A Planet of Trumps

From Duterte to Putin, what rightwing strongmen across the world can teach us about our own.

Alfred W. McCoy April 5, 2017

President Vladimir Putin of Russia shakes hands with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. (President of Russia)

This arti­cle first appeared at TomDis­patch, and is based on a lec­ture deliv­ered in Feb­ru­ary at the Third World Stud­ies Cen­ter, Uni­ver­si­ty of the Philippines.

The histories of these Filipino strongmen, past and present, reveal the role of what might be termed performative violence in projecting domestic strength.

In 2016, some­thing extra­or­di­nary hap­pened in the pol­i­tics of diverse coun­tries around the world. With sur­pris­ing speed and simul­tane­ity, a new gen­er­a­tion of pop­ulist lead­ers emerged from the mar­gins of nom­i­nal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic nations to win pow­er. In doing so, they gave voice, often in vir­u­lent fash­ion, to pub­lic con­cerns about the social costs of globalization.

Even in soci­eties as dis­parate as the afflu­ent Unit­ed States and the impov­er­ished Philip­pines, sim­i­lar­ly vio­lent strains of pop­ulist rhetoric car­ried two unlike­ly can­di­dates from the polit­i­cal mar­gins to the pres­i­den­cy. On oppo­site sides of the Pacif­ic, these out­sider cam­paigns were framed by lurid calls for vio­lence and even murder.

As his insur­gent cru­sade gained momen­tum, bil­lion­aire Don­ald Trump moved beyond his repeat­ed promis­es to fight Islam­ic ter­ror with tor­ture and bru­tal bomb­ing by also advo­cat­ing the mur­der of women and chil­dren. The oth­er thing with the ter­ror­ists is you have to take out their fam­i­lies, when you get these ter­ror­ists, you have to take out their fam­i­lies,” he told Fox News. They care about their lives, don’t kid your­self. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

At the same time, cam­paign­ing in the Philip­pines on a law-and-order pro­gram of his own, Rodri­go Duterte, then may­or of a remote provin­cial city, swore that he would kill drug deal­ers across the nation, spar­ing noth­ing in the way of vio­lent imagery. If by chance that God will place me [in the pres­i­den­cy],” he promised in launch­ing his cam­paign, watch out because the 1,000 [peo­ple exe­cut­ed while he was a may­or] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Mani­la Bay get­ting fat. That is where I will dump you.”

The rise of these polit­i­cal soul­mates and pop­ulist strong­men not only res­onat­ed deeply in their polit­i­cal cul­tures, but also reflect­ed glob­al trends that made their blood­stained rhetoric par­a­dig­mat­ic of our present moment. After a post-Cold War quar­ter-cen­tu­ry of glob­al­iza­tion, dis­placed work­ers around the world began mobi­liz­ing angri­ly to oppose an eco­nom­ic order that had made life so good for transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions and social elites.

Between 1999 and 2011, for instance, Chi­nese imports had elim­i­nat­ed 2.4 mil­lion Amer­i­can jobs, clos­ing fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­tur­ers in North Car­oli­na, fac­to­ries that pro­duced glass in Ohio, and auto parts and steel com­pa­nies across the Mid­west. As a range of nations world­wide react­ed to such real­i­ties by impos­ing a com­bined 2,100 restric­tions on imports to staunch sim­i­lar job loss­es, world trade actu­al­ly start­ed to slow down with­out a major reces­sion for the first time since 1945.

The Blood­stained His­to­ry of Populism

Across Europe, hyper-nation­al­ist right-wing par­ties like the French Nation­al Front, the Alter­na­tive for Ger­many and the U.K. Inde­pen­dence Par­ty won over vot­ers by cul­ti­vat­ing nativist, espe­cial­ly anti-Islam­ic, respons­es to glob­al­iza­tion. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, a gen­er­a­tion of pop­ulist dem­a­gogues either held, gained or threat­ened to take pow­er in democ­ra­cies around the world: Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Nether­lands, Vik­tor Orban in Hun­gary, Vladimir Putin in Rus­sia, Recep Erdo­gan in Turkey, Don­ald Trump in the U.S., Naren­dra Modi in India, Prabowo Subianto in Indone­sia and Rodri­go Duterte in the Philip­pines, among others.

