December 5th, 2016
“In some ways, Duterte is like an Asian version of Donald Trump,” wrote Niko Vorobjov back in May, in a piece for The Influence about the international rise of strongman politicians and their impact on people who use drugs.
Back then, Donald Trump was the surprise presumptive Republican nominee, still widely considered the underdog in the US presidential race, although Influence contributors had already speculated on the catastrophic impact of a Trump presidency. Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, was president-elect in the Philippines, and had only threatened to transpose his murderous anti-drug crusade as mayor of Davao City to the national stage.
Six months later, the world is a sadder and wiser place. Duterte has for months waged war on suspected dealers and drug users in the Philippines through extrajudicial killings and incarceration; estimates of the death toll so far reach as high as 4,500. Trump’s victory and his picks of draconian figures like Jeff Sessions for key administration roles have raised acute fears for anyone who cares about the rights of drug users and human beings in general.
Now, Trump and Duterte seem to have hit it off in a phone call Friday.
According to Duterte, the call was encouraging. “I could sense a good rapport, an animated President-elect Trump. And he was wishing me success in my campaign against the drug problem,” he said. “I supposed that what he really wanted to say was that we would be the last to interfere in the affairs of your own country. We are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way. And he wishes us well.”
Trump also allegedly invited Duterte to Washington.
While the Trump team released a more general positive statement, without confirming (or denying) the account of Trump’s support for Duterte’s drug war, their apparent agreement is deeply concerning for two broad reasons.
First, because there had been some signs, however inadequate and inconclusive, that concerted international pressure was beginning to prompt Duterte’s government to think twice about continuing its bloody campaign. But US government support could only empower Duterte to persevere, at the cost of many more deaths and human rights violations in a country of almost 100 million.
Second, because of what it suggests, among countless other bad omens, about the balance between drug-law enforcement and human rights in Trump’s America. Donald Trump says that he has never tried any recreational drugs, including alcohol. But even if he had, nothing about him suggests that he would care about protecting those who do use them.
One indicator of just how low our expectations have fallen is that it’s not remotely surprising to read of Trump supporting a campaign of mass murder against people who use drugs. Those warnings published months ago don’t feel far fetched now.