Rodrigo Duterte is a murderous, sociopathic thug. Since he became president of the Philippines last June, and announced an all-out war on drugs in his country, more than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and drug users have been killed by police and armed vigilantes. Human Rights Watch calls it “a campaign of extrajudicial execution.”
Duterte, himself, has bragged about killing people. Last December he said that previously as mayor of Davao, a city in the Southern Philippines, “I [would] go around … with a motorcycle … and I would just patrol the streets and looking for trouble also. I was really looking for an encounter to kill,” he said.
Though Philippines is a close ally of the United States, Duterte also called President Obama a “son of a whore” after criticism of his anti-drug efforts and he’s even compared himself, favorably, to Adolf Hitler.
On Saturday, however, President Trump said he had a “very friendly conversation” with the Filipino president, made no mention of his human rights abuses, and even invited Duterte to the White House for a state visit.
Facing outcry over the fact that the president would invite a murderous, sociopathic thug to meet with the US president, his chief of staff Reince Priebus said, allegedly with a straight face, that it was necessary for Trump to meet with Duterte in order to more effectively deal with North Korea. This is, of course, laughably dishonest.
The truth of the matter is that Trump loves authoritarian thugs. If there is one thing Trump has been consistent about in political career it is his unremitting praise for these leaders.
Indeed, in recent days, Trump called Kim Jong Un, the murderous totalitarian thug who rules North Korea “a smart cookie” and said he’d be “honored” to meet with him. Previously, Trump has praised Un for wiping out his potential rivals.
Last month Trump made a congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he won a disputed national referendum that would give him virtually dictatorial powers. He met last month at the White House with Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who he’s called a “fantastic guy.”
El-Sisi seized power in a military coup and his government has been accused of numerous human rights violations.
He’s heaped praise on President Xi Jinping of China and has maintained a long-standing bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though both men are repressive authoritarian rulers. During the 2016 campaign, he even commended the way in which Saddam Hussein efficiently killed terrorists.
Trump though hasn’t just recently stumbled on his love for thuggish rulers. Back in 1990 he applauded the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square and criticized Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for not showing “a firm enough hand” in dealing with domestic discontent.
All of this is a disturbing reminder that Trump has no respect for human rights, thinks like an authoritarian, and that his personal inclinations run completely counter to America’s democratic traditions.
None of this bodes well for domestic policy under Trump, but it’s also terrible for US foreign policy.
America’s track record in supporting thuggish, dictatorial rulers is no reason for national pride. But US presidents and diplomats, particularly since the end of the Cold War, have also regularly and rightly condemned foreign leaders who violated human rights and basic democratic norms – even those nominally allied with the United States. Human rights activists and non-governmental actors in these countries rely on US rhetorical support for the rule of law and respect for human rights. But what we’re seeing under Trump is a disturbing reversal of that tradition. And Trump isn’t just remaining silent; he’s actively praising leaders, like Duterte, who in the past would have been singled out with criticism for their actions.
One of the great advances in international affairs over the past 30 years is greater political freedom and respect for human rights. Today, there are far more electoral democracies than ever before and even countries that are not democratic are far less repressive than they once were. But as we’ve seen in Turkey, Russia, and the Philippines these gains are fragile and reversible and are reliant on political leaders — both in the United States and elsewhere — who will publicly defend them.
Today that’s no longer the case in the United States.
Trump’s authoritarian tendencies should worry every American — but at least there is in place a system of democratic checks and balances to keep those tendencies in check. Globally, however, Trump is undermining the extraordinary political gains of the past three decades and making it that much more likely that they will be reversed.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.