wilfrido sison / Flickr duterte trump...
wilfrido sison / Flickr

Republican hawks have long been indifferent to human rights abuses abroad, welcoming partnerships with various dictatorships so long as the dictators are willing to ally themselves with American strategic interests over those of, say, the old Soviet Union. Democratic administrations have obliged in the same manner. But there’s something different about the Trump administration, and it has to do not with the strategy hawks behind the scenes but the man’s genuine affinity for autocrats.

Mr. Trump has barely paid lip service to the promotion of universal human rights, and experts say his warm embrace of hard-line leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose antidrug drive has killed thousands of his own citizens without due process, has only encouraged their worst excesses.

“The issue is a troubling one,” Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email. “Trump’s lionizing of the ‘strong’ leadership qualities of authoritarian personalities like Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, and Sisi — as well as his own attacks on free press at home — cannot help but to embolden their efforts to crack down on civil society and crush dissent in their own countries.”


Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is the most prominent example—barring Putin, whose relationship with Trump appears to be “special” in ways you and I cannot fully yet decipher. Trump has not just praised Duterte, but expressed admiration, specifically, for the Duterte regime’s violent program of extrajudicial killings of “drug dealers,” and drug users, and individuals that have accused of either, sans-evidence. It is not that Trump is willing to overlook human rights abuses by hardline regimes elsewhere; he singles out those regimes and those abuses as evidence of “strength” that, he opines, the United States should emulate.

This is assuredly because those individuals and their autocratic tendencies appeal deeply to Trump’s own notions of “strength” and masculinity; seeing other leaders oppress critics or summarily rewrite their nation’s laws to their own benefit makes Trump irritated that he cannot do these things himself. His own campaign had, as major rhetorical device, a promise of jailing his political opponent for as-of-yet-unspecified crimes; he has, the newspapers tell us, repeatedly complained about the resistance he faces from his own Department of Justice in acting as a tool for his own interests. It is a symptom of his toxic narcissism; it likely shares obvious parallels to fascist movements mostly by accident.

The effect abroad, though, is to nullify past and present United States rhetoric against autocratic acts. The State Department has zero ability to pressure Duterte to curtail extrajudicial killings when the sitting president is praising Duterte for those same acts; on the contrary, it is a signal to other regimes that the United States is no longer policing such behaviors and if those other regimes wished to engage in similar acts against their citizens, now would be an extraordinarily advantageous time to do so.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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