The Philippines’ Donald Trump

Rodrigo Duterte’s rash behavior and harsh politics are imperiling his country’s democracy.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte makes a speech during the Philippines - China Trade and Investment Fourm at the Great Hall of the People on October 20, 2016 in Beijing, China.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the Philippines-China Trade and Investment Fourm at the Great Hall of the People on Oct. 20 in Beijing.

Wu Hong-Pool/Getty Images

While Americans are busy fretting about which historical European strongman Donald Trump most closely resembles, it’s reassuring to know that—contra the talk of trade deficits—we are exporters as well as importers of frightening comparisons. The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is being talked about as his country’s Donald Trump. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao, was elected this year on a platform of being tough on crime and drugs. Since his election, law enforcement and vigilante groups have killed several thousand people in the country’s drug war. Duterte has compared himself to Hitler and said he would have no problem murdering millions of drug addicts.

Despite popularity at home, Duterte has been the subject of harsh criticism abroad. This has caused him to threaten to leave the United Nations, and to deride everyone from Pope Francis to President Obama, whom he called the “son of whore” and told to “go to hell.” During a recent trip to China, Duterte agreed to reopen talks about disputed territories in the South China Sea and threatened to reduce military ties with America.

To discuss Duterte’s career and personality, I spoke by phone with Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, and the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the roots of the Duterte’s dislike of the United States, whether Philippine democracy is imperiled, and the significant differences between Duterte and Trump.

Isaac Chotiner: How ideological is Duterte’s anti-Americanism and how much is he driven by his … colorful personality?

Richard Javad Heydarian: There are three different factors that explain his tirades against the United States. One is definitely his Non-Aligned Movement ideology. The second is an element of irritation with the United States. There was an incident in 2002 when an American citizen was escorted out of the country after a bombing or an explosion in his hotel, which raised all sorts of alarm bells. Duterte was not even consulted even though he was the mayor [of Davao City, where it occurred]. The FBI just came in and took out the America citizen. It was under very suspicious circumstances. In 2007, he actually blocked Philippine-U.S. exercises in Davao City and he never allowed the Americans to use the Davao air base for drone operations. There is a very strong history of Duterte standing up to the United States and having a lot of misgivings about it. The third is that by picking on the United States, he was also signaling to China that he’s an independent leader.

At the same time, I think he’s not a Hugo Chávez, because he understands that the Philippine security establishment is very close to America. And the public is extremely pro-American. In his first month in office, he was not making tirades against the United States. He kept his cool. But all hell broke loose when the American ambassador openly criticized his war on drugs and then Obama joined the fray. That was where he became extremely pissed off. All of that baggage from the past just came to the fore, and he just laid into the United States.

Duterte has registered past disgust with United States’ policy in the Philippines going back to our support of autocracy during the Cold War. But why has he taken on a special dislike of Obama?

I don’t think there’s any reason for any leader to have a special dislike for Obama. He is extremely popular in Asia, and even here in the Philippines. I believe what happened was that they met in a waiting room on the second day, I think, of the ASEAN Summit, and that’s where something went wrong, because I think Obama’s swagger just got on his nerves. Obama said something like, “I will ask my staff to follow up with you.” I think Obama said a couple of things that really ticked off Duterte.

This doesn’t seem out of character for a guy who is having death squads go after drug dealers.

There is this perception that he’s just some sort of unhinged leader who got into power by playing into fear and tapping into people’s darker instincts. I know that is the perception in the West. I think the guy is a little bit more dynamic than that one-dimensional portrayal. The very fact that this guy won all these elections in his life shows that he also has some sort of Machiavellian, tactical acumen. You cannot be such a successful politician if you’re just a complete, unhinged Dirty Harry.

You aren’t following the American elections, clearly.

I am following the American elections with a lot of worry. [Laughs.] Donald Trump was a reality show star who never had any experience in actual politics, as opposed to Duterte.

Duterte is not one thing. He’s a combination of different factors. I think there’s the Duterte the entertainer who can give speeches that appeal to ordinary people. So he has a kind of populist side. Similar to Hugo Chávez, he also had a show where he talked to the masses and tried to show that he was a caring and a comfortable leader. But he tends to get carried away and make inappropriate jokes or remarks. And then of course there’s the Dirty Harry side to him, which is the threatening one. But people love it because he says, “I may be tough, but I’m tough for you against the criminals.” It’s what we call penal populism.

