Exclusive: President Trump may see his tough-guy rhetoric as just part of the reality TV show that he’s putting on, but violent talk often goes hand-in-hand with real-life violence as in the Philippines, notes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently confirmed that President Trump will soon meet his Philippines counterpart, President Rodrigo Duterte, during a tour of Asia to “underscore his commitment to long-standing United States alliances and partnerships.”
The meeting will give Trump a chance to reaffirm his April 29 telephone call to “congratulate” Duterte on “what a great job” he has been doing to fight the scourge of drugs. “Keep up the good work, you are doing an amazing job,” Trump gushed.
Human rights workers don’t share Trump’s enthusiasm. They accuse Duterte of presiding over the extrajudicial murder of more than 10,000 people — including dozens of children and several noted political opponents — by police death squads in a nationwide war against drug addicts and dealers. Although the bloodbath has been condemned by United Nations-sponsored investigators, not a single police officer has been convicted.
The country’s Catholic Church has begun tolling church bells every day to acknowledge the victims. Manila’s archbishop recently offered sanctuary and legal assistance to police officers and vigilantes who come forward to testify about their participation in the government’s campaign of mass murder.
Yet Trump apparently finds all this easy to overlook. He and Duterte have become brothers in arms.
The two leaders have much in common, starting with a loathing of Barack Obama. The Philippines president must have warmed Trump’s heart by calling President Obama a “son of a whore,” an epithet he also used to describe another Trump enemy, Pope Francis.
Equally important, Duterte has been kind to Trump’s commercial interests, which include a multi-million-dollar licensing deal that put Trump’s name on a 57-floor apartment building in Manila. Last November, Duterte appointed as his new trade envoy to Washington the chairman of the company building the Trump Tower. For months thereafter — until the Washington Post began asking questions — the project continued to feature promotional videos by President Trump and his daughter Ivanka, lauding the tower as a “milestone in Philippine real estate history.”
Violence and Vigilantism
On a deeper emotional level, the two men share a fascination with violence and vigilantism.
Donald Trump boasted early in the 2016 presidential campaign that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any of his supporters. The wildly popular Duterte did him one better, telling a group of businessmen last December that he personally did murder suspected criminals in the city where he was once mayor:
“In Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police] that if I can do it why can’t you. And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike, and I would just patrol the streets looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation so that I could kill.”
Although one senior Philippines official suggested that “Duterte Harry” was just exaggerating for effect, a former hit man for the Davao death squad testified before the country’s Senate that Duterte personally gunned down as many as eight victims between 1998 and 2000.
His explosive story was subsequently corroborated under oath by a retired police officer and death squad leader who recalled that Mayor Duterte told his unit to kill their victims and then “throw them in the ocean or in the quarry. Bury them. Make sure there are no traces of the bodies.”
This July, speaking before a group of law enforcement officials on Long Island, Trump sounded much like Duterte as he painted a frightening picture of communities across the country victimized by ruthless gang members who “butcher those little girls, they kidnap, they extort, they rape, they rob . . . they prey on children. . . they have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
Trump then praised ICE Director Tom Homan for working to “rid out nation of cartels and criminals who are preying on our citizens.” Noting how much he liked Homan’s “very nasty” and “very mean” looks, the President recalled asking him how tough foreign gangs really are: “He said, they’re nothing compared to my guys. Nothing. And that’s what you need. Sometimes that’s what you need, right?”
Unleashing Death Squads
Trump sounded like he might not mind unleashing death squads himself if he were not more restrained than Duterte. “The laws are stacked against us, but we’re ending that,” he promised.
As it was, Trump promised to “support our police like our police have never been supported before” so they could wipe out vicious immigrant gangs. “One by one, we’re liberating our American towns . . . like in the old Wild West. . . And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice. (Laughter.) Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay? (Laughter and applause.)”
A couple of weeks later, Duterte again showed Trump how it really works when there are no holds barred. Security forces in Manila and a neighboring province killed 60 people in a sweep aimed at rounding up drug users and dealers. Duterte said he would pardon and promote any police officers involved in extrajudicial murders, and ordered police to shoot any human rights observers on the scene.
“Let’s kill another 32 every day. Maybe we can reduce what ails this country,” he said.
Coincident with Duterte’s expressed blood lust, Trump again unveiled his dark id. He tweeted, in reaction to the Barcelona terror attack but with the Philippines in mind, “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”
The story behind that tweet is ugly. Trump was referring to an apocryphal story he told during the Republican presidential primary about General “Black Jack” Pershing who led counterinsurgency operations against Muslim rebels after U.S. troops invaded the Philippines in 1898 to replace Spain as colonial ruler.
“He caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage,” Trump claimed, “and . . . dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood [which is considered haram]. . . And he has his men load up their rifles and he lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years there wasn’t a problem.”
The moral of the story, Trump said, is “we’ve got to start getting tough and we’ve got to start being vigilant and we’ve got to start using our heads or we’re not gonna have a country, folks.”
In other words, Trump, like Duterte, glorifies state-sanctioned murder.
We have a long way to go before the United States resembles the Philippines — but not an inconceivably long way. Trump’s violent rhetoric, reflecting his obvious admiration for death squad tactics, is chipping steadily away at the legal norms that help keep our nation civilized. His planned visit to the killer of Manila next month should remind us all of the danger Trump represents to American democracy and human rights.
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international relations and history.