at least partial – taming of Trump, in the Philippines, Duterte faces few obstacles in his monomaniacal focus of eradicating drugs.
The Philippine Supreme Court has been intimidated and, given the weakness of political parties in the country, large majorities in both the House and the Senate have gone over to Duterte’s side despite his originally having only a handful of party mates in the legislature.
Revelations of the kidnapping and killing of South Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo in October 2016 forced Duterte to pause his drug war. But it has recently been restarted – albeit at a slower pace – by Philippine national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.
Trump clearly has a soft spot for the “hard men” of global politics. He was the first Western leader to congratulate increasingly authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his “victory” in a recent referendum that was widely criticized for its clampdown on opposition and electoral manipulation.
He has also hosted the Egyptian coup-maker President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who has ruthlessly repressed Islamists and other dissidents. And while his exact links to the man in the Kremlin may still be uncertain, Trump’s past words of effusive praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin are a matter of public record.
Trump’s encouragement of Duterte, who has one of the worst human rights records among current world leaders – and who is facing a case in the International Criminal Court – suggests that US pressure on regimes around the world to uphold civil liberties may have become a thing of the past.
Mark R. Thompson is Professor of Politics and Head of the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong