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The Grifter and the Murderer

At a campaign rally in February 2016, Trump said: “You know what I hate? There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches, we’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” Trump said to cheers. “Here’s a guy, nasty as hell, screaming at everything else when we’re talking, and he’s walking out, and we’re not allowed… I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.”

Trump’s embrace of his tough-guy persona includes cozying up to genuine authoritarians, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. Since suspicions of Russia’s possible interference in U.S. elections surfaced in the media, Trump’s voluble admiration of Putin has subsided. But he was among the first (and the few) world leaders to congratulate Erdogan on the passage of a paranoid referendum granting him dictatorial powers.

International observers challenged the fairness of the vote. But mass firings and arrests quickly followed, including 4,000 public officials sacked in a single day from the justice ministry, the armed forces and universities. Access to Wikipedia is now banned along with televised dating shows. Hotbeds of sedition?

And now Trump has a new crush, on the murderous ruler of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. Flagrantly contemptuous of world opinion, Trump congratulated Duterte on his campaign to rid his islands of drug dealers, an effort which has claimed the lives of an estimated nine thousand victims – dealers, users, bystanders and many children – since Duterte took office last June. Duterte remains defiant about his relentless murder machine despite condemnation from many countries and the United Nations.

Last week Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in The Hague accusing Duterte of “repeatedly, unchangingly and continuously” committing extrajudicial executions since 1988. Sabio claims that Duterte has been waging mass murders, constituting crimes against humanity, starting during his term as mayor of Davao City, with his Davao Death Squad, up to his current bloody presidential drug war.

Duterte sometimes denies, and other times brags about, his murderous ways. During his 22-year reign as Mayor of Davao, Duterte said he rode his motorcycle around the streets at night looking for trouble. He has said he personally killed three men during a hostage-taking situation. “I didn’t really know how many bullets from my gun went through inside their bodies.”

In December Duterte threatened to throw corrupt politicians out of a helicopter. He claimed he had already done that once. And he pledged to “personally gun you (drug dealers) down… until the last drug lord is killed.”

Also offensive to his countrymen, Duterte oversaw the reburial of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the national Heroes Cemetery, thirty years after he was driven from power by a popular revolution. This honor insults the memory of tens of thousands of Filipinos who were imprisoned, tortured and killed under Marcos’s despotic martial law regime.  But Duterte, who had Marcos family support for his presidential run, called the former ruler a “Filipino soldier.”

When Obama’s State Department expressed concern last fall at the volume of extra-judicial killings in Duterte’s drug war, Duterte called Obama “a son of a whore” and intimated he might drop relations with the United States in favor of closer ties with China and Russia. But Trump can be counted on not to raise the troublesome issue of human rights. He likes it rough.

He called Duterte last December and again last weekend to congratulate him on his tough stance against drugs. Apparently without consulting the State Department or the National Security Council, Trump invited the violent Filipino leader to visit him at the White House. But the visit may not simply be one of pure admiration and machismo by association. There is hardly an issue, a place or a person about which Trump is disinterested.

The Trump Organization is about to open a $150 million, 57-story luxury residential tower, Trump Tower Manila, where apartments begin at $160,000. Presumably the view from up there over the vast slums of the city will be magnificent. Right now in downtown Manila a huge billboard featuring an image of presidential daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, advertises this unique opportunity.

Trump apparently received a multi-million-dollar payment up front for the use of his name and will reap a percentage of the developer’s revenue for some years. Those payments may violate the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, prohibiting office holders from accepting foreign payments. But why should Trump concern himself about one or another of his flagrant violations of law and custom? Who’s going to stop him? Congress? The Supreme Court?

Trump is strictly a white-collar criminal, serial sex offender, debt welcher and bull shitter. He loves to associate himself with genuine lethal monsters, suggesting he would be one if he could. But his only brush with violence happens at the World Wrestling Entertainment matches, as phony as the Don himself.

So Trump’s friendship with Duterte is a win-win. Trump gets to pose with a genuine killer and flaunt his new investment. Duterte acquires a sheen of undeserved respectability along with an overdone steak. And the only real losers are those Americans old-fashioned enough to think their country ought to stand for something beside condoning brutal, lawless dictators and shameless. rapacious greed. And millions of Filipinos who are feeling bullied and betrayed. And Duterte’s vigilante victims, of course. But they don’t really have a voice.

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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