A Familiar Refrain: Duterte, Trump, Autocracy and the Other

Donald Trump’s enthusiastic embrace this week of authoritarian dictators around the world spiked sufficiently to break into mainstream news media’s consciousness, but it’s really nothing new. It’s more of a continuation of a theme that pre-dates the election.

This embrace extends beyond his bizarre and well-documented love of all things Vladimir Putin – his continuing refusal to find a bad word to say about Putin despite the ever-increasing body of evidence that might warrant a terse statement or two sprinkled in amongst his regular stream of laudatory mewing for the leader of Russia.

Before and after the election, Trump has spoken highly of strongmen across the globe, past and present, including Saddam Hussein. He recently called to congratulate Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a successful vote in that country to give Erdogan even more executive power, a result that most observers conclude spells the end of democratic governance in that geopolitically critical NATO-member state. Trump’s warm reception of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House stands as another prominent example.

And the single unifying element amongst all of these leaders Trump finds praiseworthy: they’re all ‘strongman’ authoritarians, autocrats or let’s don’t sugarcoat it, dictators. To a man. Accordingly, it is not difficult to conclude this is not a coincidence, but indeed a quality that Trump evidently admires in each of them.

This week, Trump has managed to ping the mainstream radar, initially by inviting Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte for an official state visit to the White House without bothering to consult his own State Department, and then by calling North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a “smart cookie” and stating that he (Trump) would be “honored” to sit down for a face-to-face talk with him, with the caveat Sean Spicer was at pains to remind us “… under the right circumstances.”

So now this disturbing peculiarity of the president’s personality – which has long troubled writers, political scientists, observers, cultural anthropologists and others – finally gets a little time in the disinfecting sunshine, courtesy of our television and cable TV news organizations, who have turned their own Sauron’s Eye-like attention upon it.

There is a lesson in Trump’s adulation. In addition to countless other statements he has made along the trail (“I alone can fix it”), Donald Trump gives every indication of personally preferring authoritarianism over democracy, and further, he envisions it for his term in office as POTUS and actively works towards it each day. (See, e.g., his no-stop assault on the press and the courts – two institutions historically distrusted by dictators as legitimate threats to continued rule and power.)

Take for example, Trump’s current bestie, Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s rise to power received some coverage in the Western press since he came to power in May 2016, but scant little. And while the two men differ in style and personality, much as the Philippines itself differs from the United States, the similarities between Trump and Duterte are worthy of some closer scrutiny. Consider:

In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte swept into power in the Philippines on a Populist wave and a crusade against drug dealers (Others). (Note: For Others, substitute Muslims (U.S.) or Jews (Nazi Germany), Armenians (Ottoman Empire), or Homosexuals (Chechnya), etc., etc., for present-day and historical parallels.) Slaughter ensued. Thousands were dead, murdered, in few months. Not only drug dealers, but soon also merely drug users became fair game.

Note: This is a swift and sudden expansion of the definition of the OTHER. Once expanded, the lid is off.

This expansion is important. As political scientists and historians tell us, the target of an authoritarian nearly always starts as at least arguably legitimate. Some target seemingly otherwise benign (read: unthreatening, marginalized or otherwise not alarming).

Then, once the OTHER is initially defined, the definition can be continually expanded with less scrutiny to legitimacy of the additions. Note: History is replete with exemplars. The obvious one is the most garish, Hitler’s Germany, but it is less effective because of the inevitable allegation of the overused ‘Hitler analogy.’ But quickly, for this limited purpose, note how Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe expanded to include Gypsies, the disabled, political enemies, and other marginalized groups of peoples. The definition expands.

The important thing to remember is that populists invariably come to power via demonization of some OTHER.

Put simply, Others essentially means not us.

[Sidebar – The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once defined the concept of ‘one’ as the negation of everything else (paraphrase). I know that sounds like one of those trippy ‘tree falls-in-the-forest’ things that philosophers ruminate upon endlessly while the rest of the world, you know, actually accomplishes stuff. But hold up, hold up. Think about it. Two is relatively easy to define. It’s 1+1. Three, five, 11, 17 and 200,000,000 are similarly and readily defined the same way. They’re simply more ‘ones,’ with the only difference being how many more. But the 1, defining that is more problematic. And ultimately, Hegel was right – our minds naturally define ‘the one’ by distinguishing it from everything else it is not. Negate everything except X, and what’s left is the one (X). The Other is defined in much the same way. The Other is the negation of the Us. It is the not us. ]

The creation of an Other is necessary for a budding autocrat. The Other defines the enemy. Identifying the enemy, the not us, is the necessary first step in dehumanizing our enemy, in demonizing the Other. Of course, the process of dehumanizing is a critical tool in an authoritarian’s toolbox. Dehumanization is a prerequisite to committing atrocities. Because, an atrocity is not inherently heinous if the target is dehumanized first. Few people agonize over killing ants on their kitchen counter. Accordingly, the they must be dogs, vermin, scum, etc. i.e., “It’s okay, they’re not us, it’s not like they’re even human.”

