Yesterday, the President of the United States invited the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House during a routine phone call. Duterte — who has been criticized by international human rights groups for the extrajudicial killings of thousands since his election last year — declined, saying he was “tied up.” Pundits, reporters, and politicians spun over the invitation, voicing the concern that Duterte is not the kind of company an American president should keep.
After reading this 2016 New Yorker profile of Duterte, it’s easy to see why President Trump might think he has something in common with the populist leader across the Pacific.
Duterte thinks out loud, in long, rambling monologues, laced with inscrutable jokes and wild exaggeration. His manner is central to his populist image, but it inevitably leads to misunderstanding, even among Filipino journalists. Ernie Abella, Duterte’s spokesman, recently pleaded with the Presidential press corps to use its “creative imagination” when interpreting Duterte’s comments.
Duterte speaks of drug use as an existential threat, a “contamination” that will destroy the country unless radical action is taken. “They are the living walking dead,” he said of shabu users. “They are of no use to society anymore.” Duterte sees drugs as a symptom of a government’s ineffectiveness, but his animus suggests a personal vendetta. Duterte, who has four children by two women, was asked at a Presidential debate what he would do if he caught his children using drugs. “None of my children are into illegal drugs,” he responded.