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Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s less racist but more murderous Donald Trump, explained

Philippines Presidential Candidates Final Campaign Rally In Manila
Duterte Harry, as he’s occasionally called in the press.
(Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images).

While most Americans were busy celebrating Labor Day, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte was busy insulting their president.

After Obama criticized Duterte’s human rights record at a press conference over the long weekend, Duterte called him a “son of a whore.” Duterte apologized, but it was too late: On Tuesday morning, Obama canceled a planned summit between the two presidents.

This isn’t the first time Duterte has done something like this. In 2015, after a papal visit caused a traffic jam in Manila, Duterte called Pope Francis — you guessed it — a “son of a whore.” Just last month, he referred to US Ambassador Philip Goldberg as the “gay ambassador, the son of a whore.”

Goldberg’s crime? Suggesting that Duterte’s pro-rape comments (yes, seriously) may have been out of line.

In 1989, an Australian missionary named Jacqueline Hamill was gang-raped and murdered in Davao City, the Philippines’s third-largest city. At the time, Duterte was the city’s mayor. This April, he revisited the crime, suggesting that he should (as mayor) have been able to rape Hamill first.

“I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing,” Duterte said. “But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

This all makes you wonder: How on earth is this guy the president of a country populated by more than 100 million people?

To understand that, you need to understand a little bit about politics in the Philippines. Duterte’s rise is a response to inequality and crime rates well above the regional norm, as well as longstanding domination of politics by a few elite clans. His populism, in some ways similar to Donald Trump’s, led to a shock electoral victory in May.

Now the Philippines is stuck with an offensive, authoritarian strongman for a leader — at a pretty important geopolitical moment for the country and the region.

Rodrigo Duterte is the Filipino Trump (sort of)

Philippine Presidential Candidates Campaign On Labour Day (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Duterte got his start in politics in Davao, a city of roughly 1.6 million people on the southern island of Mindanao. He served as the city’s mayor for 22 of the 28 years between 1988 and 2016. In 2010, he switched roles with his daughter, then–Vice Mayor Sara Duterte, and let her be mayor for a bit. (Sara is currently Davao’s mayor again.)

Duterte’s main focus, by all accounts, was crime. He once personally rode around the city on a motorcycle, leading armed police on a patrol. He pioneered a policy of letting police and paramilitary groups simply kill suspected drug dealers and violent criminals — extrajudicially. He also imposed a series of more petty law-and-order ordinances, like banning alcohol consumption between 1 and 8 am.

There was a crime decline in Davao under Duterte, but it is still one of the most violent cities in the country. Regardless, Duterte sold himself as the man who cleaned up Davao. His nickname was “the Punisher.”

Duterte’s penchant for bizarre comments was a constant. Most politicians tend to hide it when they sleep around; Duterte bragged about it.

"I was separated from my wife. I'm not impotent,” Duterte said. “What am I supposed to do? Let this hang forever? When I take Viagra, it stands up."

Duterte’s bid for the presidency, launched late last year, combined these two images. He sold himself as a plain-spoken crime fighter, someone who’s honest and in touch with his own problems.

“He convinced the people that he’s a simple-living man; he’s not corrupt” Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at Manila’s De La Salle University, tells me. “Yes, he’s a womanizer. Who’s not a womanizer?” Heydarian asks rhetorically, in a summary of Duterte's pitch.

Somewhat ironically, Duterte is anything but an everyman. He actually hails from one of the handful of families that dominate Philippine politics.

“The Philippines’s politics is really a clash of clans,” Heydarian says. “You have 178 political dynasties dominating 78 out of 81 provinces. It’s the highest level of political concentration in Asia, comparable to Latin America.”

But Duterte’s brash behavior set him apart, helping build up a fake image of him as an outsider. Growing inequality, elite corruption, and homicide rates well above the norm in Southeast Asia contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction with the mainstream candidates. Duterte was a Trump-like protest choice: the kind of person you vote for to register dissatisfaction with the status quo and a sense that the country is going in the wrong direction.

Also like Trump, Duterte won by dividing his adversaries. The four other candidates, convinced Duterte was a joke, mostly ignored him for much of the race. Once they realized he was the real threat, it was too late. He managed to put together a plurality of votes, mostly drawing from the country’s middle class.

“The first thing to note about Duterte's victory is that it was not overwhelming — he won 39% of the vote in a five-cornered contest,” Tom Pepinsky, a professor at Cornell University who studies Southeast Asia, writes in an email. “He was significantly more popular than his next most popular opponents, but it can be hard to interpret this as the popularity of Duterte rather than the general disorganization of Philippine politics.”

Unlike Trump, however, Duterte didn’t play to reactionary Philippine grievances on race and identity. During his time as mayor of Davao City, he pushed through nondiscrimination laws protecting both women and the city’s Muslim minority. He’s pursued diplomatic solutions with the country’s various minority insurgent groups, including the amazingly named Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

"He is a bigot and I am not,” Duterte said, when asked about the Trump comparison.

Duterte’s crime rhetoric, unlike Trump’s, isn’t a code for racial grievances. It’s grounded in a genuine sense of insecurity among the Philippine middle class, as well as anger at the traditional political class.