Even in non-authoritarian governments, the process of dehumanizing opponents enables soldiers/warriors to do what they do, what they must do to be soldiers. (Thus the inevitable nicknames for enemy soldiers: ‘Jerry,’ ‘Gooks,’ ‘Slopes,’ ‘Charlie,’ ‘Krauts,’ etc.) Pushed further, it also enables soldiers to commit heinous acts. Dehumanization pre-authorizes otherwise unpalatable actions, however terrible. Away from the front lines, dehumanizing also enables civilians/non-combatants to avert their gaze and appease their conscience.

These truths are not limited to these specific examples discussed, they are universals. This is the way this is done. [citations to book learnin’ go here.]

Back to Duterte’s slaughter – his own personal ‘war on drugs.’

To fight his drug war, Duterte has specifically authorized extra-judicial killings. Not ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ authorized. Expressly authorized. In words. Speeches.

And we’re talking about extra-judicial in the full sense of the notion. No trial, no arrest, no right to an attorney, no due process. Only street-level summary judgment and swift execution. Moreover, suspicion alone is sufficient for a death sentence.

As a long-time mayor of a southern Philippines city, this was Duterte’s modus operandi, and he CAMPAIGNED on this in his run for president. It was his signature, his trademark.

His basic premise was simple. Drugs = Bad. And he alone can fix it. (Hmm, sound familiar?) A weary and frustrated populous ate it up, and voted Duterte in, this ‘man of the people,’ who ‘understands’ their concerns.

How about now? Does that sound familiar?

Once he became President, Duterte specifically targeted drug dealers as a scourge and the cause of all society’s ills. Scourge. Others. Soon enough, those merely suspected of drug dealing were targeted. And murdered. Next, drug users became targets. They become Others, too. And we witness the definition expanding.

Soon again thereafter, it was not only dealers and users, but bystanders who were being killed. CHILDREN killed, shot dead. [Note: Bystanders are not truly Others, per se, but collateral damage; a tragic but ‘necessary’ cost.] In effect, for Duterte, the OTHERS grew to include drug dealers, drug users and any stray 8-yr-old child standing in the line of fire.

And again, Duterte expressly endorsed these extra-judicial killings. He authorized them. He gave speeches. He literally promised his people and the world that thousands more would die.

Bodies quickly began to pile up. They were often left to lie in the street where they were killed.

Pause and remember: Duterte only took office last May 2016. Eleven months ago. And the execution-style deaths already number in the thousands. Over seven thousand at last count.

Thousands dead. In 11 months. Real. True.

This New York Times article is an eye-opener (a photo essay), if you can bear to view it, (it’s grisly):  http://nyti.ms/2gSDf0T

‘They’re slaughtering us like animals.’ Like animals. Like NOT US. Like OTHERS.

Now consider this: Donald Trump has praised Duterte. In a telephone call shortly after the election, it was reported that Trump specifically spoke approvingly of his drug war. Our U.S. President spoke with this vicious, murderous dictator before many of his own cabinet departments. Praised him and spoke approvingly of his methods and tactics.

Trump quite evidently approves of Rodrigo Duterte. Just like he admires Putin, praises Kim Jong Un, Saddam Hussein, Erdogan and el-Sisi. Do we see any pattern emerging?

By contrast, Duterte publicly called former President Obama a ‘son-of-a-bitch’ last year after Obama scolded him about his drug war/murder spree.  Duterte and Obama were due to meet when Obama traveled to Asia in the fall 2016. The U.S. cancelled the meeting. Duterte later apologized.

An important side note here: As has been relatively widely reported, Trump has a business partner in the Philippines and a pending tower project in Manila. After the election, Duterte promptly appointed this business partner to be his Special Envoy to the U.S.


So, of course, it should come as no surprise that Trump approves and praises Duterte. Apart from their shared authoritarian tendencies, Trump has glaringly obvious financial incentive to do so. His tower project is not yet completed. In addition, this is how his mind operates. Putin praises Trump, so ‘of course’ Trump has good words for Putin. Duterte favors Trump Tower Manila, so Trump gives the thumbs up to execution-style killings as law enforcement. Plus, Trump sees Duterte as strong, and in that way, he is impressed and envious. Trump sees himself as strong.

Back to our main story. Duterte is a murderer, but why does it matter?

Other than basic human decency reasons, WHY does this concern us? We kind of have our own fascist-in-waiting, don’t we? In other words, isn’t this just the Philippines’ problem? Long-time major Asian ally, or not, the U.S. can’t police the whole world, can it?

Here’s why this all matters:

Duterte’s Philippines is perhaps a chilling preview of our own dark future. Observe.

