Trump, Duterte, and the Art of Outsider Politics


Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence, from real estate mogul to Republican nominee for president, shocked the nation. Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of the popular statistics-based news site FiveThirtyEight, remarked last September that Trump had roughly a 5 percent chance of beating out his GOP opponents. And Silver is not alone. Trump winning is the ultimate long shot, and he had extremely few believers in the early days of the election cycle. So how did Nate Silver, and the rest of America, fail so horribly in predicting the rise of a candidate like Trump? That crucial question—of what forces allowed Trump to defy political logic and defeat more traditional, experienced candidates—has been discussed and debated extensively by political commentators in recent months, and there is likely no singular answer. However, there is a compelling example across the Pacific in the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. His successful campaign last spring may provide an insight into how Trump has gotten this far, and how he could defy the odds again and defeat Hillary Clinton this November.

The Trump of the East?

Rodrigo Duterte, on first glance, doesn’t seem like a viable parallel to Trump. Their roots, for example, are very different. Trump’s father is estimated to have left an estate worth between $100 million to $300 million to his children, while Duterte comes from a far more humble background in the poor province of Southern Leyte. However, there is a striking similarity in the manner in which both politicians attempt to paint themselves as political outsiders. In Duterte’s case, it was a relatively simple task. The other five candidates for the Philippine presidency were all either from Manila or the historical elite; his main challenger, Mar Roxas, was endorsed by the previous president Benigno Aquino III, much like Hillary Clinton was by President Obama. Similarly, many of Trump’s talking points during the primary debates revolved around his inexperience in the political sphere. In February of this year, Trump called Ted Cruz, “the worst kind of Washington insider” in an attack ad. And just last week, he continued to push that same narrative, his senior advisor Sarah Huckabee arguing, “This race is all about change versus the status quo; Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider, and Hillary Clinton is the ultimate insider.”

Both Duterte and Trump saw tremendous opportunity in being, or at least portraying themselves as, outsiders to the political game. Interestingly, their reasons for doing so align as well. For the Filipino voter, Duterte offered a potential cure to the country’s endemic political corruption. Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, was arrested on graft charges in 2011. Also, in a corruption index compiled by Transparency International, the Philippines slipped ten spots to the 95th least corrupt nation in the world, behind neighbors Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. This issue translated to the polls, and Filipino voters overwhelmingly supported Duterte, an outsider, who made tackling corruption one of his primary campaign promises. In fact, one of Duterte’s most radical proposals is a form of federalism, whereby more autonomy would be given to regional governments and less to the central government in Manila.

A distinct part of Donald Trump’s appeal, while difficult to identify precisely, is that he represents a distinct contrast to the current Washington establishment. Indeed, Congress’ current approval rating hovers at 20% and there seems to be a discontent with how the current political system as a whole functions. That discontent, apparent in the cheers at Trump rallies, was also evident on the other end of the political spectrum: Bernie Sanders enjoyed widespread support in what he called a “political revolution” to uproot the establishment. It is therefore unsurprising then that after Sanders’ lost the Democratic nomination, Trump immediately tried to woo Bernie supporters with the same promise that he used so effectively in the Republican primaries: “We are the change,” bragged campaign manager Paul Manafort, “The establishment … are represented by Clinton and Kaine.”

Trump and Duterte are very different in many facets of policy (in fact, Duterte has voiced his support for Clinton in the upcoming election). However, both candidates successfully capitalized upon a feeling of discontent with the political status quo.

Law and Order

Another intriguing similarity between these two candidates is the emphasis on both place and security. Duterte’s election campaign was almost exclusively focused on his hard-hitting plan for the Philippines’ rampant drug problem. The country has the highest abuse rate in East Asia of methamphetamines, and Duterte raised eyebrows and garnered votes with promises to “dump all of you (criminals) into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.” While still leveraging his position as a political outsider in the traditional sense of the word, Duterte also touted his record as long-time mayor of Davao City. During his time in office, Duterte turned Davao from a crime-ridden metropolis to what he says is the world’s ninth-safest city. His simple formula—to reduce crime, kill the criminals—translated well to the national stage, and his anti-drug and crime campaign won him the presidency in May.

Trump also emphasizes security in his campaign rhetoric. Just days after a gunman killed five police officers in attack in Dallas, Trump gave himself the moniker: “I am the law and order candidate.” That conviction manifests itself in much of Trump’s policy as well, from his plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to his suggestion of banning all Muslims from entering the United States—in what essentially amounts to a religious litmus test—in a bid to curb terrorism and combat ISIS.

More interesting than their shared emphasis on security is the positive response that emphasis has brought about. Both candidates have zeroed in on (or if you’re cynical, played to) voters’ fears: about drug traffickers, drug users, immigrants, or terrorism. This fear is apparent in the ridiculous quotes that Rodrigo Duterte is able to get away with, like comparing his plan to exterminate Fillipino drug dealers with Hitler’s extermination of Jews during World War II. This fear is apparent in polls too, where 68% of Americans say that their country’s response to ISIS and has not been tough enough.

A Potential for Danger

Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump have at least partially capitalized on some of the same political forces: dissatisfaction with the current political establishment and a desire for security, law, and order. But Duterte may provide a useful warning as well as an interesting parallel. Since being elected, Duterte has waged the anti-drug campaign he promised, but its results, over 2,000 drug killings in the first three months with over half of them by extrajudicial “death squads,” have been roundly criticized. Ban Ki Moon, United Nations general secretary, has accused Duterte of severe human rights violations. Moreover, Duterte’s brash, aggressive rhetoric in response has alienated a number of key allies, including the United States, not least because he last week told President Obama to “go to hell.”

There’s simply not enough evidence to compare Duterte’s disastrous reign to what a potential Trump presidency would look like. However, if nothing else, Duterte’s harsh rhetoric and subsequently even harsher policies should force us to take Trump’s more radical campaign speak seriously.

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