In an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes last year, the broadcaster Scott Pelley described Donald Trump to his face as “a hurricane of words.”
On the principle that our attention-grabbing President Rodrigo Duterte should not yield the stage without a whimper, and while sustaining the motif of natural disasters, I submit that DU30 is “a tectonic event” — an earthquake.
To each his own metaphor.
I discussed in an earlier column Trump’s fondness for the “truthful hyperbole” (“Take your pick: Trump’s “truthful hyperbole” or Duterte’s “in-your-face expletives,” Times, November 12, 2016), so I will dispense with a litany of his verbal legerdemain.
Instead, I will focus my energies here on laying the case for Duterte as a tectonic force in this country and in the world.
A tectonic force
In a year that an analyst of the Financial Times has summed up as “the year of the demagogue,” Duterte is clearly not just one more populist leader to come out of the anger and frustration of people around the world today.
He seeks to be a force for change in the Philippines and beyond its borders. He means to have a lasting impact on national and international life well beyond his term.
He ranks among the most powerful leaders of the world today. He will not be a player who, in Shakespeare’s words, “just struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
In barely six months in the Philippine presidency, he can already claim to having taken decisive and oftentimes irrevocable steps toward his goals.
His most recent decisions stand out for shifting the ground of national and foreign affairs.
Crosssing a new Rubicon
This week, in the words of the latest Economist, Duterte crossed a new Rubicon: he admitted to having killed people himself.
“In Davao I used to do it personally,” he told a group of businessmen convened at the presidential palace, “just to show the guys if I can do it, why can’t you?…I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”
This raised the temperature of this tropical country, because he has been accused by critics of ordering executions and wanting to kill suspected criminals; of cheerleading extra-judicial killings from his office, and obstructing justice in the case of the sensational murder by police operatives of a former mayor inside a provincial jail cell.
DU30 appears bent on keeping a campaign promise to “end crime” within six months of taking office, and the casualty figures have just surpassed 6,000 killed.
Did Duterte really kill anyone? Or is he merely bragging to burnish his tough-guy image? No one can really say. Just a few hours before his shocking admission, he protested to Filipino audiences, “I am not a killer.”
At heart, DU30 seems to be daring Congress and the criminal justice system to take action against him, for his record in Davao City and in the current war on drugs. If DU30 did kill suspected criminals, would Congress seriously investigate him, let alone impeach him. Since he is in command of the police and the Department of Justice, where are the prosecutors and investigators who would dare to make him accountable?
Asking America to pack up and leave
Significantly, as he paraded himself as an unrepentant killer, he also moved a mile in his on-again-off-again tiff with the Obama administration.
In retaliation for the decision of the US Millennium Challenge Corp. to halt its assistance (worth hundreds of millions of dollars) to the Philippines because of concerns over mounting human rights violations, Duterte has told American troops based in the country to “start packing your things,” and “get out.” He reiterated his plans to repeal the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Duterte explained that if foreign soldiers want to stay or return to the country, it shouldn’t be for free.
“You want to come back here? You pay us. Pera-pera na lang tayo, buti pa. (Let’s make this just about money then. That’s much better),” he said.
Philippine relations with the US extends way beyond the VFA and foreign aid, however. It involves an intricate web of ties involving, economic, cultural, political and security matters.
No sane leader would dismantle a relationship born of over a century of nurture and statecraft in exchange for bragging points. This is not wholly the authority only of President Duterte. Congress must be consulted also. And so must the people.
Nothing much can happen between now and January 20, when Obama will officially end his term and Trump will take over the White House.
Trump’s foreign policy and security team
The column yesterday of my colleague Rigoberto Tiglao, which detailed how the US in effect deposed Ferdinand Marcos and maneuvered for Cory Aquino’s takeover, is sobering. You never know what the biggest superpower on earth is capable of doing, out of pique or frustration.
If all that Donald Trump will unleash at us will be a hurricane of words, that is all right; we can withstand it, because we have a long history of withstanding big typhoons, including the biggest howler of all: Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan.
Our bigger cause for worry is that this is a Republican administration that is taking over. This is the party that usually takes America to war and wins wars.
Trump has assembled a first-rate foreign policy and national security team, composed of generals, seasoned corporate leaders, and policy experts.
They are not the sort whom you challenge to a debate. They will probably accept.
We understand America’s desire to be great again. Where Kokoy Romualdez dismally failed as ambassador to Washington in 1983-86, our statecraft now must ensure that America does not regain greatness at our expense.