In The Philippines, Trump Is Already President

11/02/2016 06:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2016
Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

WASHINGTON -- He is a septuagenarian riding a wave of anger at the political establishment. He has hurled insults at everybody from women to the disabled to the Pope. At home, he has promised to pursue his agenda through unconventional, and likely illegal, means. Abroad, he has questioned the existing international order while threatening decades-long alliances.

Rodrigo Duterte, the recently elected President of the Philippines, is just the latest addition to a growing group of authoritarian strongmen -- from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro -- who rose to power on a platform of populist bombast. But it is only Duterte who has earned the title of his continent's Donald Trump.

As we enter the final days of the United States presidential campaign during a week in which Trump is inviting Americans to imagine the first 100 days of his presidency, Duterte's recently completed first 100 days provides a helpful counter-point -- or, more to the point, a cautionary tale. Duterte shows us that a reckless candidate with a dangerous autocratic streak and a knack for offensive statements can quickly become an even more reckless president with a destructive governing style whose continuing insults make his country look foolish in a way that threatens global stability. Filipinos who voted for Duterte in the hopes that the Presidency would change him are now horrified to see those hopes being fulfilled in reverse, as they realize: he's not getting better, he's getting worse.

Let's start with the murders being carried out in his name, which have rightly earned the world's revulsion since Duterte took office in early July. Known as the "Death Squad Mayor" during the 22 years in which he led Davao City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Duterte's primary claim to fame was that his police force brutally executed hundreds of drug dealers and drug users -- often without judge, jury, or even arrest.

Like the "wall" that Trump promises to build between Mexico and America or the "deportation force" the real estate magnate says he'll deploy from house to house to kick out illegal immigrants, candidate Duterte had a singular focus: drugs. He simply promised to kill the bad guys without being troubled by inconvenient barriers like due process. His vow during the campaign to dump the bodies of drug dealers "into Manila Bay" was laughed off by some as election-year tough talk from the Philippines' own "Duterte Harry."

But as he approaches the beginning of his fourth month in office, nobody is laughing any more: nearly 3,000 Filipinos have been slaughtered in extrajudicial killings that have made a mockery of the island nation's long adherence to the rule of law. Nearly half of these deaths have occurred not at the hands of the police, but by vigilantes that Duterte has encouraged. Critics, from Amnesty International to the United Nations to the Catholic Church, have condemned his campaign. Some have accused him of violating international law.

In response, Duterte threatened to withdraw from the UN, after which his Foreign Minister clarified that would never happen. He used allies in the legislature to shut down a Senate inquiry into the killings while squashing dissent. And he bragged on national TV about trampling due process and heroically killing criminals (his youngest victim was five years old).

That impulsiveness has extended to foreign policy, where Duterte has made brash autocratic pronouncements that ignore both geopolitics and his country's longtime relationships. On a state visit to China last month, Duterte announced both a separation from the U.S. - which is the country's only treaty ally, one that has supplied 75 percent of all arms imports to the Philippines since 1950 - and a tentative agreement over disputed claims in the South China Sea. Within twenty-four hours, his trade minister, who wasn't consulted on the announcement, started walking back the separation. And a Foreign Ministry spokesman admitted that, since Duterte never discussed a potential deal with members of his government, the news caught him completely by surprise, too.

These actions have confused allies and unsettled neighbors. The visit to China, Duterte's first state visit as President, created a rift with Japan, his country's largest foreign investor. His words have made Southeast Asian neighbors, like Vietnam, uneasy. He followed that up with a trip to Japan, where he was quoted as saying he would kick all foreign troops out of his country in "maybe two years," which came as news to those diplomats in Manila enforcing a treaty, signed by the previous president, to station American troops in the country. All of it has "baffled" US officials - still troubled that Duterte disgustingly dismissed President Barack Obama as the "son of a whore" in early September -- who worry that Duterte's antics are creating further uncertainty in a time of growing regional instability as China aggressively and illegally extends its reach into the South China Sea.

It has all proven to be too much for former president Fidel Ramos, who played an important role in Duterte's ascension, but who announced yesterday that he is resigning as Duterte's envoy to China. A few days earlier, he published a scathing editorial that accused the president of "unwittingly shooting himself in the mouth" while embarrassing his fellow citizens.

Like the 71-year-old Duterte, the 70-year-old Trump has questioned the value of US alliances, cozied up to China and Russia, and created a lingering uncertainty in international politics. He has lashed out at his critics, shown little regard for institutions or norms, demonstrated little respect or understanding of how democracy works, and casually discussed violence with his followers.

Would Trump suddenly change if elected President? Could a candidate who doesn't embody a single quality embraced by Christians suddenly convert as if on the road to Damascus?

The performance of Trump's Filipino twin would seem to argue: not a chance in hell. He's much more likely to simply become an American Duterte with a Bronx accent.

I'm not a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, but I'm even less a fan of extremists in public office, on either the right or the left--both of which exist to gum up progress for everyone else. It gives me heartburn to imagine that a Clinton presidency would elevate the profiles of her critics on the far left, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But at least Clinton is bright and clear and a lot more centrist than she's been given credit for, especially on foreign affairs. Trump, by contrast, is every bit as dangerous and small-minded as he seems, in every way.

Unlike Duterte, a President Trump would command the world's largest economy, its largest military, and its second-largest nuclear stockpile. He would be at the head of an alliance network that has functioned as the cornerstone of international order for the past seven decades. In just over 100 days, Duterte has already incited international havoc. With the power of the US presidency, Trump could do so on a much bigger scale.

"America has lost," Duterte proclaimed in his speech at Beijing's Great Hall. It hasn't - yet. But we've already seen what a person with Duterte's callousness and carelessness can do. If we were to elect that kind of person to the Oval Office, then we may just prove him right.

America: consider yourself warned.

Stanley A. Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades. His memoir, "Being Dead is Bad for Business", will be published by Disruption Books in February, 2017.

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