By: Paulina Mangubat
“The world’s gone crazy,” Peter Kammerer declared in an op-ed for the South China Morning Post that addressed the recent machinations of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Rodrigo Duterte, president-elect of the Philippines.
Kammerer’s not alone. “The world’s gone crazy!” is a sentiment that has wriggled its way into every thinkpiece, op-ed and news analysis written this campaign season. These allegations of insanity are almost always accompanied by something along the lines of, “God help us! So much for democratic values.”
Given these anxieties, I suppose it’s understandable that many people would try to rationalize Trump’s success by comparing him to Rodrigo Duterte (or, alternatively, rationalize Duterte’s success by comparing him to Trump). But these comparisons are not only inaccurate—they’re also wildly reductive, collapsing the unique histories of each politician under the category of “crazy demagogue.”
Duterte is, indubitably, a formidable terror. He recently endorsed vigilantism by publicly encouraging Filipino civilians with guns to shoot and kill drug dealers. During his campaign, he made several tone-deaf, offensive jokes about a 36-year-old rape victim who was killed in 1989. He’s also continually threatened journalists, unabashedly catcalled women and flung vulgarities at Catholic Church leaders critical of his rather hands-on tactics.
Trump has been associated with a rise in political authoritarianism borne out of a fear of outsiders and a desire for order. When transposed onto Southeast Asian soil, this kind of logic works: Duterte is a strongman leader whose passionate anti-crime rhetoric and presupposed dedication to law and order (emphasis on “order,” of course—the legality of his plans is still suspect) constitutes political authoritarianism.
...pundits seeking to draw the easy comparison between Trump and Duterte should exercise caution.
Still, the similarities between Trump and Duterte are largely overemphasized. Consider, for example, that Duterte is a career politician who used brute force to (reportedly!) clean up the city of Davao, which was once known as the murder capital of the Philippines. Trump, on the other hand, is a staunchly anti-establishment populist, despite the backing he has received from members of the GOP establishment like Paul Ryan.
More obviously, it is exceedingly shortsighted to compare the potential leader of the United States to the elected leader of the Philippines. A simple look at the GDPs, economic history and soft power capabilities of either country makes that clear. Point-blank.
Trump is a man who has everything and therefore attracts the everyman. Duterte is a man for whom material possessions simply don’t matter: all that matters is appealing to the people with promises of immediate solutions via slash-and-burn politics. The effectiveness of either political strategy on the international stage is, of course, yet to be determined.
If Trump and Duterte do share anything in common, it is that they are both the enfants terribles of the international press: loose-lipped and offensive, their remarks have handily driven clicks, shares and comments on news websites.
Thus, pundits seeking to draw the easy comparison between Trump and Duterte should exercise caution. After all, the media has the unique capability of granting autocrats more visibility among their target constituencies—all while publishing articles that are, for all intents and purposes, negative and critical.
We’ve already seen this with Trump. Coverage of the Trump campaign has practically continued nonstop since he declared his candidacy on June 16, 2015. But in the past few months, the American media has transitioned from a jolly state of Trump-induced tipsiness to a full-on Trump hangover. In a column for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof admitted that the media empowered Trump just as much as widespread racial tensions did. “The media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit,” Kristof wrote.
How thoughtful can the American media be about world news while it’s simultaneously engaged in robust self-flagellation, anyway? (I’m kidding.)
To the Western media mavens who’ve made the Trump-Duterte connection: I get it. I see what you did there. But it’s a clumsy comparison, and one that says more about the state of the press than it does about either Donald Trump or Rodrigo Duterte.
Paulina Mangubat is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. She is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She tweets @paulinaVEVO.