Steinberg: Filipino president Duterte will be a dry run for Trump

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Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Filipino president-elect Rodrigo Duterte | Getty Images

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If you’re curious what it’ll be like to live in a nation led by an erratic demagogue prone to uttering horrible things about women, there is no need to wait until Donald J. Trump is sworn in as president of the United States in January. All we have to do is turn our gaze to the Philippines right now.For those not paying attention — and really, we’re Americans, we can’t keep track of every tinpot territory — 10 days ago the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City, over a field of far more qualified but tainted by association politicians. Think Hillary Clinton’s lightweight cousins.

I hasten to point out that “tinpot” was sarcastic: the Philippines has 103 million people and is the 12th largest nation on earth, its population equal to the United Kingdom and Canada combined.


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Out of sight, out of mind. But believe me, we’ll be hearing more of them. Duterte started his campaign by saying how he’d abolish the Filipino Congress and kept voters buzzing with his jaw-dropping remarks, the capstone being how he, as mayor, should have had dibs when Jacqueline Hamill, a 36-year-old Australian missionary, was gang-raped and murdered during a prison riot in 1989.

“She was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first,” he joked, to the laughter of supporters. “What a waste.”

You’d think that kind of thing would hurt a candidate even in a rough-edged place like the Philippines. Duterte beat his nearest rival in a crowded field by almost two to one.

Sound familiar?

After the Australian ambassador in Manila complained on Twitter that Duterte’s rape joke was “unacceptable,” Duterte, who is nothing if not thin-skinned, lashed out at her and his followers flooded Australia’s website with abuse.

Ring a bell?

Until now, the best model for understanding Trump — who sends the rational groping for metaphors trying to make sense of him — has been Silvio Berlusconi, the media billionaire who became Italy’s prime minister by dangling big promises but providing corruption and sex scandals. The economy cratered, and he was sent to prison.

Others compare Trump to Hitler. There is an undeniable similarity between the two: both excite their followers into sieg heiling frenzies. Both climbed on the tiger of nationalism and racial hate and dug in their spurs. We saw where that took Hitler. With Trump, well, who knows?

But the Hitler comparison is so overdone, I’m reluctant to join the chorus, if only because of that variant of Godwin’s Law decreeing that anyone who invokes the Nazi leader has just lost the argument.

Thus Duterte is a better cautionary tale. Not as shopworn. He has Trump’s what’ll-come-out-of-his-mouth-next? quality. On Monday, Duterte held his first press conference since becoming the president-elect, and announced he would re-instate the death penalty, dormant in the Philippines for a decade. Not just the regular boring old death penalty, but a new version: murderers, robbers and rapists will be hanged twice.

“After the first hanging, there will be another ceremony for the second time until the head is completely severed from the body,” Duterte said on live television.

Not that I expect Trump to start hanging people — unless he does. That’s the beauty of his candidacy. You never know what he’ll do. Trump could turn out to be a liberal Democrat; he has been before.

There is one more parallel with the Philippines. There, up to 80 percent of the politicians are connected to a handful of political dynasties. Filipino voters call traditional politicians “trapos,” a pun on the Tagalog term for “cleaning rags.” They like Duterte either because of his belligerent babble or in spite of it. They admire his toughness and accept the rest. If Trump wins — and only a fool would discount the possibility — it will be for the same reason. People have been trained to hate and fear the government and chewed up by the grinding gears of the big bank economy. Hillary Clinton represents both.

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