Indi­an essay­ist Pankaj Mishra recent­ly summed up their suc­cess­es this way: Dem­a­gogues are still emerg­ing, in the West and out­side it, as the promise of pros­per­i­ty col­lides with mas­sive dis­par­i­ties of wealth, pow­er, edu­ca­tion and sta­tus.” The Philip­pine econ­o­my offered typ­i­cal­ly grim news on this score. It grew by an impres­sive 6% annu­al­ly in the six years before Duterte launched his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, even as a stag­ger­ing 26 mil­lion poor Fil­ipinos strug­gled to sur­vive on a dol­lar a day. In those years, just 40 elite Fil­ipino fam­i­lies grabbed an esti­mat­ed 76% of all the wealth this growth produced.

Schol­ar Michael Lee sug­gests that a pop­ulist leader suc­ceeds by rhetor­i­cal­ly defin­ing his or her nation­al com­mu­ni­ty by both its sup­pos­ed­ly shared char­ac­ter­is­tics” and its inevitable com­mon ene­my,” whether Mex­i­can rapists” or Mus­lim refugees, much as the Nazis cre­at­ed a pow­er­ful sense of nation­al self­hood by exclud­ing cer­tain groups by blood.” In addi­tion, he argues, such move­ments share the desire for an apoc­a­lyp­tic con­fronta­tion” through a final myth­ic bat­tle” as the vehi­cle to rev­o­lu­tion­ary change.”

Although schol­ars like Lee empha­size the ways in which pop­ulist dem­a­gogues rely on vio­lent rhetoric for their suc­cess, they tend to focus less on anoth­er cru­cial aspect of such pop­ulists glob­al­ly: actu­al vio­lence. These move­ments might still be in their (rel­a­tive­ly) benign phase in the Unit­ed States and Europe, but in less devel­oped democ­ra­cies around the world pop­ulist lead­ers haven’t hes­i­tat­ed to inscribe their new­found pow­er on the bat­tered bod­ies of their victims.

For more than a decade, for instance, Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, a rea­son­able can­di­date for spark­ing this wave of pop­ulism, has demon­strat­ed his famous­ly bare-chest­ed ver­sion of pow­er pol­i­tics by ensur­ing that oppo­nents and crit­ics meet grim ends under mys­te­ri­ous” cir­cum­stances. These include the lethal spritz of polo­ni­um 210 that killed Russ­ian secret police defec­tor Alexan­der Litvi­nenko in Lon­don in 2006; the shoot­ing of jour­nal­ist and Putin crit­ic Anna Politkovskaya out­side her Moscow apart­ment that same year; a dose of rare Himalayan plant poi­son for banker and Putin neme­sis Alexan­der Perepilich­ny in Lon­don in 2012; a fusil­lade that felled oppo­si­tion leader Boris Nemtsov in down­town Moscow in 2015; and four fatal bul­lets this March for refugee whistle­blow­er Denis Voro­nenkov on a Kiev side­walk, which Ukraine has denounced as an act of state terrorism.”

As an Islamist pop­ulist, Turk­ish pres­i­dent Recep Erdo­gan has pro­ject­ed his pow­er through a bloody repres­sion of, and a new war with, the country’s Kur­dish minor­i­ty. He por­trays the Kurds as a can­cer with­in the country’s body politic whose iden­ti­ty must be extin­guished, much as his fore­bears rid them­selves of the Arme­ni­ans. In addi­tion, since mid-2016, he’s over­seen a whole­sale purge of 50,000 offi­cials, jour­nal­ists, teach­ers and mil­i­tary offi­cers in the after­math of a failed coup, and in a bru­tal round of tor­ture and rape filled Turk­ish pris­ons to the brim.