Then of course, there’s this Machiavellian side, which has some evidence of governance successes because Davao was significantly transformed under his watch from the 1980s to 2000 s. It became a relatively stable and tranquil city. If you look at the subjective perception of people in Davao, they are very impressed with him. That explains why he got almost 90 percent of the votes in Davao during the last election, which shows a tremendous amount of appreciation. Duterte’s a guy who can get things done and he was known for dealing very well with businessmen, including Japanese businessmen, who were extremely impressed by him. He made sure that business licenses were processed within only 48 hours. He was very hands-on. He did a lot of micromanaging.

Why is his anti-drug message so popular, even though it includes such extreme methods?

I think President Duterte is very effective at tapping into a generalized sense of public disorder. The absence of the rule of law. And while the Philippines is definitely not as drug-infested as Mexico or Colombia or even the United States, for that matter, if you look at statistics, the fact of the matter is that by regional standards it is definitely a less safe place. Homicide rates are among the highest in the world in the Philippines. Drug usage is more prevalent in the Philippines than neighboring countries. There’s this sense that the Philippines is not a safe country. That there’s no rule of law. And Duterte really ran on the rule of law kind of platform, just like Richard Nixon. And I think he had a very effective social media campaign. Actually the best social media campaign I’ve seen across different elections not only in the Philippines but in emerging countries.

A lot of Filipino people are appreciative of a man of action. I think action for action’s sake is now very popular. There’s that kind of autocratic nostalgia. People want a tough, decisive guy, single-minded guy to just get things done. They’re sick and tired of democratic paralysis. This is one thing similar here in the Philippines and also in the United States.

People are of course aware that there are problems with his shocking approach. But I think they appreciate the fact that he fulfilled or tried to fulfill his promises. Nonetheless, more than 70 percent of the respondents want drug users alive. That means that drug rehabilitation is the best way forward. And that is what President Duterte will have to shift to in the war on drugs. It will have to be more public health focused, more rehabilitation focused, and less bloody. There is some indication that this is what the government is considering.

How much do you think the relationship between the United States and the Philippines, and the Philippines and China, is actually going to change?

The change has already happened, if you’re talking about diplomatic atmospherics and about optics. I have been traveling around the world to discuss Duterte’s foreign policy and Philippine-U.S. relations and from the EU to the United States everyone is talking about the massive shift in the Philippines’ foreign policy. Some people talk about the Philippines jumping from the American to the Chinese camp. And that is also the conversation that you see within the Philippines.

If you scratch below the surface, the picture is less dramatic but significant nonetheless. Less dramatic because President Duterte has made a lot of threats against America—expelling troops, ending joint exercises, abrogating existing agreements—but after all of those tirades, we have not seen a confirmation of an abrogation or cancellation. In fact, a new batch of American troops just arrived as special forces to advise in counterterror operations.

The only thing that is kind of confirmed is that the joint patrols in the South China Sea will not push through. But they never started to begin with; it’s more like there was a vague plan a year ago and he is not very excited about it. Look, I’m not saying that the guy is pure bluster. There could be some downgrade, although I would call it a slight downgrade, in the Philippines’ relationship with America.

As far as a grand bargain with China, I think something has already been negotiated or will be laid out in the coming months. He is likely willing to, for instance, cancel any joint military exercises with the United States in the South China Sea. For the past 3 or 4 years, the United States and the Philippines together with Japan and other countries have been conducting amphibious attacks and defense exercises. China sees that in a very threatening light. It could also not expand access to American forces regarding major bases in the South China Sea.

Is there any hope for relations to improve in specific ways?

I don’t think this is an inevitable downward spiral. The same with China: I don’t think that the relationship is on an inevitable upward spiral. I think the United States can rebuild bridges with Duterte if it helps Duterte build rehabilitation centers. Hundreds of thousands of people have surrendered as drug users out of sheer fear and it seems a lot of them are actually drug users, but how do you deal with them? And I think this is where the United States could help by investing a little bit in rehabilitation centers, and by keeping better intelligence for President Duterte on international drug syndicates.

In sum, how worried are you about democracy in the Philippines going forward?

I wrote a piece asking if this was the end of Philippines democracy [in April]. There was a sense of worry. But so far, there has been no crackdown on the media, and no violent suppression of the opposition. It seems that the Philippines’ checks and balances are beginning to work. For a while, they went into hibernation in the first or second month. There was almost no opposition and complete unanimity and support. But now, the opposition is beginning to build up in the senate, in civil society, even among allies of President Duterte. You have his communist allies criticizing him on his war on drugs. And then you have his businessman supporters also telling him to perhaps be a little bit more careful about his language because that may undermine the economy. Yes, Duterte makes unhinged tirades and rhetoric and all. But so far, I don’t see that this is a government who’s panicked enough to declare martial law or anything like that. At this point in time, it seems Duterte is confident enough that he’s popular, and that his popularity would be sufficient for him to fulfill his campaign promises and overcome opposition.