Let’s start with a quote from the New York Times: “Duterte’s supporters, backed by an army of trolls, continuously flood social media with attacks and fake news.” Sound familiar? 😳

Fact: Duterte threatens the Philippines’ free press. (Sound familiar?) Duterte: “Questionable journalists are not exempted from assassination.” Assassination! His word.

Trump routinely threatens/attacks our free press. “Failing New York Times. Liars. Katy Tur. The worst.”

Fact: Duterte threatens protesters. Duterte has warned that HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS, if caught protesting his drug war, WILL BE KILLED.

Trump threatens protesters. Back in October/November 2016, Trump suggested that protesters in U.S. should be jailed or lose their citizenship. He said it several times.

Duterte has been considering IMPOSING MARTIAL LAW in the Philippines. This act would be in violation of their own constitution. He is considering imposing martial law and suspending habeas corpus. (Habeas corpus is basically the right to petition a court to require the state to produce evidence of crime.)

Not coincidentally, martial law is a very likely scenario Trump may use as a basis for justifying suspending future US elections. Watch.

I know that sounds crazy. It’s not. In fact, it’s how they roll. It’s the autocrat script. These patterns repeat and are observable. The ready example comes again from Germany: The Reichstag Fire. (Google it.)

Just wait (and pray I’m wrong). I take no joy in even suggesting such a thing. If it happens, we will be so far across the line away from democracy that it will seem a mere formality. But be on the lookout. Watch for some manufactured crisis, be it a terrorist strike or a major cyber-attack by a foreign sovereign (gasp!) or what have you. (Just imagine the irony of Trump, having won in 2016 with the assistance of a Russian cyberattack and coordinated intelligence operation, turn and use the threat of same to suspend the 2020 elections.)

In any case, watch for some fear-inducing event, basically any excuse to ‘justify’ suspending the next election. Because, again, that’s how autocrats roll. When an authoritarian obtains power, they don’t typically leave of their own accord. Often they just rule until they die. *cough* Castro. *cough*

It’s not difficult to envision. Trump would call for suspending future elections “just until we can figure out what’s going on.” Sound familiar? 😳 Naturally, in such an event, Trump would magnanimously agree to stay on as President, to preserve American greatness in the interim.

Deep breath.

Now, there’s an obvious ‘severity of punishment’ gap between Trump and Duterte. None of this essay is to suggest Trump is a murderous thug, as Duterte obviously is.

We ought not forget, however, that Duterte has a 8-month head-start on Trump. Plus, Duterte did a 20-year stint in government before that, as a warm-up, so he could spend less time fumbling with the mechanics of governing, and get right to the killing.

Donald Trump may never brazenly order murders, let alone deaths of thousands. Or give public speeches bragging about murders or compare himself to Hitler and claim he can top Hitler’s death toll in the Holocaust. No, Duterte is truly his own unique form of monster.

But Trump has already shown a willingness to unleash his faithful on Others. He never condemns their actions. His surrogates might do so ‘on his behalf.’ Reports from his latest rally in Pennsylvania describe Trump supporters pinning protestors down or against the wall until the overtaxed police/security could finish ejecting the protestors in their immediate grasp and return to collect the restrained. Still, never a word from Trump. At rallies during the campaign, he specifically encouraging violence against protesters.

Look at the overall pattern of conduct. That pattern fits a bone-chilling mold. It is the mold of an autocrat. An authoritarian. It is the mold of fascist dictator.

Look as well to the fact that autocrats’ crimes/categories always expand.

So first it’s the journalists, like the failing New York Times, and the fake news CNN. Next protesters. Hell, those two boxes are already checked. After that?

Look at the techniques. First scorn and ridicule. Then censure. Trump has banned entire newspapers from his pool on the campaign (The Washington Post), and refused to take questions from a reporter from CNN (“You’re fake news.”) . What’s next? Jail? Follow that trail. Summary Execution? Death under mysterious circumstances? ‘Disappeared?’

Look at the ethic/religious groups. Fist it’s the Muslims. And Mexicans. Who’s next? LBGT (like Chechnya)? And then who…?

Registry. Deportation. Internment pending deportation?

It’s the pattern that we should be observed – the progression. Make no mistake here – it has already begun.

Trump need not rise to Duterte’s level of monstrosity to destroy democracy as we know it. At every turn, Trump fits the autocrat mold, in the tradition of Duterte and a long line of others.

Another deep breath.

Okay, so is there any good news in this shit show on steroids? Consider the following New York Times article: http://nyti.ms/2hBSicv

The Philippines people are waking up. That’s good news. They’re fighting back. The stakes are crazy high. They’re all in mortal peril. But they’re fighting. They’re resisting. Perhaps an inspiration for us all. All hope is not lost.

So, on the eve of a possible White House visit from Duterte, maybe a little show of solidarity for the citizens of a long-time U.S. ally in Asia. Filipinos were suckered into voting for a ‘populist’ demagogue. They were frustrated and fed up and they chose a president without considering the looming consequences.

Sound familiar?

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