Dictator and Apprentice: Duterte and Trump

by Cindy Domingo 


Amid the current worldwide pandemic, two presidents — over 8,000 miles apart — seem to have been trained from the same leadership course. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Union address delivered on July 27 was filled with rants against his critics and personal grudges against the media. There was no roadmap laid out to lead the country out of the health, political, and economic crisis facing the Filipino people. Issues of unemployment, poverty, and illness went unmentioned while Duterte focused on his drug war and the death penalty. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this is a painful reminder of President Donald Trump and his lack of leadership in our nation’s time of crisis. 

Both Trump and Duterte initially refused to acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19, allowing the virus to spread unfettered and leaving governors, mayors, and other local officials to handle the pandemic without the appropriate funding or a unified national strategy. Finally, when the international and domestic pressure became too much to bear and the COVID-19 deaths and illnesses continued to mount, both presidents were forced to act. 

Duterte’s response to COVID-19 followed the same steps he has taken since he took office — a militarized approach using violence and repression to tackle the crisis. Duterte’s signature campaign during and after his election was the fight against drugs. According to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights’ estimate and ABS-CBN, the news outlet that Duterte recently closed because of its criticisms of his policies, the number of drug-war killings as of December 2018 numbered as high as 27,000. At the president’s behest, extra-judicial killings by military forces, local police, or military-assisted assassins proceeded with impunity. 

Following on the heels of this approach, Duterte threatened to shoot demonstrators on April 1 who were demanding food during a strict stay-at-home policy during the pandemic. He stated, “Shoot them dead … I will not hesitate to order my soldiers to shoot you … the police to arrest and detain you.” People, many of whom were homeless, have been arrested and thrown in jail or prison or paraded through the streets, often in dog cages, as violators of the stay-at-home order. According to online news magazine The Diplomat, over 120,000 people have been cited for quarantine violations and over 30,000 have been arrested. Recently, Duterte announced he wants to employ the police to do house-to-house searches for “non-self-isolating” COVID-19-positive people. 

Even though U.S.-Philippine relations have been strained since Duterte’s election, Trump has stated his admiration for Duterte’s “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in the Philippines. Furthermore, Trump has finalized a $1.5 billion arms deal giving Duterte attack helicopters, bombs, and missiles in exchange for temporarily suspending the notification of termination of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. 

Meanwhile, it is reported that Trump has gone two weeks without a single COVID-19 event on his public schedule and is encouraging governors to open the economy and schools. Both presidents seem to be ignoring the rising COVID-19 numbers, with the Philippines having the second highest rate of infections in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and many public officials thinking that the numbers are far higher than the 74,390 reported. The U.S. as of July 25, 2020 has 4,426,405 COVID-19 cases (almost one-fourth of the world’s cases) while the U.S. has only 4.25% of the world’s population. 

Trump’s troubles have only been compounded by the Black Lives Matter movement and he has appeared eager to call out the military. Back in late May, in response to the demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police, Trump stated, “Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” Trump has made good on his promise as reflected in the dispatching of Homeland Security forces in Democratically controlled cities from Portland to Albuquerque and now Seattle. The violence displayed by federal agents in Portland has galvanized a new call for an end to police violence and defunding the police in the U.S. 

However, Duterte is always one step ahead of Trump in moving closer to a martial law state. Over the last year, Duterte has made bold moves to silence media criticism. Maria Raissa, a well-respected Filipino-American journalist, was found guilty of politically motivated charges of cyber-libel. In May, the Duterte-controlled Congress shut down the popular ABS-CBN television station. And then on July 3, Duterte maneuvered the Philippine Congress to pass — and then signed into law — the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 which took effect on July 18. This Act removed provisions of the existing Human Security Act, which penalizes and checks abuses by state security forces involved in anti-terror operations. The law allows state agents to arrest and detain people on terror charges based on mere suspicion, with no judicial warrant, for up to 24 days. 

While Trump may admire Duterte from afar, resistance in the U.S. and the Philippines may prove difficult to overcome for both presidents. A new generation of activists from the millennial and Gen Z generations have changed the landscape to challenge these strong-arm presidents and to protect democracy in the U.S. and the Philippines. 


Cindy Domingo is a long-time Philippine solidarity activist and a member of Akbayan North America. Akbayan North America will be hosting a Zoom webinar “The Real State of the Nation – the AntiTerrorism Act & COVID-19 in the Philippines,” on Saturday, August 1, 2020 from 5:00–6:30 p.m. Register for the event here.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.