In 2014, retired gen­er­al Prabowo Subianto near­ly won Indonesia’s pres­i­den­cy with a pop­ulist cam­paign of strength and order.” In fact, Prabowo’s mil­i­tary career had long been steeped in such vio­lence. In 1998, when the author­i­tar­i­an régime of his father-in-law Suhar­to was at the brink of col­lapse, Prabowo, then com­man­der of the Kopas­sus Rangers, staged the kid­nap­ping-dis­ap­pear­ance of a dozen stu­dent activists, the sav­age rape of 168 Chi­nese women (acts meant to incite racial vio­lence), and the burn­ing of 43 shop­ping malls and 5,109 build­ings in Jakar­ta, the country’s cap­i­tal, that left more than 1,000 dead.

Dur­ing his first months in pow­er, new­ly elect­ed Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Duterte waged his high­ly pub­li­cized war on the drug trade in city slums by loos­ing the police and vig­i­lantes nation­wide in a cam­paign already marked, in its first six months, by at least 7,000 extra­ju­di­cial killings. The bod­ies of his vic­tims were reg­u­lar­ly dumped on Manila’s streets as warn­ings to oth­ers and as down pay­ments on Duterte’s promis­es of a new, order­ly country.

And he wasn’t the first pop­ulist in Asia to take such a path either. In 2003, Thai Prime Min­is­ter Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra launched his red shirt” move­ment as a war on his country’s ram­pant metham­phet­a­mine abuse. In just three months under Thaksin’s rule, the police car­ried out 2,275 extra­ju­di­cial killings of sus­pect­ed drug deal­ers and users, often leav­ing the bod­ies where they fell as a twist­ed trib­ute to his power.

Such exam­ples of pop­ulist polit­i­cal car­nage and the like­li­hood of more to come — includ­ing what Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­cy might have in store — raise cer­tain ques­tions: Just what dynam­ics lie behind the urge toward vio­lence that seems to pro­pel such move­ments? Why does the vir­u­lent cam­paign rhetoric of pop­ulist polit­i­cal move­ments so often morph into actu­al vio­lence once a pop­ulist wins pow­er? And why is that vio­lence invari­ably aimed at ene­mies believed to threat­en the imag­ined integri­ty of the nation­al community?

In their com­pul­sion to pro­tect” the nation from what are seen as per­ni­cious alien influ­ences, such pop­ulist move­ments are defined by their need for ene­mies. That need, in turn, infus­es them with an almost uncon­trol­lable com­pul­sion for con­flict that tran­scends actu­al threats or ratio­nal polit­i­cal programs.

To give this trou­bling trend its polit­i­cal due, it’s nec­es­sary to under­stand how, at a par­tic­u­lar moment in his­to­ry, glob­al forces have pro­duced a gen­er­a­tion of pop­ulist lead­ers with such poten­tial com­pul­sions. And at the moment, there may be no bet­ter exam­ple to look to than the Philippines.

Dur­ing its last half-cen­tu­ry of blood­stained elec­tions, two pop­ulists, Fer­di­nand Mar­cos and Rodri­go Duterte, won excep­tion­al pow­er by com­bin­ing the high pol­i­tics of diplo­ma­cy with the low pol­i­tics of per­for­ma­tive vio­lence, scat­ter­ing corpses scarred by their sig­na­ture bru­tal­i­ty as if they were so many polit­i­cal pam­phlets. A quick look at this his­to­ry offers us an unset­tling glimpse of America’s pos­si­ble polit­i­cal future.

Pop­ulism in the Philip­pines: the Mar­cos Era

Although now remem­bered main­ly as a klep­to­crat” who plun­dered his coun­try and enriched him­self with shame­less aban­don (epit­o­mized by the dis­cov­ery that his wife pos­sessed 3,000 pairs of shoes), Fer­di­nand Mar­cos was, in fact, a bril­liant pop­ulist, thor­ough­ly skilled in the sym­bol­ic uses of violence.

As his legal term as pres­i­dent came to an end in 1972, Mar­cos — who, like many pop­ulists, saw him­self as cho­sen by des­tiny to save his peo­ple from perdi­tion — used the mil­i­tary to declare mar­tial law. He then jailed 50,000 oppo­nents, includ­ing the sen­a­tors who had blocked his favored leg­is­la­tion and the gos­sip colum­nists who had mocked his wife’s pretensions. 

