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Trump’s love for brutal leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, explained

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Lean Daval Jr. | Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte launched a bloody war on drugs that has killed more than 7,000 people, brags about personally executing criminals, and has compared himself to Hitler.

President Donald Trump just praised Duterte for "fighting very hard to rid [his] country of drugs" and invited him to visit the White House.

Trump's warm weekend phone call with Duterte, who once joked about raping an Australian missionary and called the pope a "son of a whore," illustrates two vital elements of Trump's approach to foreign policy, including one that has gotten far less attention than it deserves.

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The first is Trump's affinity for strongmen the world over. He repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail, and he invited Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in a coup and killed more than 800 protesters in a single day, to the Oval Office in April. Trump's "very friendly conversation" with Duterte (a phrase that comes from the White House's official statement), then, is in keeping with that pattern.

But there's a second dynamic at play, one that is perhaps even more troubling. It isn't simply that Trump keeps warmly embracing some of the world's most brutal leaders. It's that he goes out of his way to specifically praise them for the specific things they've done that have most egregiously violated human rights, international norms, and basic tenets of democratic rule.

Duterte's government has killed thousands. Trump has no problem with that.

Duterte came to power in 2016, winning by a landslide margin of more than 16 million votes. The 71-year-old former mayor promised to use any means necessary to fight his country's drug epidemic, and he wasn't speaking rhetorically. As Ana P. Santos wrote for Vox, drug dealers surrendered en masse, flooding the country's jails. But they were the smart ones:

Still, those inmates had it better than those whose names were on neighborhood "watch lists," a list of suspected pushers and users put together by "informants" motivated by anything from civic duty to personal grudges.

Many of the people on the watch list turned up dead. Bound and gagged, faces mummified in packaging tape, their corpses piled up on street corners and under bridges. Sometimes a piece of cardboard scrawled with "PUSHER. DON'T BE LIKE ME" was left as an epitaph — and a warning.

The sheer numbers of killings, and the brutal ways they were carried out, stunned world leaders like then-President Barack Obama, who called on Duterte to deal with the drug problem "the right way." Duterte responded by calling Obama a "son of whore" who should "go to hell."

European leaders didn't fare much better. When the European Union demanded an end to the killings, Duterte answered with a two-word reply: "Fuck you." He then flashed them the middle finger — twice — for good measure.

Duterte has also been willing to pick a fight with the Catholic Church, historically one of the most powerful and revered parts of Filipino society. As Santos notes, a church in Manila exhibited photos taken by photojournalists documenting the nightly killings of alleged drug users and pushers and then sent the pictures to other churches that wanted to mount to similar exhibits.

Duterte responded by calling out the church on its alleged hypocrisy over issues like family planning and revealing that he had once been molested by a priest as a teen.

"I challenge the Catholic Church. You are full of shit and you all stink, corruption and all," he said.

This man — unapologetically profane and unapologetically willing to turn a blind eye to the extrajudicial killings of thousands of his own people — is the man that Donald Trump just invited to the White House. And he didn't do it in spite of Duterte's brutal drug war. He did it, at least in part, because of it.

Trump likes autocrats because of the horrible things they do, not in spite of them

Trump's willingness to specifically condone Duterte's drug war — something condemned by much of the rest of the world — is in keeping with a broader part of the president's foreign policy.

Take Sisi, who has imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents since he took power and overseen a broad campaign of serious human rights abuses like torture, mass detention, and forced disappearances of journalists, aid workers, activists, students, and Islamists. In one particularly gruesome incident, a 28-year-old PhD student from Italy studying in Cairo was abducted, tortured, and murdered in what many believe was an attack by Egyptian state security forces.

Sisi has said the measures were justified to fight Islamist terrorists in his country. But as my colleague Jennifer Williams notes:

Sisi has violently cracked down on all forms of dissent and turned Egypt into a police state arguably worse than anything seen under former President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 after 30 years in power. And for all of that, Sisi hasn't actually done a very good job of fighting terrorism.

Regardless, Trump didn't use his Oval Office visit with Sisi — an honor Obama had refused to extend to the Egyptian dictator — to urge him to pay more attention to human rights abuses in his own country. Instead, the president said Egypt should do whatever necessary to fight terrorism, and made clear the US would support him.

"We will do that together," Trump said after the meeting. "We will fight terrorism and other things, and we're going to be friends for a long, long period of time."

Or take Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who narrowly won a vote last month over a referendum that gave him vast new powers while eviscerating the parliament and judiciary — the two institutions that stood as the last checks and balances against his increasingly autocratic rule.

European leaders stayed mostly silent about Erdoğan's win. International monitors condemned the vote as unfair. Trump quickly called Erdoğan to offer his personal congratulations.

As I wrote at the time, it's possible Trump may not have understood the magnitude of what just took place in one of Washington's most important allies. The likelier scenario is that Trump understood exactly what Erdoğan had just accomplished in bringing his country closer to autocracy and that he liked what he saw.

Most US presidents have liked democratic leaders. Trump prefers the opposite.

After Trump's call with Duterte, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut took to Twitter to say, in a widely-shared comment, "We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash."

That may be overstated, but if so, not by much. American presidents from both parties have been willing to look past human-rights violations and maintain warm relationships with the autocratic and at times brutal rulers of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. They didn't brag about that, though, and at least in public spent more time praising democratically elected leaders with liberal values like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Trump, worryingly, has chosen the opposite path. His White House meeting with Merkel was frosty, his phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was so hostile that it made headlines in both countries, and he recently used Twitter to attack Canada, led by the popular liberal Prime Minster Justin Trudeau.

Dictators and would-be dictators like Putin, Sisi, Erdogan, and now Duterte have gotten far friendlier receptions. We're just into Trump's second 100 days in office, and it's possible aides may get him to change tacks. (The New York Times reported that the State Department and National Security Council were upset over the Duterte call.)

But it seems much more likely that we will continue to see more of the same. That's good news for the world's autocrats. It's terrible news for those who care about human rights — and about America's long history of defending them.