“What Duterte represents and what makes him popular is not simply the extrajudicial murder of drug dealers and users, although sadly this may help, but rather the image of effective and orderly governance that he established as mayor in Davao City,” Pepinsky explains.

Duterte and Obama are fighting over Duterte’s brutal human rights abuses

Death Toll Climbs Over Duterte's Drug War
Soldiers in Manila.
(Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)

During his presidential campaign, Duterte basically promised to bring the Davao model to the entire nation. He vowed to stamp out drug use specifically: “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you.”

And that is exactly what he’s done. Time’s Rishi Iyengar reports that roughly 2,400 people have been killed in the past two months alone during Duterte’s drug crackdown.

About half of those people were murdered by unofficial thugs rather than by the police. The police, too, played their part: Duterte publicly suggested, at one policy gathering, that he’d support them killing en masse.

“Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” he says, per Iyengar.

This is what Obama was criticizing during his comments Monday. He suggested, fairly reasonably, that Duterte might be doing the drug war the wrong way.

“The issue of how we approach fighting crime and drug trafficking is a serious one for all of us. We've got to do it the right way," Obama said. "Undoubtedly, if and when we have a meeting, this is something that's going to be brought up. And my expectation, my hope is that it could be dealt with constructively."

Hence why an angry Duterte resorted to his favorite prostitution-related insult.

"You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum," he said of Obama. "More people will be killed, plenty will be killed until the last pusher is out of the streets. Until the (last) drug manufacturer is killed, we will continue and I will continue.”

“Democracy against disorder”

Red Shirt Supporters Rally In Favour Of Democratically Elected Government
An image of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who led a similar drug crackdown.
(Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

What’s weird is that the Philippines isn’t in the midst of a drug epidemic. Meth, called “shabu” locally, is the drug of choice. Yet Philippine meth use rates are barely above American levels, and nobody here is clamoring for extrajudicial killings of drug dealers. So what’s going on?

The important context here is regional. In 2003, Thai police killed 1,300 people in a drug crackdown. Indonesia is one of the few countries on Earth in which drug trafficking is a death penalty offense.

Pepinsky calls this kind of politics democracy against disorder: a mode of politics wherein democratic politicians gain support by promising ultra-harsh, or even illegal, measures against crime and criminality.

The key is the elevation of “order above law”: arguing that maintaining social cohesion and safety is a value above the law itself. From this perspective, drug use isn’t something to be managed — it’s something that needs to be stamped out.

This kind of politics isn’t unique to Southeast Asia, Pepinsky argues. But it was pioneered there. And there’s a conjunction of factors that make it electorally powerful in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines particularly.

“What makes it so successful in these three countries in particular is (1) their record of poor and ineffective governance, (2) their democratic political institutions coupled with presidential elections, and, tentatively (3) perhaps a traditional religious establishment (Catholic, Muslim, or Buddhist) whose moral concerns may help to mobilize outrage against immorality and crime,” he writes.

So the Obama-Duterte clash isn’t just incidental to the latter. From Duterte’s point of view, Obama was attacking a core part of his ideology and political appeal. No wonder he was so mad.

The stakes extend beyond the Philippines

2016 G20 State Leaders Hangzhou Summit
Obama with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
(Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Now, Duterte has apologized (sort of). Obama may or may not get over it, but he only has a few months left in office regardless. So arguably, Duterte’s insult won’t hurt US-Philippine relations in the long run.

But there’s a subtext here: Duterte isn’t a big fan of the United States.

“Anti-American,” as some have labeled him, is a stretch. His policy instincts are bit more like leftist skepticism of US goodwill and intentions — a sense that America is an imperialist meddler that often makes things worse. That makes sense, given that the US administered the Philippines as a de facto colonial power between 1898 and 1946.

“His mentor in college was Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Philippine Communist Party,” Heydarian says. “He was a student who formed his consciousness during the Vietnam War.”

Duterte’s attack on Obama also blasted him for hypocrisy, asking where the US gets off criticizing his human rights practices given police violence against African Americans. It’s hard to separate his insulted reaction from his belief that the US is an unjust country and a malign influence on the world.

That being said, Duterte doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver here. The Philippines has long been embroiled in a major territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea, a body of water just to the Philippines’s west. The United States is the only military power strong enough to stop Chinese adventurism in that area, which means the Philippines needs a strong relationship with the US to support its claim.

Hence why Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, made a point of emphasizing a “special relationship” with the United States. Duterte has tried to dial that back, and move towards a less antagonistic relationship with China, but it’s not clear how successful that will be. Both Heydarian and Pepinsky told me they believe, in the long run, Duterte will need to focus on maintaining a strong relationship with the US.

The question is how much damage Duterte can do to the bilateral relationship, with comments like “son of a whore,” before that happens.

“Duterte's rapid apology for his remarks against Obama and his mother probably reflects Duterte's recognition that he has erred in pushing away his country's most important ally,” Pepinsky writes. “Over the medium term I suspect that the two countries come together, but in the short term Duterte's choice of words is surely frustrating for the US efforts to build a coalition against China in what Filipinos consider the West Philippine Sea.”