Trump and Duterte: The Rise of Political Strongmen

23 May 2020

I was chatting with my brother the other day. Our conversation led to the recent Gallup polls in the U.S. showing that 49% of Americans believe that President Donald Trump is doing a good job! I thought of Trump’s policies during the past four years--from his refusal to address climate change, to his use of government agencies for personal gain as in the proven case of Ukraine. This is not to mention his slurs towards women and racial minorities, and the innumerable other instances when he has flouted both democratic institutions and moral principles. “I just don’t understand,” I opined, “I didn’t know Americans are so stupid. God have mercy on us and the rest of the world if he again wins the American elections in November!”

An echo of Trump is the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Never mind that he has refused to assert Philippine claims to the resource rich Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoals—claims validated by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Never mind that he is allowing the entrance of numerous Chinese nationals--staff of  gambling companies--when the rest of Metro Manila businesses are still on lockdown. (He has admitted he wants to befriend the Chinese for their potential inward investments and trade). Never mind that the Philippines withdrew its membership at the International Criminal Court (ICC) after it announced its intention to investigate the thousands of extra-judicial killings since he assumed the presidency in 2016.

The main thing is that President Duterte, as with President Trump, can continue doing what he is doing, and still retain the support of the majority of Filipinos! The Social Weather Station (SWS) puts his latest job approval rating at an astonishing 82%, this in spite of the fact that he has openly boasted he personally killed a number of “drug addicts.” Why are Trump and Duterte so popular when they go against all our notions of good and responsible leadership?

They are not the only ones: our current world seems to favour political strongmen: from Turkey’s Erdogan, to Hungary’s Orban, and many others. These are leaders who are democratically elected and highly rated in their countries, despite the fact that they are responsible for what apparently are heedless national policies. Likewise, we should not forget the authoritarian leadership of Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi, also very popular amongst their people.

Instead of their constituencies being ignorant, perhaps they know something the rest of us do not?

My skilled physiotherapist once told me he and his friends voted for Duterte. When I asked him why, he said they were desperate for change--any change was better than no change, because any change brought them hope. He talked about his deep disillusionment with liberal democracy, and his feeling that the elite, the members of the so-called establishment, are corrupt and motivated simply by self-interest. Thus, whilst they enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, he and his friends were denied opportunities to improve their lot. “We need to get rid of the old establishment, to destroy their old structures of government, and vote for someone who would not follow their principles.”

By their disregard of the established codes, the maverick and rebellious Trump and Duterte have shown they are at one with the under-privileged. The more their language and behavior show coarseness, insolence, and impertinence, the more contemptuous they are towards the old order, the more they are admired and lauded.

Why this appeal? Why are people so angry at the “establishment”? Because they feel the “establishment” are perpetuating an unfair system, and they are frustrated at their seeming helplessness. When all is said and done, however, they hold an ace up their sleeves: they have the power of their votes!

Except for periods of revolution, history has always favoured society’s elites. We need only look at the developments of the past decade or so in order to highlight this point.

In the Western world, especially in America, we have seen how the advancements in technology and the resulting globalisation of business have caused exponential economic growth. But this wasn’t enough, and the greed of bankers, their rating agencies, and businesses too big to fail brought America to its knees by the time of the Great Recession of 2008. Taxpayers’ money had to be used in order to prevent their collapse whilst many ordinary citizens lost their savings. Worse, by the time the dust of the recession had cleared, these elites simply picked up where they had left off, so that by mid-decade, The New York Times reported that the net worth of the richest 1% of Americans had grown by USD21 trillion whilst those at the bottom half had fallen by USD900 billion. Stark capitalism leaves no room for the “losers.”

In the Philippines, each election brought in members of the traditional political elite—these are evidently the candidates running for office. Elected president was Gloria Arroyo, daughter of former President Macapagal; then Benigno Aquino, Jr, son of former President Aquino. Even as they followed the rules of political gamesmanship, they were generally perceived as corrupt or weak. During their dozen years in power, lives of the great masses of the poor have not improved, whilst the richest have climbed up the ladder of Fortune 1000. What to do if you were my physiotherapist?

Poverty is not only absolute, it is also relative. We feel more impoverished when we compare ourselves to others who are better off. Nonetheless, in the not-too-distant past, everyone would have quietly gone on with their lives. But social media has changed all that. With a click of a button, we can now see greener pastures just ahead--and we humans have never stopped moving across the earth in search of better lives.

Hence, the advent of populist leaders. In the host countries, these leaders would protect us. They would close our borders to would-be immigrants in order to allay our fears that immigrants would destroy the fabric of our communities. Or immigrants would take advantage of our social welfare programmes without having contributed to them. This would naturally be exacerbated if we allowed mass migration—from poorer countries and those ravaged by war.

The Philippines is at the opposite pole. Hopes for our continued diaspora are increasingly getting frustrated by the host countries’ more stringent measures, imposed in order to contain immigration. The lucky ones have already left. In the U.S., for example, Filipinos constitute 20% of Asian-Americans, second only to the Chinese. (Ironically, these ethnic Filipinos often vote for Trump or for Brexit, fearful that their hard-won prosperity would be threatened by the newcomers).

Finally, since the turn of the century, we have had difficulties adapting to changes which have come at too fast a pace for us. It is said that it takes as much as a generation lag between the introduction of a major change element and its necessarily attendant social adjustments. However, in less than 20 years, we have witnessed terrorism strike in random places, at random times, towards random lives; we have seen the global impact of the Great Recession, the effects of which we are only just now managing; then suddenly, we are confronted by the spread of a global pandemic, a virus which we do not understand and do not know how to control.

I would hazard a guess, therefore, that a large contributory factor behind the rise of strongmen the world over are our anxieties and fear of the unknown. When we are fearful, we want to be led, to exchange freedom for order, so that we do not have to have the responsibility to weigh alternatives and to make choices.

Are we perhaps ushering in the era of the strongmen?  Whatever colours our leaders may wear, I hope that post Covid 19, they will lead us to a kinder and gentler world.


Karina van den Oever

05.07.2020 08:11

Great blog Tita Vic! Just finally found some time to read these.

Gunter Hecker

24.05.2020 13:30

Vicky, I think you should also include the mainstream press as culprit, who feeds what the elite wants and that has become obvious with the other informal channels now available.

Christian Perez

26.05.2020 01:22

Gunter, isn't it the opposite? The culprit here seems to be the informal channels, who enabled the rise of strongmen. The mainstream press does not give them a voice.


24.05.2020 07:18

Strongmen to lead us to a kinder and gentler world? They have to be benevolent and wise, and these sitting strongmen have none of those traits.


24.05.2020 08:54

What I meant was, it is not true that a rising tide lifts all boats. Unfettered capitalism--free market economy--breeds populism. Trump & Duterte are dysfunctional examples