After Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte spoke on the phone, a flurry of stories portrayed the leaders of the United States and the Philippines as pretty much two peas in a presidential pod.
In some ways, interest in their “bromance” makes sense.
With China having an ever-greater reach in international affairs and the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region appearing very much in flux, U.S.-Philippine ties are critical.
And then there’s the fact that the U.S. and Philippine presidents seem to speak for this historical moment, a time when liberal democratic values are in retreat and steamrolling populism is ascendant. They share a flexible attitude toward facts, a disdain for the press and a penchant for making wildly misogynistic remarks. They have also both praised dictators and authoritarians, past and present.
It’s not that it's wrong to focus on their similarities. They matter. But they also shed light on what is happening in both countries.
The problem is that grabby Trump-Duterte headlines are often used to make a point about U.S. politics in a way that diminishes Duterte’s domestic role, specifically his loud and persistent calls for the “slaughter” of suspected drug users — and the real-life killing that follows those calls.
Duterte campaigned for the presidency on a promise to “kill all” the country's drug dealers and users. Since taking power last summer, thousands of people have indeed been killed, shot in late-night police raids with high death rates and few witnesses, or murdered by masked assassins, often after being named by police.
An Amnesty International report called the campaign a “war on the poor” that may constitute “possible crimes against humanity.” (Asked about the findings, a Duterte ally, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, argued, for the second time, that drug lords, dealers and addicts are not part of "humanity.")
A Filipino lawyer last week filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court, accusing Duterte and 11 of his allies of mass murder and crimes against humanity. The complaint references the killings of more than 9,400 people stretching back to the late 1980s, when Duterte was a city boss nicknamed “the death squad mayor.”
“The situation in the Philippines reveals a terrifying, gruesome and disastrous continuing commission of extrajudicial executions or mass murder,” the complaint reads.
A recent story in the Daily Beast chronicling Duterte's rise to power said the Philippine president “made a name for himself as the Trump of the East as he vented his anger and played on people’s fears and promised to make right with might” — a strange claim considering that Duterte became a mayor in the late 1980s, running Davao City for nearly two decades without any input or influence from Trump.
Indeed, both Trump and Duterte may “play on people's fears” but only one of them cut his teeth as the “death squad mayor of Davao,” patrolling the city, armed, on a motorbike, threatening to personally kill criminals and then, years later, talking frankly about it. (“Am I the death squad? True,” he said last year.)
“Comparing Duterte to Trump is tempting as a source of clickbait headlines, but it is inaccurate, and risks becoming another act of cultural colonialism, especially given the history of the United States in the Philippines,” academic Tom Smith wrote last year in the Guardian.
“Cultural imperialism by the U.S. in the Philippines has often meant local Filipino concerns have been viewed, acted on and disastrously managed through an American lens,” Smith added.
The violent deaths of thousands of Filipinos is an outrage in its own right, an outrage different in kind and degree from anything Trump has done. So please think twice before casually comparing the men. Trump and Duterte are similar, sure, but they are not, by any measure, the same.