Usually, most politicians act outraged when their critics compare them to Hitler. But Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte is not most politicians.
Early Friday morning, Duterte voluntarily compared his vicious crackdown on the drug trade — which has claimed at least 3,000 lives since June 30 — to the Holocaust. As if it were as a good thing.
Critics "portrayed [me] to be some cousin of Hitler,” Duterte said out of nowhere in a press conference. "Hitler massacred three million Jews, now there is three million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them.”
“If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have...” he said, pointing a finger at himself.
Think about that comment for a moment. It’s not just that a sitting head of state made offensive and factually incorrect comments about the Holocaust (he underestimated the number of Jews murdered by half). It’s not that he overestimated the number of drug addicts in the Philippines by nearly double (the correct figure is 1.8 million).
It’s that he’s saying Hitler got it right, if only he had been exterminating drug addicts instead of Jews.
This doesn’t mean that Duterte is going to set up extermination camps for drug users. But it does point to a horrifying reality: Duterte really is murdering drug users en masse. He has turned the Philippines, a country with as many people as France and Canada put together, into a state-sanctioned killing field.
Who is Rodrigo Duterte?
To understand Duterte’s Holocaust comments, you need to understand a bit about where he came from.
Duterte got his start in politics in Davao, a city of roughly 1.6 million people on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. 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 as mayor, 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 decline in crime 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 and offensive comments was a constant. He once lamented that he didn’t get to participate in the 1989 gang rape of an Australian missionary in Davao.
“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.”
Duterte sold his offensiveness as a positive, politically. It was evidence that he was a man of the people, despite the fact that he comes from one of the Philippines’s most powerful political families. These dual images — crime fighter and populist — fueled his 2016 campaign for the presidency.
“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, told me.
Duterte won the presidential election much in the same way that Donald Trump won the GOP nomination — by preying on fears of high crime rates and by taking advantage of a divided political field that didn’t take him seriously.
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.”
So when Duterte took office on June 30, he believed he had a mandate for applying his harsh approach to crime to the entire country. Then the killing started.
Duterte’s Holocaust comments are only sort of hyperbole
Since taking office, Duterte has encouraged both police and non-official paramilitary gangs to kill drug dealers and users. “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” he said at a July 1 gathering.
This is what’s so scary about Duterte’s Holocaust comments. He really is serious about killing drug users, and human rights officials worry that this signals a commitment to ramping up his anti-drug killing spree.
“The words President Duterte used are not just extremely distasteful, they are extremely dangerous,” Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in an emailed statement. “They serve no discernible purpose other than to put more lives at risk.”
The grim irony of the whole situation is that the Philippines doesn’t actually have a major drug problem.
Methamphetamine, called “shabu” locally, is the drug of choice. “According to UNODC data, the highest ever recorded figure for the prevalence of amphetamine use (expressed as a percentage of the population aged 15 to 64) in the Philippines is 2.35,” writes Time’s Rishi Iyengar. The equivalent figure in the US is 2.2 percent. And the US has much higher use rates of opioids and cocaine than the Philippines.
Yet you don’t see American politicians, even Trump, calling for mass killings of drug addicts — much less conducting them. So what’s going on?
The important context here is regional. In 2003, police in Thailand 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.
Cornell University’s Thomas 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.
This, ultimately, is why Duterte’s Holocaust comments must be taken seriously. It’s not just that he’s already conducting a mass killing campaign — it’s that this kind of mass killing, conducted in the name of law and order, is critical to his political appeal and strategy. This unique combination of murderousness and offensiveness is who Duterte is.