The election of Rodrigo R. Duterte and Donald J. Trump — six months apart – as president of the Philippines and United States, respectively, shook the world in a manner that differed from previous presidential elections in both countries. While Duterte was favored to win in large part due to his promise to kill drug pushers and users, Trump was doomed to lose simply because of his controversial stand against a lot of issues and causes that many people consider as “sacred cows.” But as it turned out, the “sacred cows” were as fair game as anything else, which — surprisingly – had attracted the support of many Americans. “I’ll build the wall and tell Mexico to pay for it,” Trump promised, and his supporters went a-gaga!
It’s the same thing with Duterte who told his supporters at a campaign rally: “I’ll kill 100,000 drug pushers and users and throw their bodies into the Manila Bay to fatten the fishes.” And his supporters went bananas!
Yes, it’s indeed a world gone crazy! What the hell happened? But the question should be: “What happened in hell?” And hell is what hoi polloi think of the environment they’re living in today, which reminds me of Dan Brown’s book, “Inferno.” A character, Dr. Brooks, who was visiting Manila said, “I’ve run through the gates of hell,” to describe the crime, poverty, and sex trade that she saw.
And for all the hellish situations that the people have to coup with, they can only blame their governments for not doing enough to make their lives worth living. And all the politicians running for office in both countries – two of the freest democracies on earth – know it. Duterte and Trump saw an opportunity to get ahead of the crowded pack of presidential wannabes by inflaming the emotions of the people. While some people laughed them off, a growing number of people began to wonder, “Why not?”
Duterte made “War on Drugs” the cornerstone of his campaign for the presidency. And true enough he delivered. During his first 100 days in office, more than 4,000 drug pushers and users ended up dead on the streets. The police said that the police gunned down 1,200 of them when they resisted arrest. The rest were tagged as “death under investigation” (DUI), a newly coined term for someone killed under mysterious circumstances, mostly by vigilantes.
“Build the wall”
Meanwhile, as Trump savored his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton who won the popular vote — which doesn’t count — but lost the electoral vote to Trump, a lot of Americans wonder how Trump would craft his domestic programs and foreign policy, after all those nasty things that he said about certain groups of Americans and America’s allies as well.
If there is one scorching issue that has ignited emotional backlash from Trump’s supporters, it’s “illegal immigration.” With an estimated 11 million illegals residing in the U.S., Trump’s solution to this problem is two-fold. First, deport the illegals. And second, build a wall to prevent them from entering the U.S. by way of the porous U.S.-Mexico border. Then he inflamed his supporters’ emotion when he accused the Mexican government of sending criminals, rapists, drug pushers, and other undesirable across the border. He promised that the Mexican government would pay for the wall’s construction. The question is: Is Mexico willing to pay for the wall?
But regardless of whether Mexico would pay for the wall or not, the perceived “danger” of undesirable aliens crossing the border in record numbers has already been ingrained in the minds of his supporters. In other words, Trump stoked xenophobic fear of Mexican illegal immigrants, which he considers as a threat to national security.
Geopolitics is addition
If there is one major and critical area of concern among geopolitical experts, it’s foreign policy. Duterte made headlines during his state visit to China last October when he declared that he was pursuing an “independent foreign policy.” He also announced his “separation” from the U.S., which caused a geopolitical tremor of tectonic proportion, which left the Philippines’ allies — particularly the U.S. – trembling. And to drive his point, he said that he would seek economic and military alliance with China and Russia.
Duterte’s flirting with China and Russia is nothing more than “puppy love.” But what truly caused a lot of headaches among America’s allies were Trump’s threats to withdraw American forces from Japan and South Korea unless they pay the cost of their deployment in their countries. He also made similar threats to America’s NATO allies and even suggested that NATO disbands, which made Russian President Vladimir Putin happier than Dr. Strangelove fiddling with the Doomsday Machine.
But in the event that Duterte and Trump find solace to the notion that foreign policy is not zero-sum game but an intricate art of “geopolitics is addition,” they just might play down their rhetoric and do what is best for their people. Let me put it this way: Duterte will need America more than China and Russia combined, while Trump needs NATO as a counterforce to Russian expansion. He also needs America’s treaty allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan to contain China and North Korea.
But there is a silver lining to all the gloom and doom that Trump has been trumpeting around; he wants to make the U.S. stronger to maintain the balance of power in a world in turmoil. During the final days of this year’s presidential elections, Trump laid out an ambitious plan to build 350 new warships for the U.S. Navy to match the growing navies of China and Russia.
But the most significant aspect of Duterte and Trump’s elections is that both of them will have the opportunity to change the ideological make-up of their respective country’s Supreme Court. In the case of Duterte, he’d be appointing 11 new Supreme Court Justices to replace justices who will be retiring when they reach the mandatory retirement age of 70. With only four justices left from the current bench, Duterte – who is an avowed leftist – would presumably appoint justices in his own image.
In the case of the U.S. Supreme Court where there is no mandatory retirement age, Trump will surely nominate a hard-core conservative to take the seat of the late ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia; thus, maintaining the conservative majority on the High Court. However, Justice Anthony Kennedy, although considered a conservative, had oftentimes held the swing vote in big cases; thus, giving the liberals a tactical edge over the conservatives. Another swing vote is Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in favor of Obamacare to the chagrin of his fellow conservatives.
However, the shaky equilibrium on the High Court might tilt to the conservative side if one or two of the four liberals’ seats were vacated. Among the conservatives, Justice Kennedy at 80 is the oldest. If his seat is vacated, Trump would nominate an ideological conservative to take his seat; thus, solidly strengthening the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court.
With Duterte exiting in six years and Trump in four or eight years, both would leave a lasting legacy that would determine the future of their respective countries. Duterte would leave a left-leaning Supreme Court while Trump would leave the most conservative Supreme Court for the last 50 years, if not the last century.
At the end of the day, what we’re seeing is that unorthodoxy has become an acceptable behavior among our political leaders. Duterte and Trump’s campaign styles have led people to call Duterte the Trump of the Philippines and Trump as the Duterte of the U.S. Their opponents have called them “loose cannons.” But loose cannons or not, they’re now the leaders of their countries, which begs the question: Are Duterte and Trump the new normal?