William Pesek says one can joke about the similarities between the American and Philippine presidents, but the likeness goes deeper than their crude statements, and Trump’s embrace of strongman politics puts the whole world on edge

William Pesek

16 Mar 2018

When Rodrigo Duterte ran for the Philippine presidency in 2016, the international media couldn’t help but label the firebrand the Donald Trump of Southeast Asia. Little did we know it might turn out to be the other way around.

Few thought in May 2016, when Duterte won, that Trump would similarly shock humankind 183 days later. The hope, of course, was that the real-estate-mogul-turned-politician would turn his business acumen into a governing strategy and channel his inner Ronald Reagan. Instead, Trump is reading from the Duterte playbook with a bit of Ferdinand Marcos sprinkled in.

The Marcos parallels began with candidate Trump hiring Paul Manafort as campaign chairman, 31 years after the Philippine dictator secured Manafort’s services. Trump followed the Marcos Inc. kleptocracy model, turning the White House into a family-business zone. The Duterte analogies, though, are building with each passing month. Here are four.

Neutering the media – Trump is steadily weaponising his “fake news” mantra. He’s called the free press, a cornerstone of democracy, the “enemy of the American people”. It’s a delegitimisation tactic employed by Joseph Stalin, Marcos and now Duterte. On January 15, Manila moved to shut down the Rappler news portal, one critical of Duterte’s bloody drug war, scandals involving his family (his son stands accused of ties to drug traffickers), his personal wealth and his policy volatility.

Trump is itching to weaken First Amendment protections. At a rally last week, he had nicer things to say about North Koreantyrant Kim Jong-un than journalists. Trump and Duterte also are feeding off each other. At a bilateral meeting in Manila in November, Trump chuckled along as Duterte derided reporters in the room as “spies”. The global community isn’t laughing.

Executing drug dealers – Trump went full Duterte at the end of February, raising the spectre of capital punishment: “The drug dealers, the drug pushers, they’re really doing damage. Some countries have a very, very tough penalty – the ultimate penalty. And by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.” While White House spin doctors talk of Singaporeand China as inspirations, Trump gushed early and often about Duterte’s assassins (“unbelievable job on the drug problem”).

Among the many levels of ignorance Trump is displaying is this: Duterte’s gunmen are killing street dealers extrajudicially, while Trump’s quarrel is with pharmaceutical executives sitting in corporate boardrooms. In other words, Republican Party donors. They’re supplying opioids addicting Americans. Trump wants to look tough. Yet going the Duterte route would shoot Washington’s global standing in the foot.

Cowing institutions – Trump’s affinity for authoritarians from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to China’s Xi Jinping to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan informs his Duterte bromance. A key Duterte priority is chipping away at the legitimacy of lawmakers, judges and other democratic guardrails. Look no further than impeachment proceedings against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Duterte’s threats of martial law don’t help. During his first six months in the presidential palace, Manila’s ranking in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index fell six rungs – to 101st from 95th.

Trump has launched assaults on lawmakers, the Justice Department, court rulings against him, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the electoral infrastructure and the budgets of any organisation that doesn’t fall in line. He has also staffed departments with officials more intent on burning them to the ground, figuratively, than serving the public.

Erratic behaviour – Duterte’s latest battle is with the United Nations, saying it should feed its human-rights team to crocodiles. That followed attacks on Trump predecessor Barack Obama (“son of a whore”), the pope, the European Union and credit-rating companies. He’s likened himself to Hitler and joked about sexual assault à la Trump. Yet it’s one thing, with all due respect, when the leader of a Southeast Asian nation goes off the rails, quite another when it happens in the nation with the biggest economy and most powerful military.

The tweeter-in-chief’s unhinged rants and taunts worry psychologists as much as markets. When Trump shoots from the hip with ill-conceived withdrawals from global treatiestariffs, dollar-policy shifts or planned summits with Kim, the geopolitical world shifts on its axis. Duterte’s bluster in Manila is a challenge to neighbours in Asia. But the “Dutertefication” of the Trump White House is a global problem, one that is deepening before our eyes.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades. Twitter: @williampesek

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