Trump, Duterte and the "strongman"

By Krizna Gomez*


Donald Trump is everywhere. He’s definitely in the United States, but he also exists in the Philippines and in other parts of the world.

He is Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines–the mayor of one of the country’s main cities–who is leading the polls for the upcoming presidential elections. An unapologetic chauvinist, he was recently under fire for joking that he should have been first in line in sexually assaulting an Australian missionary who was gang raped and murdered in a jail in his city of Davao. When the Australian Ambassador took to Twitter to protest Duterte’s words, the mayor’s fiercely loyal throng of followers flooded the Facebook page of the Embassy with abusive remarks. Duterte claims that he actually did a service to humanity when he, being the first to fire, “took his Uzi submachine gun and fired at [Ms. Jacqueline Hamill’s assailants], emptying the magazine.”

If elected president, he vowed to “shoot criminals, hang them using fishing line or drown them in Manila Bay”, reflective of his vigilante manner of governance that has turned Davao City into one of the “safest” cities in the Philippines. There have been reports of more than a thousand killings of suspected criminals and even children in Davao by “death squads” linked to Duterte (which he admitted). Duterte has promised to kill 100,000 criminals once he becomes president.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has increasingly silenced dissenting voices. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Presidencia de la República del Ecuador.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has increasingly silenced dissenting voices. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Presidencia de la República del Ecuador.

Trump is Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front party, who likened Muslims praying in streets to the Nazi occupation. He is Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who assured people in a rally that he can organize for “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands. In Latin America, he is exemplified by the rise of Keiko Fujimori, the conservative daughter of Peru’s former dictator Alberto Fujimori who is serving 25 years in jail for corruption and crimes against humanity, and who is now set to compete on a run-off election for the country’s presidency on June 5. He is the highly charismatic Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who has turned his back on the many indigenous peoples who voted him to power in 2007, only to crush free speech in his country, personally spending half an hour in his TV show every Saturday lashing out at private social media users who poke fun at him, and to rule his country with an iron fist.

The soaring popularity of a man like Trump baffles us. However, he, just like Duterte, le Pen, Wilders, Fujimori and Correa, represents something very instinctive (if not primitive) in us. When we find ourselves in a fix we cannot extricate ourselves from, we pray to high heavens for a heroic figure, a strongman–the swashbuckler, hell-unleashing type, who is supposed to solve our society’s greatest quandaries with one stroke of his bloody sword. He breaks all the rules, does not need to say the most politically correct words, but at the end of the day kills the bad guys to protect the good ones.

A few weeks ago, my entire clan on my father’s side went on their annual Holy Week holiday. Having lived away from the Philippines for a few years now, I often await their photos as they post them almost live on Facebook–some thirty people, aged 2 to 65, wearing the same color of shirts, crowding an airplane–a wacky composite of giant smiles in airports, beaches and zipline resorts. This year they decided to go to Davao, and the photos I saw this time painted a painful reality for me. They were standing next to life-sized replicas of Duterte,  #Du30, with their thumbs up as they excitedly expressed support for the embodiment of impunity for murder in my country.

My family members are not ill-intentioned people seeking blood–the same way that many of those who support Trump in the United States are not necessarily racists or misogynists like their candidate. They are but exhausted of being continually at risk of being kidnapped, or their hard-earned businesses being swindled by unscrupulous individuals who often get away with crime, and of them constantly fearing for the security of their loved ones (or in the case of the United States, blue collar workers who have had enough of economic despair). They trust that Duterte will “clean up” the Philippines overnight, unlike all our past leaders. No more nice words and thoughtful decisionmaking. Let’s just kill all the criminals and finally live in peace.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks before the protesting residents in the city. AKP Images / Keith Bacongco

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks before the protesting residents in the city. AKP Images / Keith Bacongco

I am worried for the future of my country. However, seeing this unprecedented popularity of far right politicians who campaign on platforms of exclusion if not outright violence in different parts of the world today cuts the wound even deeper. The incision is painful, because to any Duterte or Trump supporter (including to my family), I am just an elite human rights lawyer who lives in a bubble of concepts like due process and presumption of innocence, sometimes even putting me on the side of defending “criminals”. Forget that the rights we preserve for those accused of crime is the foundation of the rights that we as an entire society come to enjoy–we are only seen as a clanging cymbal, while good people die and the evil roam free.

But that is where the danger of swashbucklers like Duterte and Trump lie. We give them the power to decide who is the good person and the bad (and who should be kept out by a wall and not). What we forget is that power corrupts, and when we grant someone the absolute power to remake what innocence and justice mean for us as a society, we corrupt them absolutely. Today you might well be the good guy as you always thought you are. Tomorrow, you might not. The day after, your daughter might no longer be deserving of protection according to your new leader’s self-made system of justice. A leader who comes to power will eventually act according to his/her the desire to stay in power–even if that means turning his/her back on those who put him/her there. And when we realize that we have unleashed a monster, it is already too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The only thing left to do then is to rise up and take to the streets (once more) to topple an abusive dictator, and the next day rise from the ashes of our own folly.

The danger of leaving change solely to one giant personality is that it is but a cosmetic fix to a rotten structure. Immigration is stretching our country’s resources? Let’s not bother to address the root of what’s causing them to flee or appreciate how our society can become better with the influx of people willing to work hard for a new life, but instead just send them back where they came from. Crime problem cannot be solved? Let’s not even think of addressing hundreds of years of poverty and inequality that breed crime, but instead just shoot all the criminals (who we can never be certain are really guilty, since well, we have rendered the courts useless for that tiny task).

The idea of a strongman might be convenient, but it robs us of the responsibility to look to ourselves for the change that we so want.

You’re the good guy, and Trump and Duterte will protect you. Until they no longer will.


*Krizna Gomez is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

* Photo credit: Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte speaks before the protesting residents in the city who are calling for the moratorium on housing foreclosure in several housing projects in the city. At least 5,000 homeowners coming from different subdivisions in the city and even from neighboring towns and cities marched around the city on Wednesday afternoon, Feburary 11, 2008 to oppose the transfer of an estimated P13 billion worth of housing loans with the National Home Mortgage Finance Corporation (NHMFC) to a private entity known as Balikatan Housing Finance Inc. (BHFI).  Photo by: AKP Images / Keith Bacongco