The Thug Appeal of Rodrigo Duterte

Making sense of Trump’s White House invitation to the Philippine president

Philippine President Duterte
Philippine President Duterte (Ezra Acayan / Reuters)

On Saturday, Donald Trump extended a White House invitation to Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. The invitation surprised many: Duterte has compared himself to Hitler, and even Trump’s closest aides didn’t know that Hitler might be coming to dinner. Almost all of Duterte’s press in the U.S. has been negative. He has bragged of summarily executing criminals, in at least three cases by his own hand. He pledged to murder tens of thousands of them, especially drug dealers. He said he intended to pivot toward China, ending a very long history of an Asian special relationship between the Philippines and the United States. For extra measure, to kill off any sentimentality between the two countries, he called Barack Obama a “son of a whore.” (Duterte congratulated Trump on his election but suggested he might be too busy to accept the invitation to visit Washington.)

What, then, is there to love about Duterte—for Filipinos, or Trump, or both? Last year, I was in the southern Philippines, on the Philippine president’s home island of Mindanao. I asked around to see if anyone could tell me an endearing story—a baby kissed with apparent sincerity; an effortlessly folksy answer to the concerns of an ordinary person—anything that might explain his wild popularity. He won the 2016 Philippine presidential election handily, and before that he spent 22 years as mayor of Davao City, the island’s largest, and would likely have been elected mayor-for-life if the job existed.

This is the story I was told. During Duterte’s mayorship, Davao City enacted a smoking ban in indoor public places. (Duterte has now proposed a similar measure nationally.) Over a quarter of Filipinos smoke, so the ban was expected to be difficult to enforce—and before long, a café owner called city hall to report a tourist who kept smoking after being warned that it was against the law.

Duterte showed up to deal with the situation. He told the tourist that it was, regrettably, too late simply to extinguish the cigarette. Duterte then pulled out a .38 snubnosed revolver and pointed it at the smoker’s scrotum, announcing that the smoker could either swallow the cigarette butt or have his balls shot off. He ate the cigarette butt.

A version of this story, now famous, was related on Facebook by Manny Piñol, a Duterte supporter, in September 2015. Another version, on the Filipino news site Rappler, adds comment from Duterte’s office—admitting that Duterte forced a tourist to eat a cigarette “a long time ago,” but claiming he used unspecified means that did not involve pointing a revolver at him. As with all folklore, it matters little whether it is true. What matters is that Duterte’s fans love him because he is a thug, not in spite of his thuggery. Gangsters and rebels ran Mindanao for years, and now a gangster was restoring order by going after every miscreant, no matter how minor the offense.

I do not approve of shooting people in the scrotum, but even I must admit this story is kind of rad. No one was hurt, and a scofflaw was left shaken and certain not to re-offend. And I suspect that anyone who doesn’t at least smile, even in horror, upon hearing it will have a hard time understanding Duterte and the enchantment he apparently exerts on Trump.

Many have pointed out that Trump has a hotel under construction in Manila, and that his blossoming friendship with Duterte follows the Turkish, Russian, Indian, and Argentine examples of otherwise-inexplicable friendship following Trump’s own business interests. But a simpler answer is that Duterte is the politician Trump dreams of being. None of the obstacles to Trump’s plans—constitutional, moral, electoral—encumber Duterte. Indeed their transgression makes him more powerful and beloved. Recall Trump’s famous boast that he could walk up to someone on Fifth Avenue and shoot him, and the Trump fans would still love him. Duterte is Trump without the pesky superego, without the small voice of conscience to inhibit him from saying or doing the outrageous. Trump speculates about shooting someone in the street. Duterte brags about having actually done so. Trump tells Billy Bush that he likes to sexually assault women. Referring to a 1989 incident in which an Australian missionary was gang raped and murdered, Duterte said last year she was beautiful and regretted that he didn’t get first crack at her.

Duterte’s fans in Mindanao seem to think that in fair trade for this murderous vulgarity they’ve gotten public order and a check on corruption, since (as Kipling said of colonial police in Kim) their guy may be corrupt, but at least he suffers no rivals. The terms of the Trump exchange, for a more timorous vulgarity, are less clear, but it seems likely that the deal here is just as rotten.