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President Trump, President Duterte, and a Deeply Disturbing “Bromance”

For President Donald Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, their recent meeting couldn’t have gone better. Egos were stroked, there was no talk of those pesky “human rights” issues in the Philippines, and Duterte even serenaded Trump with a Tagalog love song.

And while the singing and bromancing was disturbing in and of itself, what was really chilling was the admiration that Trump seems to have for President Duterte. Boasting of their “great relationship”, Trump went on to commend Duterte for the “unbelievable job” in his war against drugs.

Unbelievable job.

Duterte’s zero tolerance crackdown against drugs in the Philippines has been called a lot of things by world human rights advocates as well as other world leaders (most recently Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau), but the glib label of “unbelievable job” is rarely one of them.

“Brutal.”

“Human rights violation.”

“Murderous.”

Under Duterte’s regime, well over 3,000 people have been killed by police with the total killed by official and “unidentified gunmen” numbering over 7,000 since Duterte’s June 30, 2016 inauguration. Having been criticized for trying to drag the Philippines back into “authoritarian rule”, Duterte has encouraged police, as well as vigilantes, to kill citizens on the street if they are suspected to be involved with drugs. People are swiftly detained (if they are “lucky”) and are often executed within hours. Extrajudicial executions, committed either by police or gangs in the name of cleaning up the streets under Duterte’s “shoot-to-kill” orders, have become the hallmark of Duterte’s regime.

And he’s proud of it.

Often foulmouthed and never censored, (his comments on raping women as part of the martial law he declared in the southern Philippines were passed off as a joke) Duterte has publicly said he would kill his own children if he thought they were involved in drugs. He stands behind his “shoot-to-kill” order, and in an official transcript stated, “I don’t care about human rights, believe me.”

And this is the person Trump has called a “good man”.

But it makes sense. Duterte is like Trump without a leash. While Trump encourages violence, he cannot actually command something like “shoot-to-kill”. He can’t (shouldn’t) normalize violence, he has to equivocate. Or at least attempt to after he’s been criticized.

Duterte can deal in violence and does deal in violence. This is a man who once proudly compared himself to Hitler.

With his profanity littered statements and his unabashed sexist, xenophobic comments, Duterte may catch some slack for his comments, but the majority of the country still supports him. Though they may not agree with his words or how he carries out his orders, they like how “safe” Duterte has made the streets. And while he does have his dissenters, he is “extremely popular”.

Duterte has the popularity that Trump wants. He has the freedom of speech Trump wants for himself. Even though Trump largely shoots off his mouth more than any president America has ever seen in the modern era (and he too likes to make “jokes” about assaulting women!), he has a team reining him in, spinning his verbal missteps. And even after all the spinning and assuaging involved in handling Trump’s words, Trump’s approval ratings are dismal.

It’s no wonder that Trump looks at a man like Duterte in admiration. But as Americans, that admiration, and the admiration that Trump heaps on other authoritarian world leaders like Vladimir Putin, should be deeply alarming.

Duterte has been called the Trump of the Philippines, but he is so much worse. He is a human rights monster, and either our president doesn’t know or doesn’t care. He just knows that Duterte has “respect” and gets to do whatever he pleases, so he must be a good man – a “man’s man”.

The fact that our president has offered him congratulations on his war against drugs raises some questions, each more disturbing than the last.

1) Does Trump really know what he’s talking about with Duterte? Does he actually have a grasp of what is occurring in the Philippines? Or does he just vaguely comprehend that somehow drugs are being “handled” and that that’s a good thing? Is our president really so ignorant?

2) Does Trump actually know about the killings and Duterte’s tactics, but isn’t bothered? Approves of them? Can turn a blind eye? Is our president truly so lacking in humanity?

3) Does Trump’s vision of making America great again look like some version of Duterte’s Philippines? Does our president long to be a dictator? (Yes, Duterte has freely admitted that, “I am a dictator? Yes it is true.”)

These aren’t necessarily new questions being asked about Trump during his presidency. His competence, his lack of compassion, and how he thirsts for power have been, and continue to be, discussed and debated. But as he continues to build his profile on the world stage and build bridges between the US and other countries, one can’t help but be wary of who he chooses to align with.

As has been demonstrated time and time again, it takes little more than some ego stroking to win Trump’s good graces. It doesn’t matter what atrocities you’ve committed or would like to commit, as long as you’re willing to kiss the ring.

And while Duterte may not quite be willing to kiss any man’s ring, his interactions with Trump seemed to be a meeting of minds, an embracing of Trump and what he stands for. A hearty pat on the back.

This may be what is at the core of what is so distressing about the Trump and Duterte bromance.

The president of the United States of America, a country that prides itself on standing up for equality, freedom, justice, and human rights, went to a country that is embroiled in a human rights “calamity” because of its president. Instead of asking the hard questions and engaging with that president about those human rights issues, our American president was treated to a ballad and was affirmed in his distaste for Obama and the press.

In short, at least on the surface, Donald Trump made a friend.

If we are judged by the company we keep, how harshly should we now judge President Trump?

Featured image via Creative Commons