The first months of his dic­ta­tor­ship actu­al­ly lacked any offi­cial vio­lence. Then, just before dawn on Jan­u­ary 15, 1973, Con­stab­u­lary offi­cers read a pres­i­den­tial exe­cu­tion order and strapped Lim Seng, an over­seas Chi­nese hero­in man­u­fac­tur­er, to a post at a Mani­la mil­i­tary camp. As a bat­tery of press pho­tog­ra­phers stood by, an eight-man fir­ing squad raised their rifles. Replayed end­less­ly on tele­vi­sion and in movie the­aters, the dra­mat­ic footage of bul­lets rip­ping open the victim’s chest was clear­ly meant to be a vivid dis­play of the new dictator’s pow­er, as well as an appeal to his country’s ingrained anti-Chi­nese racism. Lim Seng would be the only vic­tim legal­ly exe­cut­ed in the 14 years of the Mar­cos dic­ta­tor­ship. Extra-judi­cial killings were anoth­er mat­ter, however. 

Mar­cos made clever use of the mas­sive U.S. mil­i­tary bases near Mani­la to win con­tin­u­ing sup­port for his author­i­tar­i­an (and increas­ing­ly bloody) rule from three suc­ces­sive Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tions, even effec­tive­ly neu­tral­iz­ing Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter’s human rights pol­i­cy. After a decade of dic­ta­tor­ship, how­ev­er, the econ­o­my began to col­lapse from a too-heavy dose of crony cap­i­tal­ism” and the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion start­ed to chal­lenge Marcos’s self-image as destiny’s cho­sen one.

To either sate or sub­due an increas­ing­ly restive pop­u­la­tion, he soon resort­ed to esca­lat­ing raw vio­lence. His secu­ri­ty squads con­duct­ed what were referred to as sal­vagings,” more than 2,500 of them (or 77% of the 3,257 extra­ju­di­cial killings dur­ing his 14-year dic­ta­tor­ship). Bod­ies scarred by tor­ture were reg­u­lar­ly aban­doned in pub­lic plazas or at busy inter­sec­tions so passers-by could read the tran­script of ter­ror in their stig­ma­ta. In the cap­i­tal, Mani­la, with only 4,000 police for six mil­lion res­i­dents, the Mar­cos régime also dep­u­tized hun­dreds of secret mar­shals” respon­si­ble for more than 30 shoot-on-sight fatal­i­ties dur­ing May 1985, the program’s first month, alone.

Yet the impact of Marcos’s ver­sion of pop­ulist vio­lence proved muta­ble — effec­tive at the start of mar­tial law when peo­ple yearned for order and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive at its close when Fil­ipinos again longed for free­dom. That shift in sen­ti­ment soon led to his down­fall in the first of the dra­mat­ic peo­ple pow­er” rev­o­lu­tions that would chal­lenge auto­crat­ic regimes from Bei­jing to Berlin.

Pop­ulism in the Philip­pines: Duterte’s Violence

Rodri­go Duterte, the son of a provin­cial gov­er­nor, ini­tial­ly pur­sued a career as the may­or of Davao City, a site of endem­ic vio­lence that left a last­ing imprint on his polit­i­cal persona.

In 1984, after the com­mu­nist New People’s Army made Davao its test­ing ground for urban gueril­la war­fare, the city’s mur­ders soared, dou­bling to 800, includ­ing the assas­si­na­tion of 150 police­men. To check the com­mu­nists, who took over part of the city, the mil­i­tary mobi­lized crim­i­nals and ex-com­mu­nists as death squad vig­i­lantes in a lethal coun­tert­er­ror cam­paign. When I vis­it­ed Davao in 1987 to inves­ti­gate death squad killings, that remote south­ern city already had an unfor­get­table air of des­o­la­tion and hopelessness.

It was in this con­text of ris­ing nation­al and local extra­ju­di­cial slaugh­ter that the 33-year old Rodri­go Duterte launched his polit­i­cal career as the elect­ed may­or of Davao City. That was in 1988, the first of sev­en terms that would keep him in office, on and off, for anoth­er 21 years until he won the country’s pres­i­den­cy in 2016. His first cam­paign was hot­ly con­test­ed and he bare­ly beat his rivals, tak­ing only 26% of the vote.

Around 1996, he report­ed­ly mobi­lized his own vig­i­lante group, the Davao Death Squad. It would be respon­si­ble for many of the city’s 814 extra­ju­di­cial killings over the next decade, as vic­tims were dumped on city streets with faces wrapped bizarrely in pack­ing tape. Duterte him­self may have killed one or more of the squad’s vic­tims. Apart from liq­ui­dat­ing crim­i­nals, the Davao Death Squad also con­ve­nient­ly elim­i­nat­ed the mayor’s polit­i­cal rivals.

Cam­paign­ing for pres­i­dent in 2016, Duterte would proud­ly point to the killings in Davao City and promise a drug war that would mur­der 100,000 Fil­ipinos if nec­es­sary. In doing so, he was also draw­ing on his­tor­i­cal res­o­nances from the Mar­cos era that lent some polit­i­cal depth to his vio­lent rhetoric. By specif­i­cal­ly prais­ing Mar­cos, promis­ing to final­ly bury his body in the Nation­al Heroes Ceme­tery in Mani­la and sup­port­ing Fer­di­nand Mar­cos Jr. for vice pres­i­dent, Duterte iden­ti­fied him­self with a polit­i­cal lin­eage of pop­ulist strong­men epit­o­mized by the old dic­ta­tor at a time when des­per­ate Fil­ipinos were look­ing for new hope of a decent life.

On tak­ing office, Pres­i­dent Duterte prompt­ly start­ed his promised anti-drug cam­paign and dead bod­ies became com­mon­place sights on city streets nation­wide, some­times accom­pa­nied by a crude card­board sign read­ing I am a push­er,” or sim­ply with their faces wrapped in the by-now trade­mark pack­ing tape used by the Davao Death Squad. Although Human Rights Watch would declare his drug war a calami­ty,” a resound­ing 85% of Fil­ipinos sur­veyed were sat­is­fied,” appar­ent­ly see­ing each body sprawled on a city street as anoth­er tes­ta­ment to the president’s promise of order.

At the same time, like Mar­cos, Duterte deployed a new style of diplo­ma­cy as part of his pop­ulist reach for unre­strained pow­er. Amid ris­ing ten­sions in the South Chi­na Sea between Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton, he improved his country’s bar­gain­ing posi­tion by dis­tanc­ing him­self from the Philip­pines’ clas­sic alliance with the Unit­ed States. At the 2016 ASEAN con­fer­ence, react­ing to Barack Obama’s crit­i­cism of his drug war, he said blunt­ly of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, Your mother’s a whore.”

A month lat­er dur­ing a state vis­it to Bei­jing, Duterte pub­licly pro­claimed sep­a­ra­tion from the Unit­ed States.’’ By set­ting aside his country’s recent slam-dunk win over Chi­na at the Court of Arbi­tra­tion in the Hague in a legal dis­pute over rival claims in the South Chi­na Sea, Duterte came home with $24 bil­lion in Chi­nese trade deals and a sense that he was help­ing estab­lish a new world order.

In Jan­u­ary, after his police tor­tured and killed a South Kore­an busi­ness­man on the pre­text of a drug bust, he was forced to call a sud­den halt to the nation­wide killing spree. Like his role mod­el Mar­cos, how­ev­er, Duterte’s pop­ulism seems to con­tain an insa­tiable appetite for vio­lence and so it was not long before bod­ies were once again being dumped on the streets of Mani­la, push­ing the death toll past 8,000.

Suc­cess and the Strongman

The his­to­ries of these Fil­ipino strong­men, past and present, reveal two over­looked aspects of the ill-defined phe­nom­e­non of glob­al pop­ulism: the role of what might be termed per­for­ma­tive vio­lence in pro­ject­ing domes­tic strength and a com­ple­men­tary need for diplo­mat­ic suc­cess to show inter­na­tion­al influ­ence. How skill­ful­ly these crit­i­cal poles of pow­er are bal­anced may offer one gauge for spec­u­lat­ing about the fate of pop­ulist strong­men in dis­parate parts of the globe.

In Russia’s case, Putin’s pro­jec­tion of strength through the mur­der of select­ed domes­tic oppo­nents has been matched by unchecked aggres­sion in Geor­gia and Ukraine — a suc­cess­ful bal­anc­ing act that has made his coun­try, with its rick­ety econ­o­my the size of Italy’s, seem like a great pow­er again and is like­ly to extend his auto­crat­ic rule into the fore­see­able future.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s harsh repres­sion of eth­nic and polit­i­cal ene­mies has essen­tial­ly sunk his bid for entry into the Euro­pean Union, plunged him into an unwinnable war with Kur­dish rebels and com­pli­cat­ed his alliance with the Unit­ed States against Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ism — all poten­tial bar­ri­ers to his suc­cess­ful bid for unchecked power.

In Indone­sia, Prabowo Subianto failed in his crit­i­cal first step: build­ing a domes­tic base large enough to sweep him into the pres­i­den­cy, in part because his call for order res­onat­ed so dis­cor­dant­ly with a pub­lic still capa­ble of remem­ber­ing his ear­li­er bid for pow­er through eerie vio­lence that roiled Jakar­ta with hun­dreds of rapes, fires and deaths.

With­out the pop­u­lar sup­port gen­er­at­ed by his local spec­ta­cle of vio­lence, Pres­i­dent Duterte’s de fac­to abro­ga­tion of his country’s claims to the South Chi­na Sea’s rich fish­ing grounds and oil reserves in his bid for Chi­nese sup­port risks a pop­u­lar back­lash, a mil­i­tary coup or both. For the time being, how­ev­er, Duterte’s deft jux­ta­po­si­tion of inter­na­tion­al maneu­ver­ing and local blood­let­ting has made him a suc­cess­ful Philip­pine strong­man with, as yet, few appar­ent checks on his power.

While the essen­tial weak­ness of the Philip­pine mil­i­tary lim­its Duterte’s out­lets for his pop­ulist vio­lence to the police killings of poor street drug deal­ers, Don­ald Trump faces no such restraints. Should Con­gress and the courts check the vir­u­lence of his domes­tic attacks on Mus­lims, Mex­i­cans or oth­er imag­ined ene­mies and should his pres­i­den­cy run into fur­ther set­backs like the recent repeal-Oba­macare humil­i­a­tion, he could read­i­ly resort to vio­lent mil­i­tary adven­tures not only in Iraq, Syr­ia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya, but even in Iran, not to speak of North Korea, in a bid to recov­er his pop­ulist aura of over­ween­ing pow­er. In this way, unlike any oth­er poten­tial pop­ulist politi­cian on the plan­et, he holds the fate of count­less mil­lions in his much-dis­cussed hands.

If populism’s need for what schol­ar Michael Lee calls an apoc­a­lyp­tic con­fronta­tion” and a myth­ic bat­tle” proves accu­rate, it might, in the end, lead the Trump administration’s sys­temic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies” far beyond even their most extreme rhetoric into an end­less­ly esca­lat­ing cycle of vio­lence against for­eign ene­mies, using what­ev­er weapons are avail­able, whether drones, spe­cial oper­a­tions forces, fight­er bombers, naval armadas or even nuclear weapons.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDis­patch reg­u­lar, is the Har­ring­ton pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. He is the author of The Pol­i­tics of Hero­in: CIA Com­plic­i­ty in the Glob­al Drug Trade, and his newest book, In the Shad­ows of the Amer­i­can Cen­tu­ry: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Glob­al Pow­er (Dis­patch Books/​Haymarket), will be pub­lished August 2017.
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